Our Parsha begins the story of “Toldot Yaakov”, the generations or descendents of Yaakov, a history which will span the subsequent Parshiot until the end of Sefer Bereishit. In the middle of our Parsha, immediately after we read of the sale of Yosef into slavery in Egypt, we are taken on what appears to be a tangent. The Torah devotes an entire chapter (38) to Yehuda’s decision to distance himself from his brothers, and to describe Yehuda’s marriage and complicated family dynamic. I would like to focus on one small part of this story, namely Yehuda’s choice of a wife.
The Torah tells us (38:2) that “Yehuda saw the daughter of a Canaanite (“bat ish knanani”) named Shua, and took her as a wife”. While not actually naming Yehuda’s wife, the Torah seems pretty clear about identifying her tribal roots: “bat ish knanani”. Nonetheless, many mefarshim, beginning with Targum Yonatan (and, as we will see, perhaps Onkelos as well) are loathe to accept the fact that Yehuda married a woman of Caananite descent. The source of this reluctance is obvious. We know that Avraham Avinu specifically instructed his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak outside of Canaan (Breishit 24:3). Similarly, Yitzhak instructs his son, Yaakov, not to take a wife from the daughters of Canaan (Breishit 28:3). Given this background, is it reasonable to assume that Yehuda would have blithely ignored this family guideline and gone off and married a Canaanite?
This question did not begin with the meforshim on Torah. In fact, the Gemara in Pessachim (50A) asks the same question, using the nearly exact language that we used to frame our question. The Gemara’s answer, which is adopted by Targum Yonatan, one version of Targum Onkelos, Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban and many others, is that the word “knani” refers to a merchant. Others, including a different version of Targum Onkelos, Ibn Ezra, and one opinion in the Abarbanel understand the passuk literally, meaning that Yehuda in fact married a Caananite woman.
This position would seem to be strengthened by the passuk in Divrei HaYamim I (2:3) which tells us that Yehuda had three sons borne to him through his wife “Bat Shau HaKnaanit”. In this passuk Yehuda’s wife herself is referred to as being a Caananite. Are we to understand that she, too, was a merchant? In fact Ramban, who in his commentary (38:20) emerges as perhaps the most forceful advocate of the position that she was not a Caananite, claims that this description too harks back to Shua’s profession and should not be interpreted as suggesting that Yehuda had married a Caananite woman.
The disagreement that we just quoted can in fact be traced back to the Midrash as well. Commenting on the passuk in the previous perek (37:35) that Yaakov’s sons and daughters tried to comfort him after he received word of Yosef’s apparent death, the Midrash (Rabba 4:21) quotes two opinions as to who these daughters may have been. Rabbi Yehuda states that these were twin sisters who were born with each of Yaakov’s sons, and who subsequently married one of their brothers. Rabbi Nechemya, on the other hand posits that the term “bnotav” is referring to Yaakov’s daughters-in-law, women from the surrounding Caananite community who his sons had married. (Ramban, when quoting this Midrash, refuses to accept that R. Nechemya would suggest that any of Yaakov’s sons would marry a Caananite woman, and therefore suggests that they married the daughters of other migrants who happened to be living the area.)
Why exactly do Avraham and Yitzhak feel so strongly about introducing Caananite women into their households? The Torah never quite tells us. Perhaps if we can answer this question we can understand the positions that were staked out above as well.
Both Radak (24:3) as well as the Ramban we quoted above (38:2) tie the prohibition into the fact that the original Caanan, Noach’s son, had been cursed by his father to a life of bondage. It is inconceivable that the Children of Israel should be tainted by such blood in their background.
If we adopt this approach it is easy to see why we would wish to avoid suggesting that Yehuda had married a Caananite. That Yehuda, from whom David HaMelech and ultimately Melech HaMashiach will come forth, would marry a Caananite and thereby have the blood of a cursed people mixed into the lineage of David Hamelech, is, as we mentioned, inconceivable. In fact, this is the reason that both Ramban who rejects the possibility that Yehuda married a Caananite, and Agadat Bereishit (quoted by R. Menachem Kasher Torah Shleima p.1447) which supports the thesis that Bat Shua was in fact a Caananite, suggest that Tamar was not a Caananite, but was a daughter of Shem. According to the midrash, while Yehuda might have married a Caananite, that doesn’t mean it was proper. Therefore Yehuda’s sons from that union had to die and Yehuda had to produce other offspring through Tamar.
