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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Va’eira
Shabbat Mevarchim Shevat
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The Torah portion of Va’eira tells us the lineage of Moshe and his family. Moshe’s father Amram was the son of Kehat, who was the second son of Levi, while Moshe’s mother was the daughter of Levi, i.e., the sister of Kehat, as the verse says (Numbers 26:59), “The name of Amram’s wife was Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt.” This means that Amram married his aunt as the verse says (Exodus 6:20), “Amram took Yocheved, his aunt, as his wife, and she bore him Aaron and Moshe… “
May a Noahide Marry an Aunt?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 58a) records two opinions as to whether or not a Noahide may marry his aunt. The final halacha is that it is permissible (Rambam, Laws of Ishut 9:5). But in order to explain the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer that it is forbidden, the Talmud says that Yocheved and Kehat were paternal siblings rather than maternal siblings,[1] and according to Noahide laws the rules of incest apply only to one’s maternal relatives. As Avraham Avinu said to Pharaoh (Gen. 20:12), “Indeed, she is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” As such, all would agree that according to Noahide laws, Amram was allowed to marry Yocheved.
Yocheved’s Mother’s Name
The Da’at Zekeinim says that the name of Yocheved’s mother was “Otah” as the abovementioned verse says (Numbers 26:59) ושֵׁם אֵשֶׁת עַמְרָ֗ם יוֹכֶבֶד בַּת לֵוִ֔י אֲשֶׁר יָֽלְדָה אֹתָהּ לְלֵוי בְּמִצְרָיִם. This can be translated (on a non-literal level) to mean, “The name of Amram’s wife was Yocheved, daughter of Levi, whom Otah had borne to Levi in Egypt.”
Did Amram Observe the Mitzvot?
Many commentaries question why the righteous Amram, leader of his generation, would marry his aunt which is forbidden according to the Torah. True, the Torah was not yet given, and observing the mitzvot was not yet mandatory. We know, however, that Avraham kept the entire Torah as it says (Gen. 26:5), “Because Abraham listened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions.” Avraham also commanded his children to do the same as it says (ibid 18:19), “For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the L-rd to perform righteousness and justice…” It is therefore likely that the righteous people of the generation observed the mitzvot as well. (See Ramban on Gen 26:5.)
In addition, the Rambam writes (Laws of Kings 9:1) that Amram was commanded to observe additional mitzvot while in Egypt beyond what the patriarchs were commanded to observe. The commentaries point to the fact that Amram divorced Yocheved in a halachic manner rather than ending the marriage simply by moving into separate houses when they didn’t want to have children because of the decree of Pharaoh. (See footnote 3 as to why they got divorced at all. The point is that they did so as dictated by Jewish rather than Noahide laws.) In addition, when they remarried, they did so with a Chuppah (see Sotah 12a). These rituals are part of the Torah and not necessary for Noahides as the Rambam writes (Laws of Ishut 1:1), “Before the Torah was given, when a man would meet a woman in the marketplace and he and she decided to marry, he would bring her home, conduct relations in private and thus make her his wife.” Amram and Yocheved’s observing the marriage rituals points to the fact that they were commanded to do so (Responsa of Mekom Shmuel by Rabbi Shmuel ben Elkana of Altona, Responsa 23).[2]
So if Amram was commanded to observe the mitzvot of marriage and divorce, it is likely that his son Moshe was born with the holiness of a Jewish marriage in keeping with the laws of such a marriage (Kli Chemda, Va’eira 2). As such, we must understand how Amram married his aunt which is forbidden by the Torah, as it says (Levit. 18:12), “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is the close relative of your father” and as it says, “A man who lies with his aunt, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they shall bear their transgression; they shall die childless.”[3] (See above that Yocheved was Kehat’s paternal sister.)
Remarrying One’s Divorcee
A second question about the marriage can be asked based on the opinion of the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel. The Targum Yonatan (on Numbers 11:26) writes that during the time that Amram and Yocheved were divorced,[4] Yocheved married Elitzafan ben Parnach and mothered two sons named Eldad and Meidad.[5] These were the men who later were left out of the Sanhedrin and prophesied that Moshe would pass away in the desert. (See Numbers ibid with Rashi.)
