The Hated Wife
The Strange Laws Of Firstborn Inheritance In The Bible
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this video, we discuss the Torah's laws about a man with two wives, one who he loves, and one who he hates. The Bible talks about the rights of the firstborn son, who should inherit a double portion according to inheritance law. Rabbi Fohrman suggests that this legal section of text is a hint to the story of Jacob and his wives.
This week's parsha introduces a bizarre set of laws, but it also uses bizarre language to describe these laws.
The Bible's Laws for When a Man Has Two Wives"Ki tihiyenah l'ish shtei nashim," when a man will have two wives – in those times, polygamy was permissible – "achat ahuvah v'achat senuah," a wife that he loves and a wife that he hates.
A wife that he hates? Such a mean thing to say. Why does the Torah say it that way? Just say: you know, he has two wives, a wife he loves, a wife he doesn't love quite as much. A wife he hates? What's he doing married to her if he hates her so much? Why would the Torah talk about it this way?
Now, just so we understand the context here, what the Torah is about to tell us is that when the man is married to these two wives, one of which he loves more than the other, he has to treat the child who is biologically born first as his bechor, as his firstborn. He shouldn't give in to the temptation to treat the child that he loves more, in other words the child from the loved wife, as his firstborn if that child is in fact younger. That's going to be the point of the Torah here.
But now, let's come back to the question I just asked you. Why would the Torah use such a jarring phrase to describe this wife that he loves less? Why would it call her a senuah (hated one)? And the answer, the tentative answer I'd like to suggest to you is that the Torah is playing a little game with us, because it turns out that that word, senuah, appears before – and only one time before in the entire Five Books of Moses. There actually is a woman who gets called that, a real, live woman, in the narrative section of the Torah.
Parallels to Senuah – the Hated Wife – in the BibleWho is called a senuah? And yes, you probably guessed it. That woman is Leah, Jacob's wife. Now, before you just dismiss this as sounding crazy, isn't it kind of interesting that actually, the situations match up? Which is to say that Jacob's family situation matches up exactly with what's being described here in this legal section of text.
Jacob did have two wives; one which he loved more than the other. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. More than that, these two wives both had children. The firstborn child of Leah was Reuben. The firstborn child of Rachel was Joseph. I mean, the situations match up. Think of the implications.
The Torah is telling you that the Jacob man has to treat Reuben, the oldest child, as his bechor (firstborn) and can't treat Joseph, who is relatively younger than Reuben, as his bechor instead. Do you understand what's going on here? It's like the Torah here in Deuteronomy is leveling this retroactive kind of criticism of Jacob and saying he didn't do it the right way. Or at the very least, it's saying that in the future you can't do it that way, you have to do it differently.
Now, right around here you just sort of have to stop and just shake yourself back to reality and say, one second, is any of this real, Rav Fohrman, or are you just getting completely carried away with yourself? Great, so you found one work, senuah, you matched it up over there and great, their family situations match up. But how do you know that's real? Maybe you're just getting carried away with yourself here.
How would we know? Well, in order to know, you would have to have some other compelling evidence that the story here being told in the Deuteronomy, the legal story really is patterned after Genesis. Does that evidence exist?
I would like to suggest to you that it does exist and it comes in the form of three awkward phrases that seem to be out of place in the Deuteronomy narrative.
The Rights of the Firstborn Son in the BibleSo, ki tiheyeva le’ish shtei nashim, so there is this man, he has two wives, haachat ahuvah v’haachat snuah, a wife that he loves and a wife that he doesn’t love as much, we have already remarked that senuah seems to suggest Leah.
V’yaldu-lo vanim haahuvah v’hasnuah, and these two women, they both have children and it turns out that, v’hayah haben habechor lasniah, the oldest child is born to the wife that the man does not love as much. V’hayah beyom hanchilo et banav et asher yihyeh lo, it shall be on the day that he apportions his inheritance to the sons and he has to figure out who his first born is.
Lo yuchal levacher et-ben-haahuvah al pnei ben-hasnuah habechor, he cannot illegitimately promote the child of the loved wife to the position of bechor if in fact he is younger. Ki et-habechor ben-hasnuah yakir, he must recognize that the child of the senuah, of the less loved wife, as the bechor if he in fact is born first.
Latet lo pi shnayim to give him a double portion, bechol asher-yimatze lo, in everything that is found to him, ki hu reshit ono because to him is the first of his strength. Lo mishpat habechorah, to him is the right of the first born.
The Bible's Double Portion Blessing for FirstbornsNow, I kind of smoothed out in my reading some of the problems but the first problem is the word yakir. When it talks about the father’s obligation to give the double portion to the child of the less loved wife, there is a certain awkward repetition in that phraseology.
What it actually says is the first born child of the less loved wife, he must recognize to give him double portion but that is sort of repetitive, you could have just dropped the whole recognize thing. If you wanted to just save words, you could say the less loved child, yiten lo pi shnayim, you have to give him a double portion.
