Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

Parashat Vayeshev: The Marriage Quandary by Yaakov Bieler

November 23, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Parasha

Yehuda’s Strange Choice for Marriage

In Beraishit 38, we learn about Yehuda’s marriage and his interactions with his children and daughter-in-law. Yehuda’s choice to wed an ostensibly Canaanite woman—38:2 “Bat Ish Canaani” (the daughter of a Canaanite man)[1]  —appears to fly in the face of the traditions that were begun by Avraham and continued down through subsequent generations of Avraham’s descendents. Avraham is quite explicit when he tells Eliezer (24:3) “Do not take a woman for my son of the Canaanite daughters among whom I live.”  Hagar, after their banishment from Avraham’s house, arranges for Yishmael to marry an Egyptian woman (21:21) rather than a Canaanite one.[2] When Eisav ignores the injunction originating with his grandfather, and marries two Canaanite women (26:34), the Tora lets the reader know in no uncertain terms how Yitzchak and Rivka react to their son’s decision: (26:35) “And they (the Hittite women) were a bitterness of spirit to Yitzchak and to Rivka.” Rivka exploits her and her husband’s extreme dissatisfaction with Eisav’s marriage partners in order to rationalize[3] to Yitzchak the need for Yaakov to leave home, lest he follow his brother’s example (27:46) and choose an unsatisfactory wife. Even Eisav eventually appears[4] to realize how negatively his parents felt about the women he married, and tries to at least partially appease them by marrying an additional wife from the family of Yishmael (27:8-9).   The fact that Dinah’s rapist was a Canaanite (34:2) probably added insult to injury.    Acknowledging this pattern of spousal preference – and recognizing the importance of maintaining the fledgling spiritual traditions that had evolved over the course of only three previous generations – would lead us to think that Yehuda would naturally follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and not marry a Canaanite.  It is striking that this might not have been the case.

 Altering the literal meaning of “Canaani” to preserve the marriage tradition established by Avraham

Perhaps for the very reason that it seems so outlandish for Yehuda to marry a Canaanite, not only RaShI, who often incorporates Midrashic interpretations into his Tora commentary, but even someone as rigorously devoted to the simple, literal meaning of the text as his grandson, RaShBaM,[5] accepts Targum Onkelos’ understanding of “Canaani” in 38:2 as connoting “a merchant” rather than a member of a particular ethnic group.[6]   And while Ibn Ezra, another commentator who usually prefers literal textual interpretation, does mention that while it is possible that the text is declaring that Yehuda married an actual Canaanite, he includes the Rabbinic approach as well, i.e., Yehuda did nothing of the sort but rather married a merchant. Ibn Ezra does not always cite Rabbinic interpretations of the Aggadic portions of the bible, and the fact that he does so in this instance suggests that he too had strong reservations about conclusively asserting that Yehuda married “improperly”. RaDaK offers a literary indication that Yehuda must have married a non-Canaanite woman: When we look at the Tora’s genealogical list of the descendants of Yaakov upon the occasion of the family traveling from Canaan to Egypt (46:1 ff.), a particular description of one of the children of Shimon leaps out at us: (46:10) “Shaul, the son of the Canaanite woman”.[7]  If Yehuda, and possibly others of Yaakov’s offspring, married Canaanites, it would not make sense to single out only Shaul as having a Canaanite mother, and therefore, by implication, Shimon marrying a Canaanite woman. The Tora’s drawing attention to this case implies that it is the only case, and that all of the other brothers, including Yehuda, married wives in keeping with Avraham’s proscription.[8]

A Midrash that assumes that Yaakov’s sons were “between a rock and a hard place” when it came to finding women to marry in light of the rule established by Avraham.

