Be a Heel

High heeled shoes for women, and at times for men, go in and out of style. Yet, two English expressions that revolve around the heel seem to be negative. We speak of someone’s weakness as his Achilles heel and we use heel as a pejorative term as in, “He’s such a heel.” 

In the Lord’s language, the heel means something quite different.  It implies progress made possible by being properly grounded.  Just think of how we move forward by walking. The first part of our body to touch ground is our heel. We then swing forward on that perfectly shaped round heel and prepare the next step.

In Hebrew, Jacob’s name, Ya-AkoV, contains within it the word heel.

ע ק ב          י ע ק ב

   (Ya)A-K-V          A -K -V
Jacob                Heel

If ‘heel’ were a verb, Jacob’s name would suggest, “He will heel”.  But that would be meaningless.  What does Jacob’s name mean?

Let’s try to understand by looking more closely at the verse describing the birth of twins Esau and Jacob. 

And afterwards, his brother emerged, and his hand was grasping Esau’s heel (A-K-V), and he named him YaAKoV…
(Genesis 25:26)

But there is a problem. 

Jacob’s action was grasping.  The heel was almost incidental.  It’s not impossible that had Esau been aligned differently, Jacob might have grasped his arm.  So, the younger brother’s name could more appropriately have been Grasper because that is what he did.

In reality, however, a careful reading of Genesis 25:26 shows that there is no “because”.  Scripture does not specify ‘therefore he called him’. 

In many other instances throughout the Bible the verse is quite clear as to why someone is named.  Here are two examples:

And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.”
(Genesis 29:32)

And it came to pass, in due course, that Hanna conceived and bore a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, because I have asked him from the Lord.
(I Samuel 1:20)

But when Isaac named Jacob, it was not because of anything. 

Or was it?  What does this word A-K-V mean?  Is it only heel?

In order to understand the full meaning of Jacob’s name, we need to be aware of four other times the word AKeV appears.

1:  God cursing the serpent in the Garden of Eden: … He [man] will strike you [using] the head, and you will strike him [using] the A-K-V. (Genesis 3:15)

2:   An angel of the Lord promising Abraham:  And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world, A-K-V  you hearkened to My voice. (Genesis 22:18)

3:  God speaking to Isaac:  A-K-V Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions. (Genesis 26:5)

4:  Moses speaking to Children of Israel: A-K-V  you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform them, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 7:12)

Looking only  at 2,3, and 4 you might think that A-K-V means because.  But Hebrew has perfectly good and often-used words for because. There is much more to A-K-V. 

We begin to understand this word better when we note that the three-letter word A-K-V, has a numerical value of 172, This links it, In ancient Jewish wisdom, to the Ten Commandments which have a total of 172 Hebrew words. (Exodus 20:2-14)

Now we are getting somewhere.  Let’s examine these four verses above in the light of ancient Jewish wisdom’s explanation of this very special ‘code word’ A-K-V. 

Abraham will be the source of blessing on account of the depth of his commitment to authentic Biblical values: hinted at by A-K-V.

Isaac is being told that his mission comes because his father, Abraham, really listened to God’s voice and kept all His Biblical rules: hinted at by A-K-V.

Moses is teaching that if we want God to keep His covenant that He swore to our ancestors then we need to heed these authentic Biblical values: hinted at by A-K-V.

And what of the Serpent? The serpent is synonymous, according to ancient Jewish wisdom, with Satanic forces intended to distract mankind from God.  God is not saying that the Serpent will bite our heels and we will stomp on his head. Rather, the Serpent, manifested by our desire to do wrong, knows that the way he can best strike us is by attacking our Achilles heel, our urge to rebel against authentic Biblical values— hinted at by A-K-V. The only way we combat this is by using our heads to dominate our desires.

Isaac named his son, Ya-AKoV, prophetically seeing he would remain true to the values of grandfather Abraham, hinted at by A-K-V. Doing likewise keeps us well-heeled indeed.

21 thoughts on “Be a Heel”

  1. A friend recently pointed out to me that when Israel completes its natural gas line to Italy, it will go through the heel of the boot of Italy, effectively grasping Esau/Rome by the heel. I pointed out that by doing so, Israel would be energizing Esau, so it would be a magnanimous act on Israel’s part. I believe the current movement of non-Jews coming to love Torah is symbolic of that energizing. Thank you so much for your teachings and willingness to share Biblical wisdom with those who have not had the advantage of your history and education!

  2. Brian F. Tucker

    Dear Rabbi,
    If I say someone who is well off financially is ” well heeled” would it be the same root word in Hebrew? Also, one explanation for the term Tar Heel is that it is from the naughtical. It is said that sailors on the sailing ships of yore would put tar on the bottom of their feet to get more traction on the often wet decks. I have no idea if it is true or what if anything it has to do with N. Carolina. Although the beautiful Outer Banks were a home to many seamen and pirates. I gleaned some of this from literature that I got from my once frequent visits there.

  3. This column was indeed a revelation to me, as well. This is because I was also taught that Jacob under instigation of Mother Rebekah colluded with her to deceive Isaac. From Bible stories I especially remembered smooth-skinned Jacob bearing a hairy animal skin on his arm to ‘impersonate’ his hairy brother Esau and receive Esau’s blessing. And so as a child I thought, ‘Now what’s up with that?’ It just goes to show how deficient we all are in AJW. I confess to being a Tarheel by birth as well, Rabbi. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that…. With this Thought Tool you have gifted us Tarheels a whole new dignity. Thank you!

