Chazal’s Interpretation of Cham’s Sin by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Occasionally we encounter a biblical interpretation of Chazal that appears not to be well grounded in the text.  However, upon very careful scrutiny of the text we can discover the basis for these enigmatic assertions of Chazal.  Rav Yoel Bin Nun (one of the leading contemporary teachers of Tanach) writes (in Mussar Milchamah Vikibush p.40) “we read the words of Chazal and the Tanach as one work.  By reading the Tanach with great care and precision we can reveal the basis of Chazal either in the Pesukim themselves or from a broader perspective in light of Pesukim that are found elsewhere.” 

Rav Hayyim Angel (a leading instructor of Tanach at Yeshiva University) once commented to me, “Chazal never miss a beat.”  Rav Yaakov Meidan (a leading instructor of Tanach at Yeshivat Har Etzion) once said to me (in Hebrew), “I am unaware of even one assertion of Chazal for which we cannot find a basis in a Peshat reading of Tanach.”  Chazal perceive every nuance and detail in the Chumash and it is our responsibility to search for the basis of their assertions. 

Cham’s Sin According to Chazal

In this essay we shall examine a seemingly peculiar interpretation of Chazal and seek to demonstrate that it is exceedingly well grounded in the text of Tanach.  The Torah (Bereshit 9:22) records that Cham saw his father drunk and uncovered in his tent and informed his brothers of his father’s indignity.  Chazal assert (Sanhedrin 70a cited in Rashi to Bereshit 9:22) that Ham also either raped his father or castrated him (Rav and Shmuel debate whether the crime was rape or castration).  Our discussion is based on Shiurim that I delivered at TABC and the responses of the Talmidim, especially of the “Y9” Gemara Shiur of 5764 (which studied Masechet Sanhedrin).   

The basis for each opinion seems at first glance to be far-fetched.  The Gemara states that the basis for the assertion that a rape occurred is the fact that the word “Vayar,” “and he saw,” appears both in the contexts of Cham seeing his father and the rape of Dinah (Bereshit 34:2, where the Torah records that Shechem saw, took and raped Dinah).  The Gemara states that the basis for the assertion that Noach was castrated is the fact that Noach cursed the fourth son of Cham (Canaan, see Bereshit 9:25 and 10:6).  This opinion asserts that Noach cursed Cham’s fourth son because Cham prevented Noach from fathering a fourth son.

An Explanation of Chazal

Upon closer scrutiny, though, we will see that these assertions are quite sensible.  Let us begin with the first assertion.  This approach seems to be rooted in a general phenomenon in Sefer Bereshit, that those who make unwanted sexual advances are described first as seeing before they act.  In addition to the rape of Dinah, this description is found in connection with the Dor Hamabul (generation of the Great Flood, Bereshit 6:2), Sarah Imeinu’s being taken to Paroh (Bereshit 12:14-15) and Potiphar’s wife’s pursuit of Yosef Hatzaddik (Bereshit 38:7).  The Tanach seems to note the vision of the rapists to teach that these actions were premeditated – the villains first visualized their crime before they performed it.  Moreover, it seems entirely unnecessary for the Torah to mention that Cham saw Noach’s indignity; the Torah could have simply recorded that Cham informed his brothers of their father’s activity and it would be obvious that Cham saw what Noach was doing.  Chazal seem to perceive the Torah’s mentioning that Cham saw Noach as a literary cue to link the action of Cham with the actions of the Dor Hamabul, Paroh, Shechem and Potiphar’s wife.

Interestingly, Avimelech or his servants are not described as first seeing Sarah before taking Sarah Imeinu (Bereshit 20:2).  The absence of such a description seems to signal that the Torah does not want us to group Avimelech together with the Dor Hamabul, Cham, Paroh, Shechem and Potiphar’s wife.

