Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yeshev 5769/ December 20, 2008

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

Dr. Alexander Klein

Department of Mathematics and Ashkelon College


Who were Jacob’s daughters and granddaughters? Several verses in the Torah indicate that Jacob had not only sons and grandsons, but also daughters and granddaughters.  In this week’s portion we read, “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him” (Gen. 37:35), and, at the conclusion of the Joseph story, “he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters” (Gen. 46:7).  But according to the genealogical list in Genesis 46:8-27, Jacob had only one daughter – Dinah – and one granddaughter – Serah, daughter of Asher.

Ibn Ezra comments on the first verse which we cited:   All his daughters – his daughter and the granddaughter born to his son,” i.e. Dinah and Asher’s daughter Serah, who are the only female progeny of Jacob explicitly mentioned in the Torah.  According to Ibn Ezra, the word “daughters” refers to all of Jacob's female progeny.  This explanation, however, does not accord with what we read in the second verse cited here, which mentions daughters and granddaughters separately.   Therefore, at the second verse he offers a different explanation:

His daughters -- consisted only of Dinah.   Perhaps Dinah had some young maidservants who grew up with her, and for the sake of his daughter Scripture referred to them as Jacob’s daughters, since they grew up in his household, just as we have the expression, 'the sons of Michal' (2Sam21:8), and likewise  'and his granddaughters' – for it is all the same thing.

The Midrash solves the problem differently:   His daughters – the Rabbis said this was Dinah, and his granddaughters-- Asher’s daughter Serah.   Likewise Scripture says, Dan’s sons: Hushim (Gen. 46:23), and descendants of Pallu:  Eliab (Num. 46:8).” [1]   According to this midrash, the fact that Scripture uses the plural in referring to Dinah and Serah presents no problem, for this is the way of the Bible: collective nouns appear in the plural, even if their components are singular.

Jacob's Daughters-in-law

Another question is whom Jacob’s sons married.  Abraham first appears in the Torah as a married man, and much attention is paid to the selection of spouses for Isaac and Jacob, the emphasis being on the aversion to their marrying local Canaanite women, who belong to a cursed ethnic group:  “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25).   But the Torah gives us no identification of the women whom Jacob’s sons married, save for Joseph, who married an Egyptian woman, Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, [2] and Judah, who we are told married a Canaanite woman, daughter of Shua. [3]   Rashi resolves these two difficulties with the help of the following midrash, citing a disagreement between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah:

Rabbi Judah says:  Twin sisters were born to each and every tribe, and it was they whom they married.  Rabbi Nehemiah says:  They were Canaanite; and “all his daughters” [he had only one, Dinah] means none other than his daughters-in-law, [4] since a person may call his son-in-law “son” and his daughter-in-law, “daughter.”

Rashi’s interpretation raises numerous questions, both according to Rabbi Judah’s view and according to Rabbi Nehemiah’s view.

1)   Rabbi Judah’s view:   “Twin sisters were born to each and every tribe, and it was they whom they married.”

·       How were they permitted to marry their twin sisters?  The midrash also says that Cain and Abel married their sisters, but then they had no other choice.  So, the only explanation remains that given by Nahmanides (Gen. 38:2):  “The sons of Leah would have to marry the twin sisters of the six other tribes, and those tribes, their twins,” so that each one would marry a sister by their father but not by their mother, [5] and then such marriages would not be forbidden to descendants of Noah.   Nevertheless, Da’at Zekenim , the Tosafist anthology of commentaries, asks:  Given the view that our patriarchs obeyed all the laws of the Torah, even to the extent of observing eruv tavshilin, how could Jacob’s sons have married their sisters, even if only from the same father?  He resolves this question by saying that since the patriarchs had not been commanded the laws of the Torah, even though they knew them through sacred inspiration, “that which they wished to observe they observed, and that which they wished to neglect they neglected.” [6] Nahmanides’ commentary also does not accord with the formulation in the midrash, which speaks of twin sisters and not regular sisters, so the intention of the midrash was apparently that the Holy One, blessed be He, intended in this manner to provide each of Jacob’s sons with the wife destined for him, similarly as happened with Cain and Abel.   However, as we noted, this was not essential, and therefore it was forbidden.