The Torah forbids remarrying one’s ex-wife if she married someone else in the interim (see Deut. 24:4). If one goes according to the Targum Yonatan, how could Amram and Yocheved remarry then (see Rashi on Exodus 2:1)?
There are several approaches to answer these two questions:
No Mitzvot Outside of Israel
The Ramban (Gen 26:5) writes [based on this and other questions] that the patriarchs observed the mitzvot only in the land of Israel. This land is the place where it is most appropriate to observe mitzvot as the Sifri (Devarim 43) writes, “Even in exile the Jewish people should observe the mitzvot so that they will be accustomed to observing them when they return.” This indicates that the mitzvot were mainly given for observance in the Holy Land.
This is why Yaakov married two sisters–because he was outside of Israel at the time. When he returned to the land of Israel, one of them, unfortunately, passed away. (See Ramban on Levit. 18:25).[6] This would also explain why Amram was allowed to marry his aunt Yocheved as well as to remarry her despite her having married someone else during the time they were divorced.
Marriage is an Exception
The Maharal of Prague writes (in Gur Aryeh on Gen. 46:10) that it is possible that there was an oral tradition from Avraham Avinu that the Torah laws of forbidden unions did not apply before the giving of Torah (even to the patriarchs and righteous people). The reason for this is that the mitzvah of having children is a great mitzvah, and it is sometimes difficult for a person to find the appropriate match. If in those days one felt that the appropriate match was with a relative, that consideration overrode the concept of observing the Torah which was not yet obligatory. Certainly, Yocheved was the perfect match for Amram as this union brought about the great shepherds of Israel – Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. This also explains why Yaakov married Rachel after he had already married Leah as she was the appropriate match for him.
Only Positive Mitzvot
The Maharal also suggests that before the giving of the Torah, it was only considered praiseworthy to observe the positive commandments but there was no point in observing the negative commandments. The reason for the difference is that the positive mitzvot are the will of G-d and it is appropriate to fulfill them even if one isn’t commanded to do so. Indeed, the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) relates that one who isn’t obligated to fulfill mitzvot and does so anyway receives a reward. This is the reason that women try to fulfill positive time-bound mitzvoth (such as shofar and lulav) although they are not obligated to do so.
Regarding negative commandments, however, the Maharal writes, there is never a reward for refraining from them unless one was tempted to sin and overcame it. In that case, the person deserves reward for overcoming his struggle. Otherwise, one doesn’t get a reward as one didn’t actually do anything.[7] So there is no point to observe negative commandments if one was not commanded to do so. For this reason, women are not particular to not shave their peyot, for it is a negative commandment which isn’t incumbent on them, and there is no reason for them to fulfill it.
Based on this, we can explain why Amram married his aunt and then remarried her even though she had married someone else in the interim. Since these are “only” negative commandments, there was no need to observe them, whereas he observed the commandments of marriage and divorce since they are positive commandments (Pardes Yosef in the name of his son).
Didn’t Observe
Some say (Mekom Shmuel, ibid) simply that Amram, as opposed to the patriarchs, didn’t observe the mitzvot which were not yet mandatory. The only reason he got married and divorced in a Halachic manner is because he was instructed to do so by G-d. This instruction did not include the laws against forbidden relatives.
Instructed by G-d Himself
The Zohar (Parshat Sehmot 11b) says that G-d Himself instructed Amram (via a Heavenly voice called a bat kol) to marry Yocheved as the time had (nearly) come for the Jews to be redeemed, and this union would bring about the birth of the person who would redeem them.
Along a similar vein, Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshitz suggests (Ya’arot Devash vol. 2:9) that it was Yaakov Avinu, who was a prophet, who instructed Amram before he passed away, based on Divine communication, to marry Yocheved. One must listen to a prophet’s instruction even if it abrogates (temporarily) the Torah’s laws.
Maternal Power
The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out (Parshat Va’eira 5731 cited in HaMa’or ShebaTorah) that it is unusual for the Torah to give the names of people’s mothers (with the exception of kings). In this Torah portion, however, the Torah gives the names of the mothers of Moshe, Eliezer and Pinchas. (Eliezer’s mother was Elisheva bat Aminadav (Exodus 6:23), and Pinchas’ was a daughter of Putiel (ibid verse 25.)
