Literary Messages Concealed in the List of Yaakov’s Family

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

In memory of Rebbetzin Miriam Wise, Miriam bat Yitzhak Ve-Rivkah z”l,
whose yahrtzeit is on 9 Tevet
by Rav Yitzchak and Stefanie Etshalom

Major Hagai Ben-Ari,  mortally wounded two and a half years ago,
during the fourth day of IDF operation "Protective Edge" has passed away.
May his memory be a blessing
and may his family find solace among those who mourn Zion and Yerushalayim.



Parashat Vayigash – and especially its first part – is one of the most dramatic portions in the Torah. Yehuda’s impassioned speech, Yosef’s revelation of his identity to his brothers, and the reunion between Yaakov and Yosef, his beloved son, reflect and evoke strong emotions.

However, in the middle of all this drama, the Torah stops. In between the description of Yaakov’s descent from Beer Sheva to Egypt and the encounter there with Yosef, we find a detailed list of Yaakov’s descendants, spanning a large portion of chapter 46 (verses 8-27). Why is this so? What is the importance of listing Yaakov’s descendants? And why specifically at this climactic point in the story?

Let us begin by reviewing who appears in the list. As expected, we find Yaakov’s twelve sons and his daughter, Dina, as well as his grandsons. However, the list also includes two categories of “exceptions”:

  1. Great-grandchildren: Chetzron and Chamul, the sons of Peretz, son of Yehuda; and Chever and Malkiel, sons of Beri’a, son of Asher.
  2. A granddaughter: Serach, daughter of Asher.

The exceptions raise the question of whether the list is in fact a full and accurate list of all of Yaakov’s descendants. After all, it seems quite unlikely that there was only one granddaughter, and it is even more difficult to imagine that Yaakov had only four great-grandchildren, from Yehuda and from Asher.

Moreover, it is also reasonable to assume that Dina was not Yaakov’s only daughter, as the midrash indicates explicitly, in commenting on the verse, “And all of [Yaakov’s] sons and all of his daughters arose to comfort him” (Bereishit 37:35).[1] Likewise, in the verse preceding the genealogical list in our parasha, we read:

His sons, and his sons’ sons with him; his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed he brought with him to Egypt. (46:7)[2]

There is room to question why specifically these exceptions are included. Perhaps the sons of Peretz – Chetzron and Chamul – are noted as part of Yehuda’s tikkun and are considered as though they were his sons, in place of Er and Onan, who had died.[3] Similarly, Dina is perhaps mentioned in order to emphasize the fact that she is counted among Yaakov’s children, despite the episode of Shekhem. Likewise, there are various possibilities, based on the midrash, for explaining the uniqueness of Serach, the daughter of Asher,[4] although it is difficult to find any reason for the inclusion of the sons of Beri’a, Chever and Malkiel.

Whatever the reasons for these exceptions may be, it seems that it is no coincidence that the Torah mentions specifically “seventy souls.” This number is not the mathematical total of Yaakov’s descendants. One arrives at seventy only if some exceptions are included in the list. Hence, the number is symbolic, representing a family with many descendants. There are similar examples elsewhere in Tanakh:

And Gidon had seventy sons, begotten of his body, for he had many wives. (Shoftim 8:30)

And Achav had seventy sons in Shomron. (Melakhim II 10:1)[5]

In other contexts, the number seventy represents the leadership of Am Yisrael over the course of the generations.[6]

If the number seventy is indeed meant in the symbolic sense, we must consider the possibility that other numbers in this list also convey symbolic meaning.


This brings us to the best-known question regarding this list, which starts with the descendants of Leah:

And these are the names of the children of Yisrael who came into Egypt, Yaakov and his sons: Reuven, Yaakov’s firstborn. And the sons of Reuven: Chanokh and Pallu and Cheztron and Karmi. And the sons of Shimon: Yemu’el and Yamin and Ohad and Yakhin and Tzochar and Shaul, the sons of the Canaanite woman. And the sons of Levi: Gershon, Kehat, and Merari. And the sons of Yehuda: Er and Onan and Shela and Peretz and Zerach, but Er and Onan died in the land of Cana'an. And the sons of Peretz were Chetzron and Chamul. And the sons of Yissakhar: Tola and Puvva and Yov and Shimron. And the sons of Zevulun: Sered, and Elon, and Yachle’el. These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Yaakov and Padan-Aram, as well as his daughter Dina; all the souls of his sons and his daughters were thirty-three. (46:8-15)

The problem, as Rashi points out, is that if you count up the names, you arrive at only thirty-two.[7] Why, then, does the Torah assert that the number of Leah’s children is thirty-three?

Rashi provides an answer on the level of derash:

This [extra person] was Yocheved, who was born between the walls as they entered the city, as it is written (Bamidbar 26:59), ‘… whom she bore to Levi in Egypt.’ [This indicates that] she was born in Egypt, but was not conceived in Egypt.