·       Why were the twin sisters not counted in the reckoning of the number of Israelites who descended to Egypt?   Elsewhere (Gen. 46:26) Rashi has an answer to this:  “As for those who say that twin sisters were born to each of the tribes, they must have died before the descent to Egypt, for they are not counted here.”

·       Rabbi Judah maintains that Jacob’s sons married their twin sisters since, in his opinion, it was out of the question that they might marry Canaanite women, and when Genesis 38:2 says, “There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her,” this is to indicate that Judah, in contrast, did marry a Canaanite woman.  Following Targum Jonathan, Rashi explains that “Canaanite” means “merchant,” so it turns out that even Judah’s wife was not Canaanite. [7]   Also Tamar is claimed by some not to have been Canaanite.  For example, Nahmanides (loc. sit.):

Tamar was the daughter of one of the residents of the land, not the daughter of a man Canaanite affiliation, for it is unspeakable that our liege David and the Messiah – may he speedily be revealed to us – be of the seed of the accursed slave, Canaan.   Our Sages said (Genesis Rabbah 85.10) that Tamar was the daughter of Shem, a priest to El-Elyon, the sublime G-d.

According to the plain sense of the text, also Simeon married a Canaanite woman, for it says (Gen. 46:10):  “Simeon’s sons: … and Saul the son of a Canaanite woman.”  Targum Jonathan explains that Saul was the same as Zimri, the one who did the work of the Canaanites at Shittim [by having relations with Kozbi, a Canaanite] (Number 25).”   Rashi, following the midrash, explains:   The son of a Canaanite woman (Gen.38:2) – the son of Dinah, who was taken as wife by a Canaanite man.   When Shechem was killed, Dinah did not want to return until Simeon swore that he would marry her.”  Ibn Ezra, in contrast, remains true to the plain sense of Scripture and explains that although the wives of Judah and Simeon were Canaanites, their behavior was exceptional; moreover, Judah was even punished for marrying a Canaanite.

2)   Rabbi Nehemiah’ view:   “They were Canaanite women.”

·       How could Scripture possibly call Jacob’s daughters-in-law his “daughters”?  Rashi handles this question himself, answering that it is common for a person to call his daughters-in-law daughters.   Nahmanides adds that this also follows from other instances in the Bible:

Thus Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Turn back, my daughters,” “Oh no, my daughters!’ (Ruth 1:11-13), “Yes, daughter, go” (Ruth 2:2).  But it can also be an expression of endearment, as in “Listen to me, daughter” (Ruth 2:8).

Nahmanides add this last comment because Boaz called Ruth “daughter” as a term of endearment, not as a father-in-law.

·       Why did Jacob’s sons marry Canaanite women?   Why did they not follow the example of Isaac and Jacob, who made an effort to find an appropriate spouse from Abraham’s kin, outside the land of Canaan?  Rabbi Elhanan Samet tries to explain why Jacob’s sons did not have to worry about the ethnic origin of their spouses:

It was no longer necessary for Jacob’s sons to take care as Isaac and Jacob had done, marrying a woman specifically from the family in Haran, and not one of the Canaanite daughters.   This difference between Isaac and Jacob, on one hand, and their descendants, on the other, stems from the different circumstances of their marriages:  Isaac and Jacob stood alone, and had they married local women they would have been likely to become assimilated into their wives’ families.   Jacob’s family, in contrast, was already quite large – an emergent nation – and any woman whom Jacob’s sons might marry would become assimilated into the family. [8]

·       According to Rabbi Samet, Jacob’s twelve sons constituted a critical mass that was sufficiently large to take in Canaanite women without harm.  Nahmanides, however, does not take Rabbi Nehemiah’s words at face value, rather he holds that “Jacob’s sons took care not to marry Canaanite women, as their father had been commanded by Isaac, and Abraham as well, … and their wives were Egyptian, Ammonite, Moabite and relatives of the sons of Ishmael and the sons of Keturah.”

