Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Era 5769/ January 24, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Jacob’s Daughters—A Response

Dr. Yael Levine


Alexander Klein (see Parashat Va-Yeshev 5769/ December 20, 2008 on the English Parasha Page) devotes his article to various exegetical approaches related to the following question: who were the daughters and granddaughters of Jacob referred to in two biblical texts?   One is in the context of Jacob’s mourning over Joseph’s disappearance – “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him” (Gen. 37:35), and the other notes that when Jacob descended to Egypt he was accompanied by “his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters – all his offspring” (Gen. 46:7).  The point of departure in Klein’s discussion is the explicit mention of a single daughter born to Jacob, namely Dinah, and a single granddaughter, Serah daughter of Asher. These two women are included in the list of seventy persons who went down to Egypt (Gen.   46:8-27). [1]However, midrashic sources tell of other daughters in Jacob’s family that justify the expressions “his daughters” and “his son’s daughters” in the verses cited above.

Twin Sisters

Klein cites Rashi, who presents the Tannaitic dispute between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah, appearing in Genesis Rabbah. [2]   The former is of the opinion that “the tribes married their sisters” and the latter, that the wives of the tribes were Canaanite.  In truth, the corpus of midrashic literature contains a far broader spectrum of views regarding these twin sisters.  According to another homily in Genesis Rabbah, a twin sister was born with each tribe, and with Benjamin, an extra twin sister. [3]   Bava Batra raises several hypotheses which ultimately are rejected, that a twin sister was born with Dinah and with Benjamin. [4]   Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer says that all of Jacob’s children had their spouses born along with them, save for Joseph and Dinah. [5]   These sources provide a response to the question of who Jacob’s sons married, and considering the homiletical context, one should not expect that the women’s names be mentioned.   In connection with this, recall that midrashic literature does not tell us the names of the wives of Jacob’s sons, aside from those whose names are explained in Scripture:  “the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua” (Gen. 38:2), Judah’s wife, [6] and “ Asenath daughter of Poti-phera” (Gen. 41:45), Joseph’s wife. [7]   Moreover, the wives of Jacob’s sons descended to Egypt, although they were not counted among those who descended (Gen. 46:26).   As for Jacob’s own wives, their names are mentioned in the list of those who went to Egypt in their capacity as the mothers of Jacob’s sons, although they are not counted in the reckoning of the number of persons descending to Egypt. [8]


Another woman whose inclusion might be considered among the “daughters of Jacob’s sons” who came to Egypt with him is Jochebed daughter of Levi.  Jochebed is first mentioned in Scripture in this week’s reading:  Amram took to wife his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses; and the span of Amram’s life was 137 years” (Ex. 6:20).  In the genealogical lists of Jacob’s children in Numbers, Jochebed is mentioned as having been born in Egypt:  “The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam” (Num. 26:59). 

Notwithstanding this verse, there are a variety of views as to where she was really born, relating to the discussion of who was included in the reckoning of the seventy progeny of Jacob who descended to Egypt. As is well known, when one counts up those mentioned, the total is one short of seventy.  Genesis Rabbah presents several views as to who completed the count of seventy:   Jochebed, the Holy One, blessed be He, Jacob, Hushim son of Dan, or Serah daughter of Asher. [9]   As for Jochebed, according to one of the views presented there, she was conceived in Canaan but born in Egypt, and according to another view, she was born on the border into Egypt.   The view that Serah completed the count assumes that she was counted twice, apparently due to her unusually long life. [10]

According to Rivka Raviv, [11] the view that Jochebed was the one who completed the list also answers the question of one person apparently missing in the list of Leah’s children, who when totaled come to one short of thirty-three, the total given for them.  However, we should also mention the view presented by Joseph Heinemann, that the homily about Serah completing the count is based on a homiletical reading of the verse:   “I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel” [Heb. shelumei emunei Yisrael] (II Sam. 20:19), reading it as if it speaks of completing [Heb. le- hashlim] the number of those who left Egypt, and from there this motif was transferred to other homilies on who exactly completed the count of those who descended to Egypt. [12]