Now let us examine the second opinion.  This opinion seems to believe that there is obviously something missing in the story of Noach and Cham.  The Chumash records that when Noach awoke he cursed Canaan in a most severe manner (Bereshit 9:25).  This seems to be entirely unjustified in light of the concept of Middah Kinegged Middah punishment (the punishment matches the crime), which is a pillar of the Torah’s worldview.  Why should Cham’s son be subject to a severe curse if Cham simply saw his father’s indignity and reported it to his brothers?  Granted that such behavior is exceedingly insensitive and inappropriate but the punishment seems entirely disproportionate to the crime.  Moreover, why should Canaan be punished for his father’s sin?

These glaring problems lead this second opinion to conclude that there is an omission in the Torah’s presentation of this story (this type of textual analysis is referred to in the Gemara as “Chisurei Mechsara”).  The second approach argues that we can infer Cham’s crime from the punishment that Noach administered (and that Hashem seems to sanction).  The Torah did not need to explicitly state Cham’s crime because we are able to infer it from the story.  The assertion that Cham castrated his father accounts for the severity of the punishment and serves as a basis for a “Middah Kinegged Middah type of explanation” for why Canaan was punished for his father’s crime. 

Although cursing Canaan or Cham that they should not have children would appear to be more Middah Kinegged Middah, such a punishment contradicts Hashem’s instructions to repopulate the world after the Mabul (as we shall explain later in this essay).  Accordingly, Canaan will be permitted to have children (even though he does not deserve to have children) but they are destined to be slaves to slaves.   

One may speculate that the Torah does not explicitly state the crime of Cham because of the Torah value of speaking Bilashon Nekiyah (modestly; see Pesachim 3a and 3b for a list of examples of this phenomenon in Tanach).  The Torah omitted this ugly incident because we are able to discern that it occurred without it having to be stated explicitly.  For an example of the Mishnah omitting certain information that one can independently infer from the text, due to concern for preserving Lashon Nekiyah, see Sanhedrin 68b.

Another example of this hermeneutical tool will clarify this point.  Chazal (see Rashi to Shemot 4:24) assert that an angel almost killed Moshe Rabbeinu because he failed to give his son a Brit Milah.  Chazal seem to infer this from the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was saved when Tzipporah performed a Brit Milah on their son.  The fact that performing Brit Milah was the remedy to the problem indicates that not performing Brit Milah was the cause of the problem.  Thus, the Torah does not state things that we are able to discern independently.  We should note, in addition, that there are other factors that lead Chazal to assert that Moshe Rabbeinu deserved punishment for failing to engage in Brit Milah (see Rav Moshe Lichtenstein’s Tzir Vatzon). 

Rashi’s Approach

Rashi (commenting on Bereshit 9:22) cites both the opinions of Rav and Shmuel without indicating a preference for either interpretation.  Rashi seems to regard both approaches as viable.  What seems important to Rashi is that a severe crime occurred and that the crime was of a tangible and sexual nature.  We will seek to present seven literary cues that seem to have pointed Rashi (and Chazal) in this direction. 

First is the question of how Noach knew that he had been violated when he awoke from his drunken state (Bereshit 9:24).  This question seems to lead Chazal to conclude that a tangible crime had occurred and not merely that Cham saw his father in a compromising position and told his brothers about it.  Second, the Pasuk states that “Vayeida,” “and Noach knew,” what had occurred.  The word “Vayeida” sometimes has a sexual connotation in Sefer Bereshit (see 4:1, 4:17 and 19:5). 

Third is the Torah’s use of the word Shechem in 9:23 in describing that the brothers took a blanket and put it on their shoulders (“Shechem Shneihem”).  It is unnecessary for the Torah to state that they put the blanket on their shoulders.  The Torah seems to mention their shoulders simply because it wishes to use the word Shechem (which is rarely used in Tanach when not referring to the town of Shechem) to literarily and thematically link this story with the story of Dinah’s rape by Shechem ben Chamor.  Indeed, Rashi interprets the use of the term Shechem in Bereshit 48:22 in a somewhat similar manner. 