The major objection to this approach is that other than the passukim describing Naoch’s anger at his youngest son and the curse that he gives Caanan, there is no further basis to suggest that this is the reason why the Avot were so concerned about the possibility that Caanan would marry into their family. It seems far more plausible that the Avot would have been concerned that there was something intrinsically problematic with Caanan, a flaw that would corrupt their future descendents.
Ran (Derashot HaRan, Derasha #5) suggests that there exists within Caanan a genetic flaw, one which makes a union with them far more problematic than marrying into the family of Lavan, despite the fact that Lavan was an idol worshipper. In Ran’s view, there are two types of sin, one which reflects the sinner’s chosen behavior and another type of sin, far more problematic in nature, which reflects the sinner’s inner makeup, as passed down genetically. The first form of sin, even though it might be more serious in and of itself, is less problematic because it will not necessarily be passed on to one’s children. Thus, Yitzhak and Rivka were unconcerned about Lavan’s choice of religion. That choice in no way reflected on his daughters’ beliefs. The second area, however, concerns middot. A parent’s attitudes become ingrained in their children, and are very difficult to overcome. The lack of middot that characterized Caanan was something that the Avot sought to prevent becoming part of Bnei Yisrael’s DNA. Theirs was to be a family, and a nation, built on the concepts of Chesed, Emet and Gemilut Chasadim, attributes which were noticeably lacking in their Caananite neighbors. If we accept Ran’s explanation then we can also understand the reluctance to accept that Yehuda or his brothers had married Caananite women.
There is a third possibility as to why the Avot were concerned about this possible union. Ralbag points out that the Torah itself (VaYikra 18:3) warns Bnei Yisrael against adopting the behavior of the Caananite people who inhabit the land. Rashi points out that this refers to Avoda Zara, moral behavior and societal norms in general. The Avot recognize that while Eretz Yisrael is Kadosh and only there can Bnei Yisrael find its true purpose, the inhabitants of the land represent something far less holy. Their message to their children is to recognize the dangers that foreign influences in their environment pose, and to insulate themselves from those influences.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch follows the approach of Ralbag. In his commentary to Chaye Sara (24:3) R. Hirsch notes the significance of Avraham’s message to his servant. Do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Caananites among whom I dwell. What is the point that Avraham is making by stressing “among whom I dwell”? The social pressure that will certainly surround any local woman will make it impossible for her to change her ways, even if she were so inclined. Yitzhak is but one man in an environment which is hostile to his value system. His wife must share his values, or at the very least be receptive to them. But how can she be if she is not only part of a society which rejects those values, but is still fully connected and immersed in that society?
Rav Elchanan Samet (Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, Second Series) takes this reasoning one step further, and in doing so explains the peshat which indicates that Yehuda in fact married a Caananite, as well as R. Nechemya’s position that all the brothers did the same. While not quoting Ralbag or R. Hirsch, R. Samet suggests that the steps that were necessary to protect the values of Bnei Yisrael when they were being championed by isolated individuals were very different than the steps that needed to be taken when those individuals had managed to raise a clan that was dedicated to those principles. Bnei Yisrael had passed the stage where their lifestyle would be threatened by marrying someone who shared their values but whose family did not. They were now strong enough to absorb such an individual and shield them from the influences of the environment that they were leaving.
Were they correct? The record is mixed. Yehuda’s first two sons died because they sinned. Rashi points out that their sin was spilling their seed rather than impregnating Tamar. Why? Yehuda’s oldest son, Eir, did not wish to mar his beautiful wife’s appearance while Yehuda’s second son Onen, did not want to have a child who would be considered his brother’s son. Both of these reactions reflect a sense of selfishness, one of the Caananite characteristics that the Avot surely sought to avoid becoming a character trait in Bnei Yisrael. On the other hand Tamar herself was very likely a Caananite (at least according to the peshat). Nonetheless, she taught Yehuda a thing or two about personal integrity and ultimately became the mother of Beit David.