Another female figure who, according to Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, was one of Jacob’s granddaughters is Asenath daughter of Dinah, whose mother was raped by Shechem.  Israel’s sons wished to kill her, for it would be said throughout the land that Jacob’s household is a brothel, but Jacob took a golden ornament on which was engraved the Holy name, hung it around her neck, and released her to go her own way.  The angel Michael brought her to Egypt, to Poti-phera’s house, where she married Joseph. [13]   According to this view, Asenath was born in Canaan, but did not go down to Egypt with Jacob, rather she was taken there separately.  Asenath should not be included in the “daughters of Jacob’s sons,” but in the “daughters of his daughters.”

Several homilies mention an anonymous group of women referred to as the “daughters of Asher,” or the like.   These women are mentioned in Genesis Rabbah in a homily on the verse, “Leah declared, ‘What fortune! [Heb. be-oshri]’ meaning, ‘Women will deem me fortunate’” (Gen. 30:13):

“The sons of Asher:  Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, … who was the father of Birzaith” (I Chron. 7:30-31). [14]   Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Simon [had a difference of opinion]: Rabbi Levi said that their daughters [of the tribe of Asher] were good-looking and were married to priests, anointed with olive [Heb. zayit, a play on the name Birzaith] oil, and Rabbi Simon said their daughters were good-looking and were married to kings anointed with olive oil. [15]

This homily is built on the scriptural verse mentioning Asher’s daughter Serah and indicating that Asher was known to have other daughters as well.  This tribe was said to have had many daughters, probably due to its large population increase, as mentioned in Deuteronomy:   Most blessed of sons be Asher (Deut. 33:24) – no other of the tribes was blessed with more sons.” [16]   However the homily in Genesis Rabbah relates to female descendants of a later period.  The motif of “Asher’s daughters” also comes up in another homily:  Asher’s bread shall be rich (Gen. 49:20), for his daughters are good-looking, as it is said, ‘Women will deem me fortunate,’ and ‘May he be the favorite of his brothers’ (Deut. 33:24) on account of his daughters.” [17]   This homily is of a general nature and could be taken as referring to daughters who lived in the time of the patriarch Jacob. [18]

In this article we have pointed to other female figures who according to aggadic literature were direct descendants of the patriarch Jacob, among them some specific figures who were born prior to the Israelites entering Egypt, and other general groups.  As mentioned above, these sources are mostly of a clearly homiletic nature.

Notarikon and Gematria

As for including some of the female descendents of Jacob in the list of the seventy who went to Egypt – Jacob’s daughter Dinah, Asher’s daughter Serah, and Levi’s daughter Jochebed – it is interesting to note an anonymous remark by the tosafists.  The list of the seventy persons who came to Egypt in Genesis is comprised of all the letters of the alphabet save for tet, just as is the case with the Decalogue given to the Israelites after 210 years of enslavement in Egypt.   The psalm, “For the leader, A psalm of David.  May the Lord answer you in time of trouble” (Ps. 20) was inspired by this, for it contains seventy words and lacks the letter tet.   The subtotal of the words from ya’ankha (May the Lord answer you) until the end of the psalm is sixty-seven, for the number of males who entered Egypt, and the opening words, “For the leader,  A psalm of David,” provide another three words in the Hebrew, for the three females:  Dinah, Serah and Jochebed. [19]   We should add that Yalkut Moharan (a collection of sermons by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, gathered by his disciple Rabbi Nathan), says:  “This is the general rule:  every soul in the Jewish people has its roots in the 70 souls of the house of Jacob.   And the seventy souls of the house of Jacob have their roots in the seventy different aspects of the Torah.” [20]   It follows from such a view that the women who were included in the list of seventy persons in the house of Jacob are accorded unique and special importance by the Torah. [21]



[1] The number "Seventy" as the number of persons descending to Egypt is also mentioned in Exodus 1:1-5 and Deuteronomy 10:22.

