“These are the Generations of Yaakov” – Yosef and Yehuda

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Translated by Kaeren Fish
These are the generations (toldot) of Yaakov: Yosef, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flocks with his brothers, and the lad was with the sons of Bilha and with the sons of Zilpa, his father’s wives, and Yosef brought an evil report about them to their father. (Bereishit 37:2)
The commentators point out the seemingly misplaced introduction to our parasha. We would expect the words, “These are the generations of Yaakov” to be followed by a list of Yaakov’s “generations,” i.e. his sons, but this is not the case. Many different explanations have been offered, the best known among them:
  1. The world toldot is meant in the sense of “events [of his life],” as in “mah yeled yom” (“what the day will bring”) (Ibn Ezra, Radak, Seforno, Abravanel, Malbim, and others).
  2. The word is indeed used in our parasha in the sense of “sons.” Yaakov’s sons are Yosef and his brothers, who are the actors in our parasha even though they are not all mentioned by name (Ramban, first explanation).
  3. The introduction “generations of Yaakov” speaks of the end of the process that begins in our parasha. Eventually, we read, “These are the names of the children of Yisrael who went to Egypt…” (Bereishit 46:8). There we find a list of the names of Yaakov’s children and grandchildren (Rashbam, Ramban’s second explanation).
  4. The word “dwelled” in the first verse of the parasha (“And Yaakov dwelled in the land of his fathers’ sojourning…” – Bereishit 37:1) is expanded on further in the “toldot,” such that the verse should be understood as meaning, “These are the dwellings of Yaakov’s generations.” In other words, the Torah elaborates not on the names of his children, but rather on their places of dwelling (Rashi).
I will not get into the difficulties that each of these interpretations entails. Instead, I propose that we approach the introduction to our parasha from the perspective of the midrash that Rashi cites, with a slight change of focus:
“These are the generations of Yaakov: Yosef…” – Seemingly, the text should read, “The generations of Yaakov: Reuven…” What do we learn from the fact that Yosef is mentioned immediately after Yaakov? That whatever happened to the one [Yaakov] happened also to the other [Yosef]. (Bereishit Rabba 84:6)
The midrash views Yosef as the main successor of Yaakov, noting that similar events occurred in their respective lives (see Rashi ad loc.). However, the text goes on to describe a drama involving not only Yosef, but also Yehuda. As I understand it, Yaakov’s toldot are Yosef and Yehuda, and the final chapters of Sefer Bereishit are devoted mainly to the actions, the building of the families, and the children born to these two sons.
This would seem to be the simplest explanation for the inclusion of the story of Yehuda and his family (Bereishit 38) in the midst of the story of Yosef and the establishment of his family. The two narratives in fact parallel one another:
Non-existent relationship with wife of Potifar
Failed marriage with the daughter of Shua
A Divine test, in the form of the story of Potifar’s wife, which Yosef passes successfully
A Divine test, in the form of the story of Tamar, which Yehuda fails, then repents and acknowledges his fault
Real marriage with Osnat
Real marriage with Tamar
The birth of Menashe and Efraim
The birth of Peretz and Zerach
The younger son, Efraim, is blessed with power and kingship
The younger of Tamar’s sons “bursts forth” (p-r-tz) and seizes the birthright
Thus, the story of Yaakov’s “toldot” concludes in chapter 41, at the start of the years of famine, when the families of Yehuda and Yosef have been established.
The Son Chosen for Kingship
Our proposed interpretation assumes that just as the earlier matriarchs – Sara and Rivka – each had one son who became the principal heir, Yaakov’s wives, Leah and Rachel, similarly each bore one principal heir: Yehuda and Yosef, respectively. Yaakov has two main heirs rather than just one, like Avraham and Yitzchak, because he has two (freeborn) wives, whereas Avraham and Yitzchak each had only one.
Let us look more closely at the idea of Yehuda and Yosef as Yaakov’s main heirs. Some of the most prominent points concerning these two sons are well known, and might be summarized as follows:
  1. After Reuven, the firstborn of Leah, interferes in his father’s relationship with his wives, the birthright is given to Yosef, who, as the firstborn of Yaakov’s other wife, Rachel, is the only other son eligible for the double portion due to the firstborn. The position of leadership is similarly transferred from Reuven to Yehuda – who, following the story of Shekhem and the consequent disqualification of Shimon and Levi for this role – is the next oldest of the brothers. This transfer of status is stated explicitly in the text:
Now the sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Israel – for he was the firstborn, but, since he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Yosef, the son of Yisrael, but not so as to have the birthright attributed to him by genealogy. For Yehuda prevailed over his brothers, and of him came the chief ruler, though the birthright was Yosef’s. (Divrei Ha-Yamim I 5:1-2)
2. Later on (chapter 44), Yehuda and Yosef confront each other over the fate of Binyamin. The midrash comments:
 [The brothers] said: The kings [i.e., Yosef and Yehuda] are negotiating among themselves; of what concern is it to us? (Bereishit Rabba 93:2)
3. When the family moves down to Egypt, Yehuda and Yosef once again emerge as the leading figures: “And [Yaakov] sent Yehuda before him to Yosef…” (Bereishit 46:28).