RaMBaN explains that the view that Yehuda’s wife was not literally a Canaanite, is at least methodologically consistent with those commentators offering an additional alternative source of wives for Yaakov’s children in an argument recorded in a Midrash. Regarding 37:35 where the Tora relates how all of Yaakov’s children—including daughters (plural!)[9]—tried to comfort him after his concluding that Yosef was dead, the Midrash states the following:

Beraishit Rabba 84:21

R. Yehuda said that the tribes married their sisters

R. Nechemia said that they married Canaanites

 R. Yehuda’s view that for lack of appropriate candidates for marriage from outside the immediate family—it’s one thing when Avraham is faced with marrying off one son, Yitzchak,[10] or Yitzchak is concerned about whom his son (singular) Yaakov will marry; but when there are eleven sons, let alone forty-nine grandsons (see 46:9-24), how could there possibly have been enough marriage candidates among Avraham’s family to accommodate them all?[11]  One senses how repulsive and contrary to Jewish values Canaanite culture must have been[12] if we see that R. Yehuda  concluded that of the two taboos that would have prevented these individuals from marrying, the prohibition against literal Canaanites was stronger than limitations regarding marrying a sibling.[13]

An earlier marriage issue that foreshadowed the dilemma encountered by Yaakov and his family.

The assumption by at least one school of Rabbinic thought that intermarriage took place within this patriarch’s intimate family circle, hearkens back to an earlier problem in the Tora. Whether it should be assumed that daughter twins accompany the birth of sons in situations where suitable mates seem to be unavailable, is a question that was raised out of similar necessity at the very beginning of Creation. Consider RaShI’s comments on 4:1-2: “’VaTeled Et Kayin…VaTosef Laledet Et Achiv, Et Hevel…’ (And she bore “ET” Kayin…and she continued to give birth “ET” his brother, “ET” Hevel.) The three “Et”’s are inclusionary words, (i.e., words whose purpose is to indicate that more has happened or has been said than meets the eye; yet no overt mention of these events or statements will be recorded other than by means of a word connoting ‘more’, ‘additionally’).[14]  This is to teach that a twin sister was born along with Kayin, and two twin sisters at the time of  Hevel’s birth. For this reason the verb ‘VaTosef’ (and she continued) was employed.” [15] This perspective apparently assumes that rules of incest are waived prior to the giving of the Tora at Sinai, at those times when there are no other marriage partners available to Divinely Chosen family lines. Although ultimately what Lot’s daughters do in 19:31 ff. is discredited, since they were not the last people on earth but rather only the sole survivors of Sodom and Amora, had the former been the case, their actions as a means for the human race to continue to exist, could have been justified.

A curious context for the application of the term “Chesed” (kindness).

A further hint that points to the legitimacy of such a claim is assumed by some to be found in VaYikra 20:17: “A man who marries his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is ‘Chesed’ (compassion?!), and they will be cut off before the eyes of their people, he has uncovered her nakedness and he will bear his sin.” RaShI, after declaring that the simple meaning of “Chesed” within this context is “shame, embarrassment”, cites a Midrashic interpretation in Sanhedrin 58b, to the effect that in order to assure that Kayin would have someone to marry, God made available to him a sister,[16] constituting a fulfillment of Tehillim 89:3, “The world He constructed on the basis of ‘Chesed’”.

 Marriage choices for our children today.

In conclusion, while giving birth to a large number of children was necessary to be undertaken by Yaakov to assure the continuation and expansion of the Jewish people, the logistical challenge of finding marriage partners was daunting.  Worrying about whom one’s offspring will marry and how they will hopefully continue in the traditions of the past is not something that has decreased down through the ages. While choices today are happily broader than the extremely difficult situation that the Rabbis describe was confronting Yaakov and his wives,  parents continue to be concerned and hope and pray that their children will marry well and merit to build faithful and lasting families among the Jewish people.  


[1] See also I Divrei HaYamim 2:3.

[2] While commentaries on 21:21 attribute Hagar’s choice of daughter-in-law to the fact that she herself is originally described as Egyptian (16:1), Chizkuni cites Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chapt. 29, which states that Yishmael originally married a Moabite woman, but divorced her due to Avraham’s critique of her personal attributes, suggesting that Yishmael’s father might have been opposed to particular cultural behaviors of the Canaanites rather than simply their national or ethnic identities.