On the plain level (peshat) of the text, there is no reason to think that the number 33 includes Yocheved, of whom there is not the slightest hint anywhere in Sefer Bereishit.[8] For this reason, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra offer a different possibility: that the number thirty-three includes Yaakov himself, since, after all, he is mentioned in the introduction to the list:

Yaakov and his sons: Reuven, Yaakov’s firstborn…

Support for this interpretation is to be found in the number of the rest of Yaakov’s descendants. Since Yaakov is one of the thirty-three, the descendants of Leah actually total thirty-two. Accordingly, they are exactly double the number of the descendants of Zilpa, who are listed immediately thereafter:

These are the sons of Zilpa, whom Lavan gave to Leah, his daughter, and these she bore to Yaakov: sixteen souls. (46:18)

The same ratio is maintained between the children of Rachel and the children of Bilha, her maidservant. The children of Rachel make up a total of fourteen (46:22), which is exactly twice the number of descendants of Bilha:

These are the sons of Bilha, whom Lavan gave to Rachel, his daughter, and she bore these to Yaakov; all the souls were seven. (46:25)

Thus, Yaakov indeed brings the list of “the children of Leah” to a total of thirty-three. The importance of this conclusion will be discussed below.


There remain further numerical problems concerning the genealogical list. The two concluding verses appear detached from the calculation thus far:

All the souls that came with Yaakov into Egypt, who emerged from his loins, besides Yaakov’s sons’ wives, all the souls were sixty-six. And the sons of Yosef, who were born to him in Egypt, were two souls; all the souls of the house of Yaakov who came into Egypt were seventy. (46:26-27)

These verses raise an obvious difficulty: how can the Torah conclude that “all the souls were sixty-six”? The count thus far has been quite clear:

  1. Children of Leah – 33
  2. Children of Zilpa – 16
  3. Children of Rachel – 14
  4. Children of Bilha – 7

If we subtract Yosef and his two sons (who are already in Egypt, as is clear from verse 27) from the count of Rachel’s children, the total number now coming to Egypt is sixty-seven. Why does the Torah count only sixty-six?[9]

Seemingly, the count is muddled once again because of Yaakov. Clearly, someone must be added into the equation along with Yosef and his two sons in order to close the gap between “sixty-six” and “seventy.” This person, it seems, must be Yaakov himself, since verse 26 counts only those “who emerged from his loins.” But why is there any need for this verse at all? Why does the Torah not suffice with a final tally, informing us that Yaakov and his descendants number a total of seventy souls?

“My Wife Bore Me Two”

The matter of Yaakov’s inclusion to “complete” both lists may be the main literary message of the list.

Yaakov’s special love for Rachel and her children is evident in many different places. Of the six instances in Sefer Bereishit where the Torah mentions Yaakov’s love for someone, three of them refer to Rachel (29:18, 20, 30), two to Yosef (37:3, 4) and one to Binyamin. In Yehuda’s speech at the beginning of our parasha, describing the events that have led to the present predicament, he declares, concerning Yaakov:

“And your servant, my father, said to us: ‘You know that my wife bore me two.’” (Bereishit 44:27)

While the Torah does not record these exact words emerging from Yaakov’s mouth in Parashat Miketz, it is not surprising that Yehuda arrives at this formulation. What Yaakov did actually say to his sons was:

“My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone remains.” (42:8)

If Yaakov refers specifically to Binyamin as “his son,” the implication is that only Rachel is “his wife.” At least, this is how his sons understand the message.[10]

This tells us that Leah’s children, and all the more so the sons of the handmaids, have felt less loved in relation to Rachel and her children.

On this basis, and in light of what we see later on, we might propose that just as the brothers undergo a process of teshuva and tikkun on the long road to the family’s reunion, Yaakov experiences a similar transformation.

From Yaakov’s perspective, up until the final years of his life, his true wife, for whom he toiled for seven years, was Rachel. His relationship with Leah, whom Lavan tricked him into marrying, was something different. This is suggested by the verse in the middle of the genealogical list in our parasha:

The sons of Rachel, wife of Yaakov, were Yosef and Binyamin. (46:19)

Contrasting with the formulation concerning Leah:

These are the sons of Leah whom she bore to Yaakov. (46:15)

The same message is emphasized even more strongly in Yaakov’s words to his sons before his death:

There they buried Avraham, and Sara, his wife; there they buried Yitzchak, and Rivka, his wife; and there I buried Leah. (49:31)

The absence of the expression “my wife” after Leah’s name makes a stinging wordless statement.

In relation to his sons, however, we detect a change in Yaakov’s attitude. This change finds explicit expression in Parashat Vayechi, in his farewell address to all his sons:

“Gather yourselves together and hear, sons of Yaakov, and listen to Yisrael your father.” (49:2)

He also addresses Yehuda – son of Leah – with the words,

“Yehuda is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up; he stooped down, he crouched as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up?” (49:9)

For the first time, Yaakov calls one of his sons who was not born of Rachel, “my son.”[11]

In light of this we might propose that the change in Yaakov’s attitude towards the sons of Leah is indicated already in our parasha. The change finds symbolic and unique expression in the list of descendants. On one hand, as noted, Yaakov is counted as one of the sons of Leah, so as to make up the count of thirty-three souls. On the other hand, he is also counted together with Yosef and his sons, so as to make up the difference between sixty-six and seventy.

