Vol. 7 No. 2
Shem, Chom and Yefes
The three sons of No'ach comprised the father-founders of the nations of the world:
Shem of the Middle-Eastern nations; Chom of the African and Far-Eastern nations; and Yefes
of the European nations.
On a more personal level, we find nothing but derogatory remarks concerning Chom, who
sinned twice - once in the Ark, when he could not restrain himself from having marital
relations with his wife, despite instructions to acknowledge the suffering of the world
and to refrain; and again, when he mocked his drunken father, even going so far as to rape
him, according to some, and to castrate him, according to others, as he lay exposed in his
It is not surprising therefore, that he was cursed by his father to be forever a
wretched slave to his brothers (see Rashi as to why the curse was placed specifically on
his fourth son). He was unable to exercise control over himself, so he would have to
remain under the control of others. Even his name Chom (hot) depicts his hot-headedness
and licentious nature.
Shem and Yefes both come across as decent human-beings - perhaps we can go even further
and refer to the three father-founder nations of the world as the prototypes of the three
categories of people that exist in the world: tzadikim (Shem), beinonim (Yefes), and
And their names too, like the name of Chom, depict their characters: Yefes (beautiful)
conveys the beautiful streak of goodness that existed in the oldest son of No'ach, with
the result that 'the beauty of Yefes (which Chazal pinpoint as the Greek language) dwells
in the tents of Shem' (a Sefer-Torah that is written in ancient Greek is kosher); whereas
Shem represents the good name of Shem, of which Shlomoh ha'Melech writes in Koheles (7:1)
'A good name is better than good oil'.
A proof that Chazal consider Shem superior to his brother Yefes, lies in the fact that,
although Chom was the oldest of the siblings, Shem is mentioned first (see Bereishis
5:32). The Gemoro in Sanhedrin notes that, as the Torah explicitly writes, Shem turned a
hundred only two years after the flood, whereas No'ach bore his first child when he was
five hundred, exactly one hundred years before it. Consequently, the Gemoro concludes that
Yefes must have been the youngest, and the order of birth was Yefes, Chom and Shem. And it
goes on to explain that the posuk lists them according to their wisdom - meaning that that
is why it places Shem first, although it does not give a reason for mentioning Chom second
(see Torah Temimah - Parshas Bereishis 11).
Wisdom in this context, has many connotations. Rashi explains that he was a tzadik, he
was born circumcised and he was the ancestor of Avrohom Ovinu.
The Torah Temimah adds that G-d spoke to him (see Rashi, Toldos 25:23), that he was a
Kohen Godol (alias Malki Tzedek, King of Yerushalem), that the Beis ha'Mikdosh was built
in his land, and that he established his famous Yeshivah where he and his great-grandson
Eiver taught the ways of G-d for hundreds of years.
Shems superiority is hinted in the Torah in one word (no, in one missing
letter!). When Shem and Yefes covered their father in his tent, the pasuk writes that Shem
and Yefes took the blanket
. Note however, that the word took appears
in the singular (vayikach- and he tookinstead of
vayikchu And they took), suggesting that it was Shem,
who is mentioned first, who instigated the joint action. Haction. He exerted himself
more than Yefes, and it is that little extra exertion that marks the distinction between a
beinoni and a tzadik.
Rashi ascribes the need for No'ach to build the ark to the effort that was required to
induce the people of his generation to repent; whereas the Ramban puts it down to the
concept of minimising the miracle in order to increase man's test of faith. Even ten arks
like the one that No'ach built, he points out, would not really have sufficed to house the
vast array of animals that filled No'ach's ark.
It is also remarkable how No'ach, with the limited technology known to that age, and
virtually single-handedly, since Yefes, his oldest son, was not yet born when he began his
momentous task, and with no tools or materials available to him other than those that he
fashioned with his own hands, was able to build an ark of such gigantic dimensions, at
all. That he succeeded in making it waterproof, able to withstand the powerful force of
the floodwater for a full year, goes beyond the realm of credibility.
The Medrash, however, explains this phenomenon in one short phrase. Basing itself on
the fact that the Torah repeats "You shall make it" twice (6:14 and 16), it
comments briefly that the ark assisted in its own construction. In other words, Noach
began each task which, given the tools etc. at his disposal, he could not possibly have
completed to perfection. Therefore each task completed itself, as No'ach went on to the
next one. Each phase of the arks construction was only begun by No'ach, but
completed by angels.
Food Space Shortage
"And as for you, take for yourself from every kind of food that is eaten, gather
it into the ark ..." (6:21).
Imagine how much food No'ach must have had to collect to feed his family and all of the
numerous creatures that were in his charge - for an entire year! Apart from the
mind-boggling task of collecting and preserving such an enormous amount of food, why is no
mention made, asks the Gro, of the miracle involved in so much food being stores in such a
And he answers this with the Gemoro in Yumo (80a), which explains that the minimum
volume of food that is subject to the tum'ah of food is that of a chicken's egg - because
the Torah uses the expression there "from any food that is eaten" which implies
the volume of a chicken's egg, because that is as much as a person can swallow at one
time. In that case, seeing as the Torah uses the very same expression here (" ...
food that is eaten"), it is clear that G-d was telling No'ach to take into the ark an
egg-volume of food for each member of his family and the volume of food that each animal
swallows for that particular animal. "And it will be for you and for them to
eat," the posuk concludes. G-d will perform a miracle, and, like in the story of
Ovadyas wife and the prophet Elisha, that egg-volume will generate its own growth
and will last for a whole year.
Who Died First?
"And Horon died in the lifetime of Terach his father ... " (11:28). The Zohar
states that Horon was the first person to die in the lifetime of his father.
How strange, asks the Gro, Hevel died in his father's life-time, as did Chanoch (who
was taken away whilst his father Yered still lived). Lemech too, died five years before
his father, Mesushelach?
Perhaps, the Gro suggests, the Zohar is only referring to the generations after the
flood, to the era of the new world.
But that too, is difficult to understand, because also after the flood we find that
Arpachshad, the son of Shem, died sixty-two years before his father, Eiever survived his
son Peleg by a hundred and ninety-two years, and S'rug survived his son Nochor by
eighty-two years? So how can the Zohar make such a statement?
In fact, this question is a fallacy, answers the Gro. It is true that Arpachshad, Peleg
and Nochor were born long before Horon, classifying them as earlier generations. But when
it comes to their deaths, Horon was the first of them to die. The Gro concludes with the
statement: 'When Horon died, Arpachshad was still alive, and so were Peleg and Nochor -
examine the pesukim and see for yourself'. Now the words of the Zohar are crystal
However, if one examines the pesukim, one will indeed find that Arpachshad died in the
year 2096, which was, without doubt, long after the death of Horon. Peleg however, died in
the year 1996, and Nochor (Terach's father) in 1997. No indication is given in the Torah
however, as to when Horon died. We know from the Medroshim that he died when, taking his
cue from his brother Avrohom, he accepted Nimrod's challenge and jumped into the furnace,
though exactly when this took place, is unclear. According to the Zohar (and the Gro) no
doubt, this took place before 1996, when Avrohom was not yet forty-eight. However, the
Seider ha'Doros writes explicitly that the above episode took place when Avrohom was fifty
- in the year 1998. According to the Seider ha'Doros then, Horon was the third person
after the flood, and not the first, to die in his father's life-time - (refer to chart).