[3] The Tora states that the true reason behind Rivka wishing Yaakov to leave home was out of fear of Eisav’s reprisal, once the elderly Yitzchak would die (27:41-2).

[4] It is unclear if Eisav does this simply to make a positive impression upon his father, in the spirit of RaShI’s comment on 25:28, or he agreed that his Canaanite wives left something to be desired. The fact that he merely marries an additional wife rather than divorcing the first two, contributes to his motives being ambiguous.

[5] See RaShBaM on the beginning of Parashat VaYeshev, 37:2 op. cit. Eileh Toldot Yaakov, where he describes a conversation that he had with RaShI, and attributes to him the sentiment that had he more time, he would have rewritten his biblical commentary paying more attention to the text’s simple meanings!

[6] A similar interpretive approach is applied to the identity of the father of Sholomo HaMelech’s chief artisan in the construction of the Temple.  Chiram is identified as the son of an (Melachim I 7:14) “Ish Tzori”. While this could connote a non-Jewish resident of Tyre—the fact that his mother is identified as Jewish (Ibid.) at least takes care of the fact that Chiram was technically Jewish—nevertheless both RaShI and RaDaK, insist that while a resident of Tyre, the father was actually Jewish. By extension, there could be non-Canaanites living in Canaan who would be called “Canaanites”, and conversely, when Eliezer is sent to Avraham’s birthplace to find a non-Canaanite wife for Yitzchak, who is to say that he might not choose a Canaanite who had relocated to Aram Naharaim? For this reason, Eliezer was taking a major risk when according to the sequence of events recorded in Beraishit 24:22-23, he gives Rivka gifts before asking her about her specific identity. How could he not have been more careful about clearly ascertaining her background before making any commitments in light of Avraham’s instructions? It would appear that even he recognized that he might have been too hasty when in his discussions with Rivka’s family, Eliezer reverses the sequence of events (24:47). The critique of Eliezer’s actions is so severe that Peshat-oriented RaShBaM on 24:22, claims that 24:47 was not merely Eliezer revising the story, but the true order of how things happened.

[7] RaShI explains, that like Yehuda, Shimon also did not actually marry a Canaanite. The commentator interprets the phrase describing Shaul’s mother as a reference to Dina, who, because she was raped by a Canaanite (34:2), could be referred to as a Canaanite herself. The fact that this then becomes an incest issue—Shimon and Dina are children of the same father (Yaakov) and mother (Leah [29:33; 30:21] appears to be a case of solving one problem (the identity of the mother of Shaul) by creating another (Shaul’s parents were full brother and sister). Furthermore, a Midrash (Midrash Aggada, Buber edition, Beraishit 41:45; Chizkuni on this verse) suggests that Osnat, Yosef’s wife, was not the biological child of Potifera, but a foundling whom they raised. In fact, she was the daughter of Dina and Shechem, whom Yaakov and his family left on Potifera’s doorstep, since they considered her the undesirable concrete reminder of the rape that Dina suffered. By linking the stories of Dina and Yosef’s marriage, yet another of Yaakov’s sons marries a blood relative, albeit a bit more removed—Yosef’s mother was Rachel. See the discussion of R. Yehuda’s position cited in Beraishit Rabba in the next section of this essay for a further discussion of the approach that assumes that brothers married sisters in Yaakov’s family.

[8] RaDaK’s logic is consistent with the underlying assumption of RaShI’s comment on VaYikra 24:11, regarding Shlomit bat Divri, the mother of the “blasphemer”. RaShI states that the Tora’s singling out this woman as having a child with an Egyptian man reflects her being the only Jewess of that generation who did so and that everyone else remained within the Jewish fold.

[9] The only daughter explicitly mentioned is Dina in 30:21.

