5767 - #35


Devarim 21:15-17 presents the law that a father -- married to two women, one beloved and one not1-- may not override his first-born son’s right to an additional portion of inheritance, even though this son is born of the wife not, or less, beloved. While, indeed, the simple reading of this verse does seem to be referring to the emotions of the father toward his two wives,2T.B. Yevamot 23a presents a most interesting alternate explanation. The gemara understands this description as referring to God’s perception of the two women and thus questions the very idea that there exist different feelings, emanating from the Divine,3toward these two women. The gemara concludes that the case must be referring to marriages that are halachically acceptable and those that are not – and that the verse is informing us that even if the first born son is of a halachically unacceptable union, i.e. born to the woman that the father should not have been married to in the first place, the son’s rights are still to be protected.4 As Rashi explains, why would we even expect the emotions of the father to change the first born’s right, according to Halacha, of an additional inheritance portion? The fact that the Torah would actually address the issue would seem to imply that there was a need to make this statement. The gemara, therefore, seems to be inferring that one could understand an argument to change the first born son’s rights due to the legal status of his parent’s union – but why would we even think that the emotions of the father toward his wives could change these rights?

             Of course, the fact that these emotions could affect the desire of the father to give more to the son of the wife he loves more that the others, is not in dispute. The case of Yaakov Avinu clearly proves the truth of this possibility as Yaakov, indeed, had stronger emotions toward the sons of Rachel Imeinu than his other sons. Most significantly, Bereishit 29:30,31 use the exact same language, used in these verses in Devarim, to describe the relationship of Yaakov toward Rachel and Leah. According to Rashi, the gemara’s question is not why would we think a father is so motivated but, rather, why would we think that the father’s emotions could change the law, thereby demanding the further statement not to take away the first born’s extra portion even though he is born to the less beloved. The gemara’s response is that there is no proper reason to have thought this, thus the need to explain the verse in a different manner. Those who maintain the simple reading of the verse, though, must have seen a reason to have maintained this.

             How we read these verses in Devarim thus yield a most interesting disagreement in our perspectives of marriage. The final conclusion is clear; in this matter, we should not change the rights of the children based upon the relationship between husband and wife. The question emerges, though, on whether we could have properly thought otherwise. If we could have thought otherwise, and indeed the personal emotions between husband and wife do have value in the structure of family – albeit in this case, this value is not to be exercised – we are left with a vision of family that could be highly influenced by this personal relationship. If, as this gemara seems to be informing us, we could not have really thought otherwise, we are left with a vision of family that is not necessarily affected by this personal relationship. Phrased in a different manner, is the prime definition of parents to be their status as husband and wife – i.e. their personal relationship – or their status as father and mother – i.e. their relationship with their children?

             Yaakov’s behaviour toward his sons would seem to support the first assertion. The damage that occurred within the family due to this behaviour5 would seem to support the latter. The direction in Devarim 21:15-17 clearly informs us that that we, indeed, must approach the first assertion with caution but is it still to have value? There is a dispute amongst the commentators as to which wife of Yaakov is deemed to have precedence. Is it Rachel, his beloved or is it Leah, the mother of the majority of his children, including Yehuda? What is perhaps most interesting in this debate is how the differing commentators present their views of wife and mother. Leah, who clearly has greater weight as the mother of the family, is, thereby, seen, by the commentators who stress this view, as, also, the prime wife of Yaakov. Rachel, who clearly has greater weight as the love choice of Yaakov, is, thereby, seen, by the commentators who stress this view, as also the unique mother of all klal Yisrael. We, often, easily connect the roles of wife and mother but, in fact, these two roles are not easily connected. One represents a relationship of a specific nature between two individuals. The other represents a relationship within the group structure of family. The nature of life connects these two but the question is how. Is it the roles of mother and father that are to dominate and set the tone, or is it roles of husband and wife that are to do so?   

             It is within this context that the verses in Devarim have specific significance. To those who simply see the status of father and mother as the essential definition, without question, the purpose of these verses must be elsewhere. To those who also see value in the status of husband and wife – and are continuously bothered by the challenge of maintaining a reality of both roles – the personal and the familial – within the family unit, this verse offers further direction in reaching this goal. One loves one’s child because he/she is one’s child. One may also love one’s child because he/she is the product of a special union between a man and woman bonded by a unique love. When that occurs, it indeed strengthens the bond between parent and child. Yet, when it does not, the child is still your child and that bond must stand alone, equal in every one of your children. That is the message of these verses in Devarim. Even if one believes that there is a special value in the personal relationship between husband and wife – and that special value can, and should, affect the family unit6 – in another way, it should not. Your child is your child regardless of how this came to be -- and there is equality in the status of your child. This, perhaps in a different way, is also the lesson of the gemara in Yevamot.        Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 The actual language of the verse uses the word ‘hated’ however, as many commentators point out, this can simply refer to one less loved.

2. And many commentators maintain this approach.

3. The gemara actually seems to be questioning the very idea of these emotions in connection to God. This topic, though, is beyond the parameters of this Insight.

4. The gemara actually uses this verse to indicate that, in cases of simple prohibitions to have relations, an act of marriage still has the effect of creating a legal union. This is to be distinguished from cases of incest or adultery, where an act of marriage has no standing.

5. See, for example, T.B. Shabbat 10b.

6. Albeit with its own difficulties

Nishma, 2007

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