Fourth is that the Torah describes the nation of Canaan (in Bereshit 34 and Vayikra 18) as exceedingly promiscuous and engaging in the full range of sexual crimes.  Thus, it is not surprising that the father of this nation is associated with a severe sexual crime (see Rashi to Bereshit 9:22 who cites a Midrash that Canaan collaborated with Cham in his crime).  Canaan’s severe punishment for his association with this sexual crime seems to foreshadow the severe punishment that Hashem commands Am Yisrael to impose on the nation of Canaan for their committing sexual crimes (see Vayikra 18:24-25).  

Parallels to Sedom Story

A fifth literary cue is the many parallels that exist between the stories of the destruction of Sedom and the Mabul.  (Rav Chanoch Waxman outlines the thematic and literary parallels between these stories in an essay on Parashat Vayeira that is available on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash.)  These two stories seem to fully parallel each other in the four basic sections of each story.  In both stories, an entire society is corrupt and promiscuous.  Hashem imposes a collective punishment on the entire society in both stories.  Hashem spares the few worthy individuals who live in each society.  In the aftermath of the Sedom story, the Torah relates how Lot’s daughters sexually abused their father (Bereshit 19:30-38).  This seems to be the one missing parallel between the Sedom story and the story of the Dor Hamabul.  Chazal thus infer that in the aftermath of the Mabul a child sexually abused his father, completing the parallel between the Mabul and Sedom stories. 

Parallels Between the Dor Hapelagah and the Dor Hamabul

In her work on Sefer Bereshit (Iyunnim Bisefer Bereshit pp.39-43), Nechama Leibowitz notes that the Dor Hamabul did not emerge in a vacuum.  She outlines how a series of three sins of increasing severity recorded in the beginning of Sefer Bereshit culminated in the Dor Hamabul.  First was the sin of Adam and Chava partaking of the fruit of the Eitz Hadaat.  Second was Kayin’s murder of Hevel.  Third was the sin of Lemech.  Lemech murdered an adult and a child simply because they bruised him and then he celebrated his prowess in song and confidently asserted that he would not be punished for his crime (according to the interpretation of the Malbim, in his commentary to Bereshit 4:23).  This series of sins culminated in the widespread practice of the Dor Hamabul of powerful men routinely taking women by force and without anyone objecting (Bereshit 6:2), demonstrating how thoroughly corrupt that society had become.  

One could discern a similar pattern leading to the Dor Hapelagah (the generation of the dispersion as a result of the Tower of Babel incident, Bereshit 11:1-9).  The first sin was Noach’s choice to build a vineyard (see Rashi, Seforno and Radak’s commentary to Bereshit 9:20). 

Interestingly, the unusual word “Vayachel” is used in connection with Noach’s planting of vineyards.  A form of this word is used in connection with the Dor Hamabul and its preceding troubled generations (Bereshit 4:26 and 6:1) suggesting a thematic link between the Dor Hamabul and the Dor Hapelagah in general and the action of Noach planting in vineyard specifically.  Indeed, a form of the word Vayachel is used in connection with Nimrod (10:8) and the Dor Hapelagah itself (11:6), thus suggesting a link between the sins that occurred before the Dor Hapelagah and the Dor Hapelagah (the Daat Mikra to Bereshit 9:20 notes the use of the variations of the word Vayachel in all of these places).

The second sin leading to the Dor Hapelagah was Cham’s abuse of Noach.  Third were the sinful activities of Nimrod.  (I hope someday to write an essay showing the literary basis for Chazal’s assertion, unlike Ibn Ezra, that Nimrod was an evil man.)  The fourth sin was that of the Dor Hapelagah (see Rav Elchanan Samet’s Iyunim Bifarshiot Hashavua for a discussion of what precisely was their sin). 