4. When the kingdom is split following the death of King Shelomo, Rechav’am and his progeny – descendants of the house of David, from the tribe of Yehuda – reign in Jerusalem, while Yerav’am, from the house of Yosef, reigns in Tirtza. Most of the kings of Israel that follow are likewise from the house of Yosef. The kingdom of the ten tribes is frequently referred to as “Efraim” by the prophets.
5. The Mishkan stants in the portion of Yosef, while the Temple is later built in the portion of Yehuda.[1]
6. The prophet Yechezkel speaks of the time to come when the “branch of Yehuda” and the “branch of Efraim” will join and become a unified kingdom:
And you, son of man, take yourself one stick and write upon it, “For Yehuda, for the children of Israel, his companions.” Then take another stick and write upon it, “For Yosef, the stick of Efraim, and for all the house of Israel, his companions.” And join them one to the other to make one stick, and they shall become one in your hand. (Yechezkel 37:16-17)
7. According to tradition and Kabbala, there will be two Mashiach figures: a Mashiach ben Yosef and a Mashiach ben David from the tribe of Yehuda.
What is common to all the points above is that they all relate to the kingship (and the Temple).
The Actions of Yosef and Yehuda
The Torah refers to the tribes, Yaakov’s sons, both as “Yehuda and his brothers” (Bereishit 44:14) and as “Yosef’s brothers” (Bereishit 42:6). Nowhere else do we find any comparable expression with regard to any of the other brothers. There is no mention of “Reuven and his brothers” or “Dan’s brothers.” In other words, Yehuda and Yosef are the central figures around whom the events of these chapters turn. This finds expression in the following ways:
  1. The Torah sets out in detail the family stories of Yehuda and of Yosef. We know the name of Yehuda’s wife – Tamar – and the name of Yosef’s wife – Osnat. We also know the circumstances in which Yehuda married Tamar and the circumstances in which Yosef married Osnat. We know the meaning behind the names given to Yehuda’s sons (Peretz and Zerach) and the circumstances of their birth, and likewise concerning the sons of Yosef. In this sense, Yosef and Yehuda are comparable to the forefathers, concerning whom we are also informed of the circumstances of their marriages, the names of their wives, the circumstances of the birth of their children, and the significance of their names. In contrast, we have no idea what the name of Yissakhar’s wife was, or the meaning behind the names given to Zevulun’s sons, nor the story of their births.
Perhaps the level of detail with regard to the families of Yehuda and Yosef is related to the fact that all of the brothers married Canaanite wives.[2] In doing so, they deviated from the tradition set down by the forefathers and from the oath that Avraham made his servant swear: “That you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell” (Bereishit 24:3). The only two who did not marry Canaanite women were Yosef and Yehuda.
Admittedly, before Yehuda married Tamar, he married the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite,[3] but the very disintegration of this household (the untimely death of the daughter of Shua and the death of her two sons while they were still childless) is perhaps meant to show that Yehuda should not have married a Canaanite woman, since he is the essence of the “descendants of Yaakov.” For this reason, the text makes no mention of her name, nor does it offer any details as to the circumstances of his marriage to her, nor of the birth of their sons, nor the significance of their names.[4] Yehuda’s marriage to the daughter of Shu’a is described in the context of a “descent”: “And Yehuda went down from his brothers…” (Bereishit 38:1). They lowered him from his previous lofty status. When Yehuda marries Tamar, he rises again to his previous level and status as representative of the “generations of Yaakov.” Yehuda and Yosef are therefore the only two sons who adhere to the forefathers’ principle and tradition concerning the establishment of a family.
  1. As noted, like the forefathers and unlike the rest of the brothers, the Torah describes at length the events of the lives of Yehuda and Yosef, and especially their challenges. They are the only ones whose especially heroic or notable achievements are recounted. Yosef is the righteous man who withstands the test posed by Potifar’s wife, while Yehuda fails but then acknowledges his fault in the story of Tamar. Similarly, Yosef nobly forgives his brothers, while Yehuda, who had played a leading role in the sale of Yosef, is a ba’al teshuva who is unstinting in his devotion to Binyamin.
  1.  The special Divine guidance of Yehuda and Yosef seems to be hinted to in the fact that these two brothers alone have God’s Name within the name given to them – Yehuda in its standard form and Yosef as it appears in Tehillim 81:6 – “Yehosef”.
  1.  In Yaakov’s blessing to his sons, he conveys a brief message to each of them, while elaborating in his blessings to Yehuda and Yosef.[5] It is clear that the size of the inheritance received by Yehuda and by Yosef, larger than the portions of their brothers, is directly related to the blessing they receive from Yaakov.