[10] RaMBaN on 24:1 quotes Bava Batra 16b, where several interpretations of the phrase, “And God Blessed Avraham BaKol (in everything)” is discussed. Among the views expressed in the Gemora is that of R. Meir, who explains that the blessing was that Avraham did not have a daughter. Rather than simply dismissing this view as paternalistic, or even somewhat misogynistic, RaMBaN explains that whereas it could be insisted that a wife would have to come to live with the husband’s family, the reverse was not true. Consequently, if Avraham had a daughter, she would have gone off and lived with her husband’s idolatrous family, practically insuring her disconnection from the spiritual traditions that Avraham was developing. That was obviously not the case with respect to Rivka, Leah, or Rachel, although Yaakov stayed away from his family and their traditions longer than he probably should have. The example of Dina’s behavior (“going out to see the daughters of the land”) and her tragic misfortune (being raped by a Canaanite prince) further illustrates how R. Meir may have reached his point of view.

[11] The assumption that Avraham insisted to Eliezer that a member of his family, rather than someone who merely lived in Padan Aram, be found for Yitzchak, could be challenged based upon how 24:4 “But rather to my land and my birthplace you will go and take a wife for my son Yitzchak” is to be interpreted. Ibn Ezra, for example, does not mention Avraham’s family when he interprets this verse—“My land: this is Charan where he dwelled; My birthplace: Ur Kasdim.”

[12] See VaYikra 18:3.

[13] Should it be assumed that at least only“half-brothers” and “half-sisters” married one another, despite the example of Shimon and Dina who were full brother and sister? Perhaps this latter example was considered a special case in light of the following Midrash:

Beraishit Rabbati, Parashat VaYigash, p. 222. (Bar Ilan CD ROM)

 (46:10) “And Shaul the son of the Canaanite woman”—What is the meaning of “Shaul, the son of the Canaanite woman”? According to the one who said, “The ‘tribes’ (sons of Yaakov) married their sisters” (R. Yehuda), therefore this one is specified, that this one alone was the son of a Canaanite woman, and not the others. According to the one who said, “The ‘tribes’ married from the daughters of the land” (R. Nechemia), what does he do with “Shaul, the son of the Canaanite woman” (since it was possible that many of the children mentioned were sons of Canaanite women, why was this individual singled out)? They said this is Dina the daughter of Leah, because R. Huna said: When Shimon and Levi brought their sister Dina out of Shechem (34:26), she did not want to leave. She said, “Where will I take my humiliation (II Shmuel 13:13)?” (She refused until) Shimon her brother swore that he would marry her, and then she agreed to leave. This is the meaning of “Shaul, the son of the Canaanite woman”. R. Yehuda said: She acted like the Canaanites (the promiscuity that led her to go out and make herself vulnerable to Shechem’s advances.) R. Nechemia said: She was intimate with a Canaanite and therefore became herself considered as a Canaanite. Once she conceived, Shimon divorced her once he was no longer bound by the oath. (Apparently it was assumed that Dina’s concern was not so much whether she remained married, but would she ever have a child. Would this view similarly assume that even the half-brothers and half-sisters “married” only for child-bearing purposes, but otherwise would not continue to live together?) And when the family went down to Egypt, Yaakov gave her as a wife to Iyov…The Rabbis said that Shimon (never divorced her) but when she died, he buried her in Canaan.

Did Shimon make such an exception only because there was no other way to extract his sister from Shechem, and had there not been such a compelling contingency, he would not have done so?

[14] For a classical debate regarding this linguistic approach revolving around the verse (Devarim 10:20) “ET HaShem Elokecha Tira” (And you will fear the Lord, your God), see Pesachim 22:20.

[15] In the drama, Inherit the Wind, the character modeled after Clarence Darrow imperiously asks his nemesis, William Jennings Bryant, if we are to take the Bible’s account of Creation literally, then how and with whom did all the “begetting” take place following the births of Kayin and Hevel, in light of the fact that no female offspring are mentioned?

[16] The only other alternatives would be to assume that either Kayin’s own mother was the mother of his children, or that there were other female births that the Tora simply did not record.

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