The reason for this is that Moshe taught us the entire Torah, and so it is important to know about his mother since mothers have a tremendous influence on a person’s life. As far as Eliezer and Pinchas, they both filled in for Moshe and taught Torah to the Jewish people when Moshe forgot to do so. Specifically, Eliezer taught the laws of kashering vessels (Numbers 31:21-24), and Pinchas taught us the law that a zealous person may kill a person having relations with an Aramean woman (see ibid 26:6-9 and Rashi there).
All three of these women were righteous and from righteous families, and the effort they put into raising their children helped them grow up as the great tzadikim and leaders that they were.
Learn Torah from Every Man
Rabbi Klonymus Kalman Epstein of Krakow (a student of the Chozeh of Lublin) writes (Ma’or VaShemesh parshat Va’eira) that we can learn an important lesson from the fact that Amram married his aunt. One of the reasons the Torah forbids marrying an aunt is that a husband is supposed to be the Mashpia (spiritual teacher) of his wife who is supposed to be his Mekabel (recipient of that teaching). It is therefore appropriate for a man to marry his niece who is generationally below him but inappropriate to marry one’s aunt who is on a higher generational level.
Although usually the teacher is on a higher level than the student, when it comes to Torah study, sometimes the student is on a higher level than the teacher. In fact, the hallmark of humility, which is essential to Torah study, is to learn from a person who is on a lower level than oneself. (See Tehillim 119:99 and Avot 4:1.)  The marriage of Amram and Yocheved which produced Moshe, the giver of the Torah, was chosen to teach us this lesson. Since the husband/teacher (Amram) was lower generationally than his wife/student (Yocheved), we are taught that regarding Torah study, one should be willing to learn from one who is on a lower level than oneself.
May We Merit to Learn Torah from All who Can Teach Us!
[1] The Midrash Lekach Tov on the verse in Parshat Va’eira echoes this and says that Levi had two wives. One was the mother of Gershon, Kehat, and Merari, and the other of Yocheved.
[2] The Mekom Shmuel also writes that the point of their divorcing rather than simply separating was so that those who had not yet had children would be able to marry their divorcees. They did this in order that the Jewish people not become extinct. He thus proves that they observed extra mitzvoth since they observed the mitzvah of procreation. The Chida (in Responsa Chayim Sha’al, vol. 1:95) questions this since, at that time, Noahides were also commanded to procreate. See also Kli Chemda on Parshat Ve’eira, 2.
[3] But see the Da’at Zekeinim on Exodus 6:20 who writes that the reason the Torah doesn’t explicitly say that the punishment for a relationship with one’s aunt is Karet (the soul is cut off) is out of honor for Moshe who was born from such a relationship.
[5] But see the Da’at Zekeinim on Numbers 11:27 who is of the opinion that Eldad and Meidad were the children of Amram and his second wife. He writes that, after the Torah was given, Amram divorced Yocheved since by Torah law one may not marry their aunt. He then remarried and fathered Eldad and Meidad. The name Eldad means “to the aunt” (doda mean aunt in Hebrew) while Meidad means “from the aunt.” These names allude to the fact that these children came as a result of Amaram breaking up with his aunt. As proof for this, The Da’at Zekeinim cites a book by Rabbi Amram which quotes Rabbi Hillel who writes that he saw the tombs of Eldad and Meidad in Israel and the inscription read “Eldad and Meidad – brothers of Ahron from the father’s side but not from the mother’s side.”
(This interpretation is difficult as, if they were born after the giving of the Tora,h they would have been mere babies at the time of the Eldad and Meidad prophecies. A.C.)
[6] The Maharsha (on Yoma 28a) writes that although Yaakov planned to return to Israel when he married the two sisters, he felt that since he when married them it was a permissible union he should be allowed to remain married to them even afterwards.
[7] But see Kli Chemdah on Gen. ibid that the matter of receiving reward for not transgressing a negative commandment is a subject of dispute. See Ramabam’s commentary on the Mishna, Avot 2:1 and Rabbeinu Yonah in Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:9.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach and a Chodesh Tov!

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