Furthermore, there seems to be a clear parallel between the sins that led to the Dor Hamabul and the sins that led to the Dor Hapelagah.  The first sin in each set involved improper use of fruit.  Interestingly, this also might be a source of the opinion that the fruit that Adam and Chava sinned with was a grape (see Sanhedrin 70a and 70b).  It is also interesting that Chazal discuss the question of which fruit was eaten by Adam and Chavah, immediately after the Gemara discusses Cham’s sin against Noach.  This juxtaposition of Talmudic discussions suggests that Chazal conceptually linked the eating from the Eitz Hada’at and Noach’s planting of vineyards.

Nimrod seems to parallel Lemech as both are powerful individuals who murdered for pride’s sake without any fear of retribution.  Nimrod is described as conquering many lands and building and empire (Bereshit 10:8-11).  One who builds an empire forcibly conquers lands belonging to others and certainly murders many people simply for the purpose of the pride in establishing an empire.  NImrod feared no retribution because of his power and he certainly made no attempt to hide his very public murders and thievery.  The Dor Hapelagah and the Dor Hamabul are obviously parallel, as both involve entire societies engaging in sinful behavior. 

The missing parallel in this scheme is the sin of Kayin and the sin of Cham.  However, according to Chazal’s interpretation of Cham’s sin, the parallel is complete as both Kayin’s sin and Cham’s sin involve severe sins committed against the bodies of close family members. 

Noach’s Punishment

A seventh basis for Chazal’s approach to Cham’s sin seems to be the concern for justice in Noach’s disgrace.  As we emphasized earlier, “Middah Kinegged Middah style punishment” is a hallmark of the Tanach.  We can find the Middah Kinegged Middah in Noach’s disgrace based on Chazal’s interpretation of Cham’s sin.

The Abarbanel (commentary to Bereshit 8:15; Rav Chanoch Waxman expands upon this insight of the Abarbanel in an essay on Parashat Noach that appears on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash) notes a subtle yet significant failure of Noach when he left the Teivah (ark).  Hashem commanded Noach to leave the Teivah in a specific order and Noach disobeyed that command. 

Hashem commanded Noach to leave alongside his wife and his sons alongside their wives (Bereshit 8:16).  Noach, in turn, left alongside his sons and his wife alongside her daughters-in-law (Bereshit 8:18).  Abarbanel explains that Hashem indicated to Noach that his family should repopulate the world in the aftermath of the Mabul.  Noach, though, was not prepared to repopulate the world due to his fear that the Mabul would reoccur and his efforts to repopulate the world would be for nought.  

Rav Waxman understands Noach’s exposure in his tent as expression of Noach’s repudiation of Hashem’s command to repopulate the world.  Instead of engaging in the Mitzva of Pru Urvu in his tent, he was exposed and drunk in his tent.  Accordingly, we can perceive a Middah Kinegged Middah punishment to Noach according to Chazal.  Noach’s rape or castration constituted a Middah Kinegged Middah punishment for his rejecting Hashem’s command to repopulate the world.


We see that Chazal’s seemingly bizarre explanation of Cham’s sin is firmly rooted in the text of the Tanach.  A rigorous study of Tanach is necessary in order to grasp the basis of Chazal in their statements.  Although they sometimes seem simple at first, they reflect profound insights into the text of the Torah.  The Rambam writes in his introduction to his philosophic work Moreh Nevuchim that the words of Chazal are often comparable to golden apples encased in a silver mesh (see Mishlei 25:11). One only sees the silver mesh if he does not peel off the outer layer of silver covering the proverbial golden apple.  Similarly, one who does not probe deeply into the ideas of Chazal will only perceive the silver mesh, Chazal’s assertions that are appealing even on a superficial level, but will not appreciate the golden apple, the profundity of Chazal, that lies beneath the outer layer.  Every faithful student of Torah echoes David HaMelech’s plea to Hashem (Tehillim 119:18) “Open my eyes so that I may behold the wondrous things from Your Torah.”

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