Seemingly, the idea behind this complex structuring of the genealogical list is that after Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers, Yaakov does his part in facilitating the reunion, and from this point onwards he becomes an integral figure both among Leah’s children and among Rachel’s children.

Thus, after all the trials and tribulations of many years, the entire family finds its way to reunification.

Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]  Chazal are divided as to how the verse should be understood. Rashi writes: “R. Yehuda said: Twin sisters were born with each of the tribes, and they married among themselves. R. Nechemia said: ‘[Their wives] were Canaanites. What, then, is the meaning of ‘and all his daughters’? These were his daughters-in-law, for a person will sometimes call his son-in-law his ‘son’ and his daughter-in-law – his ‘daughter.’” (Rashi, Bereishit 37:35). According to the opinion of R. Yehuda, then, Yaakov had other daughters in addition to Dina. On the level of peshat we need not necessarily conclude that Yaakov’s sons married their half-sisters. The important point, for the purposes of our discussion, is that there were (or might have been) other daughters, even though they are not mentioned by name.

[2] Rashi comments: “In view of the opinion that twin sisters were born with the tribe, we must conclude [in light of this verse] that they died before the descent to Egypt, for they are not numbered here” (Rashi 46:7). Once again, however, on the level of peshat, we need not necessarily conclude that all Yaakov’s daughters died before the descent to Egypt; it may simply be that they are not listed, except for Dina.

[3]  Or Ha-Chayim (commenting on 46:3) suggests this possibility.

[4]  Serach appears once again in the genealogical list in Parashat Pinchas: “And the name of Asher’s daughter was Serach” (Bamidbar 26:46). Rashi (ad loc.) notes: “Because she was still alive, she is listed here.” The midrashim also name Serach as the source who revealed to Moshe where Yosef was buried: “From where did Moshe Rabbenu know where Yosef was buried? They said: Serach the daughter of Asher remained of that generation. Moshe went to her and said, ‘Where is Yosef buried?’ She told him, ‘The Egyptians made a metal coffin and placed him in the Nile, so that its waters would be blessed’” (Mekhilta De-Rashbi, Shemot 13).

[5]  Similarly: “And after him Avdon son of Hillel, a Pir’atonite, judged Israel. And he had forty sons and thirty grandsons, that rode of seventy colts” (Shoftim 12:13-14).

[6]  For example: “And He said to Moshe, ‘Come up to the Lord – you, and Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and bow down from afar’” (Shemot 24:1); “And the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people, and officers of them, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there, and I will take of the spirit which is upon you, and will put it upon them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you bear it not yourself alone’” (Bamidbar 11:16-17); “And there stood before them seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, and in the midst of them stood Ya’azneyahu, son of Shafan…” (Yechezkel 8:11).

[7]  Reuven and sons – 5; Shimon and sons – 7; Levi and sons – 4; Yehuda and living sons, with two grandsons – 6; Yissakhar and sons – 5; Zevulun and sons – 4; and Dina – total 32.

[8] Ibn Ezra questions this interpretation in terms of the arithmetic, which would have Yocheved bearing Moshe at the age of 130. He mocks the absurdity of this idea, and criticizes liturgists who understood the midrash literally. To his view, this suggestion is “offered in the way of aggada, or as a lone opinion.”

[9] Attention should be paid to the fact that here too, the same 2:1 ratio that we saw in two other contexts in this list is maintained. The number 66 is double the number 33, which was the subject of our discussion above. Symbolically, just as Leah was the mother of half (six) of Yaakov’s children, she was also the matriarch of half of his descendants – 33 out of 66.

[10]  For more extensive discussion of this point see my article (in Hebrew),נאומו-של-יהודה

[11] The interpretation of Yaakov’s words is a matter of debate among the commentators. According to Rashi, Yaakov is referring to the sale of Yosef: “‘From the prey’ – from my suspicion of you, [as expressed] in the words, ‘Yosef is surely torn in pieces,’ ‘an evil beast has devoured him’ – this referred to Yehuda, who is compared to a lion. ‘My son, you have gone up’ – You removed yourself [from the plan to kill Yosef], saying, ‘Of what profit is it [if we kill our brother]…’” (Rashi, ad loc.). It is reasonable to assume that Rashi reads the verse as meaning, “From the prey [or “preying on”] my son – you elevated yourself.” Rashbam, on the other hand, comments: “‘From the prey, my son, you have gone up’ – My son Yehuda, after you go up from catching prey among the nations, and you crouch and lie in your own city, no enemy will come to frighten you or to pull you up from your place.’ This is the principal meaning; ‘my son’ is another way of referring to Yehuda” (Rashbam, ad loc.). Rashbam also adds a comment sharply critical of Rashi, but without mentioning him by name: “And anyone who interprets this as a reference to the sale of Yosef is not familiar with proper punctuation.” Unquestionably, on the level of peshat, it makes more sense that the expression “my son” refers here to Yehuda.