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

(2004/5765) 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

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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
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
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
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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