Color as a Symbol and Stimulant

 וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי, כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר; וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ, עֵשָׂו.  בראשית כהה

And the first came forth red, all over like a hairy mantle, and they called his name Esav. Bereshit 25:25

Ludvig Karsten, The Red Kitchen (National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, wikimedia)

The Torah states that Esav was an especially red and hairy baby.[1] While Esav’s hairiness is important for us to understand the subsequent narrative, as it is central to the story of Yaakov’s deception of his father, why was it necessary to mention that Esav was red?[2]

Most commentators agree that Esav’s redness was not merely a physical description; rather, it symbolized an inherent quality in Esav. R. Aba bar Kahana explains that the color red foreshadowed that Esav would cause great bloodshed.[3] He recalls that another biblical figure – David – is described as having the same redness[4] and that in both cases, red symbolizes bloodshed. Kli Yakar connects Esav’s redness with his nature as a sly and tricky hunter. Malbim is even more explicit, writing that his redness indicates “anger and jealousy and all the bad traits that are rooted in redness.” Other commentators connect red with positive traits of virility and health which Esav possessed.[5] 

Although the commentators do not agree on what precisely the color means, they agree that colors can be symbolic and evocative. Red (adom) relates on the most basic level to blood (dam), or to man (adam) and his strength. Red is also used in the Yom Kippur service, when a scarlet string changes to white to show the purification of sins. Likewise, a string of blue in tzitzit symbolizes the sea, the sky, and the majesty of God.[6] Purple is used in Megilat Esther to connote royalty,[7] and so on.

Colors hold a strong set of subconscious and emotional attachments. In interior design, colors can be used to subtly alter the mood of a room. Studies have shown, for example, that painting kitchens with certain colors can suppress or stimulate the appetite. Warm earth tones can make a building feel homier, while whites give a sense of sterile coldness. Red is known to stimulate metabolism and appetite, while blue has the opposite effect and suppresses appetite.[8]

Recognizing that red is an appetite stimulant, we can appreciate that Esav’s redness is not merely tangential information, but rather foreshadows an upcoming story. This physical quality helps us understand that Esav had a voracious appetite, which was displayed when he returned from the field famished and demanded food from Yaakov.[9] This is reinforced by the red color of the food itself.[10] Just as Esav’s hairiness at birth sets up the story about Yaakov’s deception of his father, so too Esav’s ruddiness at birth portends his inexhaustible appetite and the sale of his first-born rights. 


[1] There is some contention regarding the translation of admoni as red. Onkelos, Targum Pseudo Yonatan, Bereshit Rabba, and other commentators, give this translation, but Chizkuni disagrees.

[2] Siftei Chachamim asks this, adding that Esav’s hairiness is important in terms of understanding his name.

[3] Bereshit Rabba 63:25, echoed by Rashi in his commentary.

[4] Shmuel I 16:12.

[5] See Radak and S.R. Hirsch.

[6] Babylonian Talmud Menachot 43b.

[7] Ester 8:15.

[8] Birren, Faber. “Color and Human Appetite” in Food Technology, 17 (May, 1963) 45–7.

[9] Bereshit 25:29.

[10] Bereshit 23:30.