Genesis 21:

ט וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם--מְצַחֵק. 9

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, 'making sport.'

י וַתֹּאמֶר, לְאַבְרָהָם, גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת, וְאֶת-בְּנָהּ: כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן-הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת, עִם-בְּנִי עִם-יִצְחָק.

10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham: 'Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac.'

צחק generally means "laugh." Why then was it cause for Sarah to banish Yishmael?

  • @Matt - RE: Yishmael's 'playing' should be understood in the same way, namely, that an ancient reader would not have been puzzled by this use of the word 'metzchek'. Would you mind expanding on how an ancient reader would understand it? Would they understand it like Rashi, or in a different manner (and if so, in a way that deserved banishment)?
    – Shmuel
    Jun 1, 2014 at 8:14
  • 2
    If you can access the articles there I'd suggest reading them. Note Rashi/Chazal, who show that the word often does refer to more sinister activities than laughing or making sport Jun 1, 2014 at 14:08
  • just before that in genesis 18:2 it says "So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought". so clearly the plain meaning of the word is laughter. Rashi in the verse you quoted brings down the oral law which takes it out of the plain meaning.
    – ray
    Jun 2, 2014 at 11:00
  • @ray and the written text must stand alone? source for this?
    – Baby Seal
    Jun 2, 2014 at 13:06
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    @BabySeal I'm not assuming the word means laugh. I'm asking what the verse means that would prompt Sarah's actions. If one can explain the verse with laugh, great. Otherwise, what does צחק mean in context
    – Shmuel
    Jun 2, 2014 at 19:55

3 Answers 3


Ibn Ezra says that he was reveling like all young men tend to do, and Sarah was jealous of his being older/ more impressive than Isaac. He does not elaborate further, so that seems to be the reason she wanted Ishmael sent away, according to him.

Rashbam says on the word מצחק that Sarah noted his age and was worried that he would contend with Isaac for the inheritance. Perhaps Ishmael's ostentatious behavior caused her to notice this. (This could possibly shed a bit of light on Ibn Ezra?)

Sforno says He was making fun of the party that was being made in Abraham's house, claiming that Sarah had gotten pregnant from Abimelech, not Abraham. Ishmael hadn't made this claim up to this point, because he had heard it after Isaac's birth from scoffers. Alternatively, Sarah hadn't noticed his derisive claim, being busy caring for Isaac.

Nahmanides says that Sarah saw Ishmael making fun of Isaac or the meal. Being the "son of Hagar the Egyptian", Ishmael was a servant making fun of his master, being thus punishable by death or lashing. Sarah instead asked that he not inherit with Isaac, sending Hagar as well to ensure Ishmael's survival, which would have been tenuous without his mother.

Rashi says that this is either a language of idolatry, illicitness, or murder. This is based on the opinion of the Sage Rabbi Akiba. Nahmanides cites Maimonides, who cites the Tosefta Sotah 6:6, or Midrash Rabah (30th paragraph from the bottom), in which the Sage Simeon son of Elazar/Yohai objects to Rabbi Akiba's interpretation, on the grounds that Abraham would not tolerate such acts in his house, Rather Ishmael was challenging Isaac's right to the inheritance. RSB"E claims that Sarah's focus on inheritance when she tells Abraham to send Ishamel away attests to this1.

1. If I may I'd like to offer and understanding of this seemingly figurative argument. Note for example that Rashi doesn't say Ishmael did these things, only that מְצַחֵק is a language of these things. I do not think Rabbi Akiba is claiming that Ishmael actually did those grievous sins at his half-brother's weaning celebration. Rather, he is articulating aspects of Ishmael's personality. He was מְצַחֵק, laughing. A person laughs at something that they find silly or aren't taking seriously. Rabbi Akiba is explaining that Ishmael made light of the God of Abraham, or that he made light of the severity of sexual deviance, or that he made light of human life. Those three attitudes are, after all the root cause of the three severe sins that are mentioned. Rabbi Simeon son of Elazar/Yohai objects to this, claiming that Abraham would not have made such an error in parenting that would leave his child ingrained with any of these ideals, and provides his alternative understanding.