What do you mean you have to recognize him to give him a double portion and plus, bechol asher-yimatze lo, in all that’s found to the father, what’s that supposed to mean? In all that the father has, he has given the double portion of his estate, why talk about this estate is all that has found to the father?
And finally, ki hu reshit ono, because this child, the first born is the first of his strength, I mean that’s very poetic phraseology, that first of his strength. The whole section here is legal pros, what’s the poetry dropping in for and plus, it is superfluous, you just leave it out, you could just say, yeah you have to give him the double portion because lo mishpat habechorah.
It turns out that it is not just the sneuah piece that brings us back to the story of Yaakov, it’s all of these awkward phrases; and once you see that, it turns out that everything that’s happening here in Deuteronomy is actually a commentary on what happened back in Genesis and Genesis is going to help us understand what these laws are doing here.
The Origin of the Bible's Inheritance Laws of the FirstbornLet’s start with the end, ki hu reshit ono, Deuteronomy tells us, key is the first of the man’s strength. That poetic phrase was the exact same poetic phrase that Yaakov himself used to describe, guess who? Reuben, his actual child of the senuah.
Yes, that’s right, in Parshat Vayechi when Yaakov gives blessings to all of his children, the first words of the blessing that he gives to Reuben is kochi, ‘you are my power’, v’reshit oni, ‘the very first of my strength’ – and it’s not just the poetry. Let’s go to the middle phrases that we were concerned about. Yakir and yimatze lo, why use those awkward phrases? Replay those words over and over in your mind and ask yourself, what do they remind you of in Yaakov’s life? Yakir, ‘recognize’. Yimatze lo, ‘found to him’. That very combination of words shows up in the most chilling moment in Yaakov’s life. The moment when he realizes his beloved child, the child of his beloved wife, the child that he might have hoped to be his first born, Joseph, is gone forever.
When the brothers sell Joseph after throwing him in a pit, they slaughter a goat and put the blood on Joseph’s coat and bring the coat to father; and what do they say? Zot matzanu, ‘this we found’, haker-na, ‘recognize please’. It is the same words. Why is the Torah doing this, is it just being cute with us? Not being cute with us, it is explaining things to us.
You want to really understand what the brothers were saying to their father when they presented him with the bloody coat? Deuteronomy is going to teach you what they were saying. Go back to those awkward words in Deuteronomy, yakir and yimatze lo. What did those words signify, in the legal text, what do they mean?
The Meaning of the Double Portion Blessing in the BibleWell, yakir means that the father has to recognize who his true bechor is. Yimatze lo, found to him, were the words that described the fathers estate. Now, take the connotations of those words from Deuteronomy and now plug them back into Genesis and you will understand what the brothers were actually telling their father.
Zot matzanu, they were saying, ‘Dad, this is your estate’, haker-na, they weren’t just saying do you recognize whether this is Joseph’s coat. They were saying do you recognize whether this ought to be Joseph’s coat? What are the words being in Deuteronomy? The father must recognize the right of the child that was not loved as much.
Haketonet binecha, does it belong to Joseph? Or maybe, it doesn’t really belong to him. What was this coat after all? It was the coat of the first born. Whose was the extra coat? Listen to the name, Joseph. The name Joseph means added upon. Isn’t it a strange name in light of these laws?
What happens to a first born? He gets an added portion. What did the father – in this case, Yaakov – what did he add for this child who means added upon? He added this coat – and you see it by the way, when the brothers strip him of it. When the brothers strip him off his coat, strangely the Torah mentions the coat twice. V’yafshitu et ketanto et-ketonet hapasim asher alav, they strips him off his coat, off his special coat that was upon him.
Rashi asks the obvious question, why mention it twice? You know what Rashi’s answer was? Guess what, there were two coats, one coat all the brothers had, everybody had a coat but the other, hosifa lo aviv al shar echav, one was added upon all the other brothers. It’s the double portion, that coat meant, he is my bechor. Which is my bechor? the first born child of the loved wife.
The Lesson Behind the Bible's Firstborn Inheritance LawsFor ever more the Torah is telling you, look at the pain and suffering that that choice caused. Look what the brothers said to their father without really being able to say it to him. At face value, all Yaakov heard was a forensic question, who does the coat belong to? But the brothers longed to say so much more, it was hidden in their words, they couldn’t bear to confront their father directly and the reader just wonders, and what if they had? What if they been able to, how much pain would have been saved if they only could have told their father instead of selling their brother?
In the end, Deuteronomy gives us an insight into the brothers thinking that we would otherwise not have access to and Deuteronomy patterns its law in such a way to make sure that that pain won’t happen again. That brothers in the future will not have to cry out to their father, and then another sale of Joseph with its dramatic, painful ramifications for all of Jewish history, will not take place again.