The House of Yosef and the House of Yehuda
Let us now look at some more general issues that relate not only to Yehuda and Yosef as individuals, but also to the tribes that emerged from them. These ideas extend beyond the boundaries of Sefer Bereishit:
  1. The tribe of Yehuda and the overall house of Yosef (Efraim + Menashe) are the largest tribes in both censuses taken in the desert.
  1. In the war against Amalek (Shemot 17:8-16), we find four leaders: Moshe and Aharon – the permanent, recognized leaders – along with Chur, from the tribe of Yehuda, atop the hill, and Yehoshua, from the tribe of Efraim, on the battlefield. There is no other instance throughout the forty years in the desert where there are additional leaders over the entire nation.
  1. In the story of the spies, the only two who do not bring an evil report of the land are Yehoshua, representing tribe of Efraim, and Kalev, representing Yehuda.
  1. In addition to their portions in the land, Yehuda and Yosef each inherit one of the cities of the forefathers, and under special circumstances. Moreover, they are awarded these cities even before they receive their portion along with the other tribes. Yosef is given the city of Shekhem, as Yaakov tells him: “Moreover I have given you one portion (shekhem) more than your brothers, which I took out of the hand of the Emori…” (Bereishit 48:22). Apparently, this is his reward for his courage and devotion in heading to Shekhem at his father’s command, even though he was aware of the personal danger that this entailed owing to his brothers’ hatred of him. Kalev, prince of the tribe of Yehuda, is awarded Chevron as a reward for his courage in going there as an emissary of Moshe – “And he came to Chevron” (Bamidbar 13:22) – although he was aware of the risk involved in this mission and knew of the city’s four giants. It is in Chevron that the kingdom of Yehuda is first established (Shemuel II 2), and it is in Shekhem that the kingdom of Yosef is first declared (Melakhim I 12-13).
  1. We have already noted that the portions of Yehuda and Yosef in the land are considerably larger than those of the other brothers, occupying most of the area of Eretz Yisrael. Here we note that in Sefer Yehoshua, special attention is given to these two portions in terms of the cities included in them, the detailed specifications of their borders, and more, as is evident from even a cursory look at the number of verses devoted to these portions.
  1. The children of Yehuda and of Yosef were the only tribes who took “timely” possession of their respective portions at the time when they were commanded to inherit the land. The tribes of Gad and Reuven took “hasty” possession of their portions, before the set time.[6] They were rebuked for this by Moshe, and were punished by being exiled first of all the tribes. The other seven tribes took “late” possession of their portions; they were rebuked by Yehoshua for their negligence (Yehoshua 18) and were punished by not being able to take possession of all that they should have.
  1. In addition, it should be noted that stories of special love for the portions of land and love for the land in general are phenomena that are found only among the children of Yehuda, who, headed by Kalev, asked to receive Chevron and to conquer it (Yehoshua 14), and the children of Yosef, who requested an additional portion (Yehoshua 17).
  1. We conclude with the two Mashiach figures mentioned above, Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David. Mirror images of these two figures are to be found in Yehoshua (as Mashiach ben Yosef) and King David (as Mashiach ben David). According to the Rambam, the first task that a king must attend to is the eradication of Amalek (Laws of Kings 1:1). The war waged by Yehoshua in Refidim was successfully concluded by David (Shemuel I 30), whereas Shaul failed in this task. Yehoshua, who was the first to lead the Israelite army in this war (in the desert), was the one who eventually conquered Eretz Yisrael. And it was David, who concluded the war against Amalek, who ultimately conquered Jerusalem, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days, Amen.

[1]  Binyamin is a partner in both instances; see Zevachim 118b.
[2]  Rashi (commenting on Bereishit 37:35) cites a dispute among the Tanna’im concerning the wives of the brothers. R. Nechemia maintains that they married Canaanite wives, while R. Yehuda maintains that a twin sister was born with each of the brothers, and each married his twin. R. Nechemia’s view seems more probable.
[3]  Here we follow an interpretation offered by Ibn Ezra. This view is opposed by all the other commentators, who force the interpretation of “Cana’ani” as meaning a merchant. They arrive at this interpretation in order to clear Yaakov’s descendants of the suspicion of any Canaanite lineage, but – as noted in the previous note – this goes back to the dispute between R. Yehuda and R. Nechemia as to whether the brothers married Canaanite women. To our view, and as we shall elaborate further in our discussion about the story of Yehuda, the marriage to the daughter of Shua, the Canaanite, represents the “descent” of Yehuda to which the text refers.
[4]  The third son, Shela, appears in a unit all of his own, and there is a possible textual allusion to the significance of his name (see Ramban, Bereishit 38:5), but the scope of our discussion does not allow for elaboration in this context.
[5]  Yaakov’s words to Shimon and Levi are also relatively lengthy, but there Yaakov is not giving a blessing. It is also perhaps worth mentioning that among the six tribes who are compared to different animals in the blessings of Yaakov and Moshe, Yehuda (lion) and Yosef (ox) are the only ones that appear in Yechezkel’s Divine chariot.
[6] See Bamidbar Rabba, Mattot 22:9.