  4. In re-reading your thought tool I kept in mind other uses of the term “heel” and they also made some sense. To “come to heel”, or to “heel” means to come to a place to follow or be obedient. Usually a command to heel would be followed by actions or further instructions. Also, to nip at a heel is to attempt to herd, as the snake is doing. Of course, applying a contemporary meaning to an ancient context could also lead me astray. My mind does tend to wander like that at times. Thank you, Rabbi, for you the tools you have revealed and shared through the years I have been subscribed. Thank you to Susan, also, whose comments and “musings” are always so thoughtful and inspiring.

  5. I have thought these same thoughts concerning Daniel. The other 3 used their new names given by the king. Daniel did not. He kept his Hebrew name through out the story, and in that, I believe, kept his Biblical values. Would that serve well from your perspective as well?

  6. Without questioning all that you say about “heel”, I have always heard that “Jacob” means “supplanter” (Gen. 27:36). He certainly did seem to do a lot of that to Esau, even though Esau may have invited some of it. Esau didn’t get a straight answer from Isaac to his question of why there couldn’t be two blessings, especially for twins. Jacob didn’t straighten up and fly right until he had his dream in chapter 28 and made his bargain with God. But maybe there is more in connection with “heel” that would cover this, since Jacob did eventually get his comeuppance from Laban (karma?).

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear N.E.M.D.–
      That would be incorrect. Jacob does not mean supplanter. Also, he didn’t do that to Esau. Actually, Esau did it to himself by disdainfully selling his birthright and the associated blessing to Jacob years earlier. Jacob merely was collecting, with the help of Mother Rebecca who understood the natures of her children better than her husband as is typical to this day, on what was rightfully his. Scoundrels often try to evade the responsibilities and obligations to which they committed themselves. There can’t be two blessings because the blessing promises primacy and there cannot be two primes. I am not sure what you mean by comeuppance from Laban. Laban, in spite of himself, gave Jacob two daughters instead of one, and provided the platform for Jacob to prosper for a couple of decades. No karma, just God.

  7. Vallerie Fletcher

    I have always seen viewed Jacob’s mother as a woman who had the qualities of a phrophetess in so many ways! She had a mother’s innate sense that one of her sons would prevail for the ultimate good, and used whatever means she had to make sure that this happened. Perhaps I am way off – (I wish there were a punctuation mark in the English language for the word “but” as the semi-colon replaces the word “and” so that I do not have to use the word, “but” , as I am told this word ‘negates’ everything I have stated before it – sigh). Never do I tire of learning! Thank you Rabbi Lapin and Susan as always!

    1. Vallerie, Rebecca is listed as one of the prophetesses according to ancient Jewish wisdom. Rebecca did understand her children’s natures better than Isaac did.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Vallerie–
      Women often read people better than men do. Recognizing the character and nature of their children is usually done better by moms than by dads whose views tend to be more clouded emotionally. Also, as we’ve discovered ourselves, Mrs Lapin usually reads guests to our home more accurately than I do. (And therein lies a story for another time…)

  8. Awesome teaching as always….fyi, here in north carolina being a Heel distinguishes one from being a Blue Devil !!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Right Bob–
      The Tar Heel state, North Carolina.
      What is a Tar Heel?
      The University not only uses the nickname “Tar Heels,” but the entire state does as well. One version of the nickname’s origin has the name first being applied to North Carolinians during the Civil War. One record talks of a battle in Virginia, where their supporting column retreated, but North Carolina troops fought alone. The victorious troops were asked in a condescending tone by some Virginians, who had retreated, “Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?” The response came quickly: “No, not a bit; old Jeff’s bought it all up.” The Virginians asked: “Is that so? What is he going to do with it?” The reply: “He is going to put it on you’ns heels to make you stick better in the next fight.” (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website)

        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          Thank you Debbie E,
          Though I am sure you wouldn’t love ALL that I do; but I am grateful that you warmly approve of enough to write and make my day.

  9. Wowsers. I have heard too many nefarious teachings as to why Jacob was named as such. I love this T.T., it makes so much more sense and places the proper respect where it belongs. I am so very thankful to have you as my Rabbi (and of course Mrs. Lapin as part of the Unusually Dynamic Dou). This teaching needs to be more wisespread. Too often the teachings about Jacob’s name devolve into sermons on his perceived shortcomings. Thanks again for all you do, you guys are awesome.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Indeed, Louis,
      See my words to Lisa nearby here. Jacob, like every human being, certainly had shortcomings but they had nothing to do with the blessing episode in which he was in the right. I wonder what exactly apart from ignorance, motivates those who try to wrongly interpret this passage to discredit Jacob?

  10. Wow! This astounds me! Deep down I always thought Jacob was badly misjudged in being called a cheater. I would debate that always during Torah study!!

    Jacob seemed to understand and valued the covenant birthright far more than Esau. What one does not value, one may lose and Esau definitely lost the blessing.

    Deep down I thought consciously that Isaac wanted Esau so badly to get the blessing, yet unconsciously he knew that Jacob was a better fit. Isaac was somehow struggling with that, yet obviously Rivkah had no problem with Jacob grasping that blessing.

    Thank you again Rabbi!!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Lisa–
      Viewing Jacob as a cheater, I fear, reveals a shaky Biblical knowledge and perhaps even a shaky moral foundation. You see, as should be clear to even superficial readers, Jacob was merely insisting that Esau stick to the deal to which he had earlier agreed. He did sell the birthright and its blessing. Then, like so many Esaus in history since then, he conveniently forgot that he had sold the blessing to Jacob With the help of his mother Rebecca, Jacob collected that which was rightly his. Then had to flee because the typical Esau response was to resort to violence.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      You’re exactly right, DK,
      The portion you reference, Ekev, is one of the most significant usages of this special codeword in the Torah, and it was while studying it this past weekend that we decided to devote the new Thought Tool to explaining a little about this word.

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