[2] Genesis Rabbah, Theodore-Albeck ed. (hereafter, Gen. Rabbah), 84.21, p. 1026, and Minhat Yehudah on the same source;  Rabbi M. M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah, Part 6, vol. 7, Jerusalem 1938, p. 1437, remark 200 in the commentary.

[3] Gen. Rabbah, 82.8, pp. 986-987, and parallel versions mentioned in notes and in Minhat Yehudah, loc. sit.; Kasher, ibid., Part 5, Jerusalem 1936, p. 1357, remark 76 in the commentary.

[4] Bava Batra 123a-b.  Also. Kasher, ibid., Part 7, vol. 8, Jerusalem 1938, p.1682, remark 84 in the commentary.

[5] Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, Higger ed., Horev 10 (1948), chapter 35, p. 206.

[6] Cf. I Chron. 2:3.

[7] Gen. 46:10 mentions one of Simeon’s sons as being “Saul the son of a Canaanite woman,” and Ex. 6:15 also mentions this.  Cf. Gen.Rabbah 80.11, pp. 966-967, where it is mentioned that Simeon married Dinah.   Several exegetical commentaries in the writings of the Rishonim cite a “ midrash” which is no longer extant, based on the verse, “who was born [Heb. yalda otah] to Levi in Egypt” (Num. 26:59), according to which Levi’s wife was called Otah (reading otah as the subject of the verb, instead of the object).  Cf. Kasher, ibid., part 43, Jerusalem 1992, pp. 63-64, remarks 104-105.

[8] For a discussion of several views concerning which of Jacob’s wives were still alive when he descended to Egypt, see S. Ha-Cohen, “Kol ha-nefesh le-beit Yaakov ha-ba’ah Mitzraima shiv’im,” Hebrew Parasha Page on Va-Yigash, 2005 (no. 579).

[9] Gen. Rabbah 94.8, pp. 1180-1182, and parallel texts mentioned in the notes and in Minhat Yehudah, loc. sit.

[10] J. Heinemann, Aggadot ve-Toldoteihen, Jerusalem 1974, p. 58, 218.

[11] R. Raviv, “Be-shiv’im nefesh yardu avotekha Mitzrayma,” Hebrew Parasha Page on Va-Yigash, 2000 (no. 318).

[12] J. Heinemann, ibid., p. 59.

[13] Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Higger ed., Horev 10 (1948), chapter 73, p. 210.  (Klein, in his article on Jacob’s daughters (his note 2), citing Yalkut Shimoni, briefly referred to another later source saying that Asenath was the daughter of Dinah and Shechem.)  Also cf. Midrash Aggadah, Buber ed., Genesis 41.45, p. 97; Massekhet Soferim, Higger ed., New York 1936, appendix 1.5, p. 371.  Also Kasher, Torah Shelemah, part 6, vol. 7, 1938, pp. 1555-1556, note 110.

[14] Cf. Gen. 46:47.

[15] Gen. Rabbah 71.10, p. 835.

[16] Sifre Deuteronomy, Finkelstein edition, par. 355, p. 419.

[17] Gen. Rabbah 99.12, p. 1282.

[18] The homilies on Asher’s daughters receive greater attention in later midrashic sources.  I hope to devote a separate study to the full body of homilies on this subject.

[19] Tosefot ha-Shalem:   Otzar Perushei Ba’alei ha- Tosefot, Part 4, Gellis ed., Jerusalem 1985, p. 243, on Gen. 46:17, par. 3.  As for the absence of the letter tet in Psalm 20, it is interesting to note that Midrash Tehillim (Buber ed., 20.2, p. 173) says that the nine verses of this psalm are for the nine months of pregnancy.   The psalm actually has ten verses, but the opening verse is not included.

[20] Likutei Moharan, New York 1978, 141, par. 36.1, page 50a.

[21] Cf. D. Heshelis, The Moon’s Lost Light, Southfield, Michigan 2006, p. 109.