Another Solution

In order to resolve the differences between two contradictory passages, i.e., the two above-cited verses that mention Jacob's daughters and granddaughters, on one hand, and the detailed list of all his progeny, which includes only one daughter and one granddaughter, on the other, we must consider another aspect of the “plain sense of the text.”   One must consider not only “the flow of the biblical text … as it is written … in terms of the syntactic connection between words and the substantive connection of content between sentences,” [9] but also the likelihood of the interpretation, according to the guidance given by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, [10] and by Maimonides, following in his lead:  “We should flee far away from any change of the order of Creation.” [11]   This is also the position taken by Rashbam, as put by Arend:

Rashbam interprets according to reason and logic, that is, according to the rational approach that characterizes “lovers of reason" (ohavei sekhel). …  Rashbam, in contrast to Rashi, interprets in line with human nature, that is, on the basis of human experience and the ways of mankind, without having to turn to supernatural elements that are not corroborated by the Prophets or stated explicitly in Scripture. [12]

How could it be that the patriarch Jacob had only one daughter but twelve sons, and how could it be that among all his offspring in general there would be only two females?  Although it is within the power of the Holy One, blessed be He, to make exceptional cases, there is no hint of this in the biblical account, nor is it clear why the Holy One, blessed be He, should have made such an exceptional case.  Rashi’s approach can be similarly refuted:  how could it be that all the women died before the descent to Egypt, as maintained by Rabbi Judah.  Therefore, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato explains the verse as follows:

My mentor, Rabbi Abraham Grigo says that other daughters were born to Jacob, but only Dinah was mentioned because of the affair concerning her; for everywhere in recounting the history of our early generations Scripture mentions only the males and those females to whom some noteworthy event occurred or who were themselves famous in one way or another.  It seems to me that Jacob and his sons undoubtedly had other daughters, but they were not included in the count of seventy persons because they married their nephews and cousins, just as Jocheved married Amram; and it says, “aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons” (Gen. 46:26).  Hence they were not counted [since they were all included in the "wives of Jacob's sons who were not included in the tally], save for Dinah and Serah, who apparently were mentioned because they were single. [13]

According to Shadal, following Rabbi Abraham Grigo, Jacob and his sons had daughters, as would necessarily follow from the plain sense of the text coupled with the laws of nature, but they were not included in the reckoning of seventy persons because they married Jacob’s offspring, and Scripture states explicitly that the wives of Jacob’s sons were not included.   Dinah was mentioned because of the affair with Shechem, and Asher’s daughter Serah was mentioned because she was famous.   The Bible does not speak of this, but the midrash enlightens us in this matter. [14]   Both were counted because they did not marry offspring of Jacob, rather remained single. [15]   According to Shadal’s interpretation, the words “his daughters” and “his granddaughters” should be taken at face value.


[1] Cited in Torah Shelemah, Parashat Va-Yigash, p. 1677.

[2] According to legend (Yalkut Shimoni on Parashat Ve-Yishlah, par. 134), Asenath was the daughter of Shechem and Dinah.

[3] See below.

[4] Cf. Targum Jonathan on this verse:   “All his sons and the wives of his sons.”

[5] Judah and Joseph, who did not marry twin sisters, are not included with them.

[6] Cited in Torah Shelemah, loc. sit., p. 1437.  Of course, this can be resolved simply by positing that one must not ask from one midrash against another.

[7] This interpretation contradicts what we read in I Chron 2:3:  “The sons of Judah:   Er, Onan, and Shelah; these three, Bath-shua the Canaanite woman bore to him.”


[9] Moshe Arendt, Parshanut ha-Mikra ve-Hora’ato, Jerusalem 2006, p. 16.

[10] Sa’adiah Gaon, Sefer Emunot ve-De’ot, beginning of the seventh article.

[11] Maimonides, Iggeret Tehiyyat ha-Metim, Rabinowitz ed., p. 373.

[12] Arendt., p. 20.

[13] Cf. the interpretation given by Ha’amek Davar, Gen. 46:7:  “It would be wondrous if Jacob’s sons had only male children and no females; rather, it seems more plausible that they also begot many females.”

[14] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13a; Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis, par. 42, and elsewhere.

[15] One could argue that they were counted because they were mentioned.   The midrash cited by Rashi (Gen. 46:10) – “When they killed Shechem, Dinah did not want to leave until Simeon swore he would marry her” – does not fit in with any of the interpretations mentioned above, since as Simeon’s wife she should not have been counted. Moreover, how was Simeon given license to marry her?