@Matt in Why is the torah so misleading without the oral law points to

See Joseph Roth-Rotem, "The Exposition of the Banishment of Ishma'el Story" (Genesis 21:9-21), Beit Mikra: Journal for the Study of the Bible and Its World vol. 43 (1998), pp. 113-125 and M Moreshet, "צחק — שחק; יצחק — ישחק", Beit Mikra: Journal for the Study of the Bible and Its World vol. 13 (1978), pp. 127-130

We also see the the term means "sexual play" in Toldos 27:8 והנה יצחק מצחק Rashi says משמש מטתו

Also note that Hashem had already commanded that only Yitzchak was to be considered an heir. This required Avraham to "banish" Yishmael legally using the formal methods of the time. Note that he gave them a certain amount of food and water and they were expected to go to a location well within their reach. It was only because Hagar became "lost" that the trouble arose. See The Birth of Yitzchak and the Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael (Bereishit 21:1-21) By Rav Elchanan Samet as an example. We see from the medrashim and other sources, that Avraham actually kept in touch with Yishmael. Indeed, that is why we see the medrash state that Yishmael was one of the two "youths" who accompanied Avraham and Yitzchak to the Akeidah.

We also see from the way Bnei Keturah are treated that he had to formally "disinherit" them in a way similar to the way he "banished" Yishmael. Otherwise they would have been considered heirs like Yitzchak. Besides the reference to the Hertz chumash, the link to the Torah on the Web site also references the laws of inheritence at that time. These laws would also have applied to the children of Keturah. This would seem to apply whether Keturah was Hagar or some other woman. In either case, his action in taking her would have made their children heirs, unless he explicitly "disinherited" them before his death.

Thus, both from the legal considerations and in order to prevent the teenage Yishmael from having an influence on his younger brother he had to be sent away.

An example for a source for this can be seen in the Hertz Chumash

  • Source for This required Avraham to "banish" Yishmael legally using the formal methods of the time ?
    – Shmuel
    Jun 2, 2014 at 8:18
  • the connotation of sexual play is from the oral law, not the plain meaning of the word.
    – ray
    Jun 2, 2014 at 11:02
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    @Shmuel note, that the verse does not say that Sarah banished Yishmael because he was 'metzachek'; it merely says that she saw him doing such, and then she told Avraham to banish him - because he will not inherit with Yitzchak. She makes no mention of 'metzachek' (though it does seems like this behavior alerts Sarah to something) Jun 2, 2014 at 13:12
  • @ray while I think most scholars will agree (see jstor.org/stable/23503208 and jstor.org/stable/23503318) I find it hard to escape the fact that the word must have some form of sexual connotation, because seeing this activity convinced Avimelech that Rivkah was actually Yitzchak's wife Jun 2, 2014 at 13:28
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    @ray - Gen 26:8, NRSV (Christian): "When Isaac had been there a long time, King Abimelech of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw him fondling his wife Rebekah." Many other Christian translations have "fondle" or "caress." || Fondle: stroke or caress lovingly or erotically (OED)
    – Shmuel
    Jun 3, 2014 at 7:11

Sarah demanded that Avraham banish (geresh) Hagar and Ishmael, while Avraham sent (shalach) them away because Sarah saw Ishmael making sport of Isaac (laughing at the idea that Isaac would inherit Avraham) for he claimed a double portion as Avraham's first born son.

The Midrash relates that they would go out into the field, argue over the inheritance and Ishmael would take his bow and arrows and shoot them at Isaac claiming to be pretending to shoot at him but actually intending on slaying Isaac!

(Here, it seems as if Ishmael is amusing himself at the expense of Isaac!)

Another Midrash relates that Ishmael slandered Sarah [as having committed adultry with Abimelech] saying Isaac was conceived through Abimelech and not Avraham. This slander he heard from the scoffers of the generation.

Rabbi Hirsch comments on 21.6 Va-tomer Sara, tsehok asa li Elokim…” (21:6).

This verse is translated by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as follows:

“And Sarah said: God hath made me into a laughing-stock, all that hear will laugh at me.”

The Talmud Sanhedrin 89b relates:

R. Levi said [in explanation of 'after these words' B'rashith - Genesis 22.1]; After Ishmael's words to Isaac. Ishmael said to Isaac: 'I am more virtuous than thee in good deeds, for thou wast circumcised at eight days, [and so couldst not prevent it], but I at thirteen years'. 'On account of one limb wouldst thou incense me!' he replied: 'Were the Holy One, blessed be He, to say unto me, Sacrifice thyself before Me, I would obey', Straightway, G-d did tempt Abraham.

It seems to me that a strong argument can be made for Ishmael mocking the halacha of circumcision on the eighth day from birth; that is, he mocked the covenant of circumcision (Rashi's illicitness) from which he was ultimately destined to be excluded from, by the prophetic words of Sarah!

This mockery of the covenant of circumcision seems to me a likely scenario given that HaShem's sense of justice is middah keneged middah (measure for measure), as Sarah spoke prophetically, "cast out this bondwoman, for the son of this bondwoman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac [with laughter]!"

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