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Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn


In a generation of moral decay, one man shines. Noah is a righteous man, perfect in his generation. From the scant biographical details reported in the verses, we know that he has three sons, but nothing is reported about his spouse, the woman behind this illustrious man.

These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation. Noach walked with God. Noach fathered three sons Shem, Cham, and Yafet. (Bereishit 6:9-10)

When Noach is informed of the impending disaster, of the lethal flood that will wash away most of humanity, he is also told that his immediate family will be saved.

And, behold, I, myself, bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh that possesses the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is on the earth shall die. But with you will I establish my covenant; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons' wives with you. Bereishit (6:17-18)

The syntax of this verse is curious: rather than stating "you and your wife, your sons and their wives," the order of the relationships seems unnatural: 'you and your sons, your wife and your son's wives. Rashi learns from this syntax that conjugal relations were prohibited on the Ark; the men and women were segregated.2

Strangely, other than the fact that Noach is instructed to separate from the mother of his children while on the Ark, there is nothing else in the text of the Torah about this woman.

This lacuna is filled in by the Oral Torah; although the Torah is silent, tradition identifies Noach's wife by name from among the genealogical information at the end of Parshat Bereishit. And this name affords us a great deal of information and insight.

Noach's wife is identified as Na'ama, daughter of Lemech and Tzillah. One might posit that tradition makes this identification in keeping with the internal logic often described as the biblical "theory of conservation of characters" 3: Later in the text, a woman named Na'ama makes a significant appearance in the narrative, and the sages always attempt to avoid spreading the onomasticon of biblical characters too thin. However, the more we delve into this woman's background and life-story, the more we understand the story of the flood, and the more it becomes apparent that the sages did not identify Noach's wife as Na'ama in an arbitrary pastiche of biblical names and characters; Noach's wife could only be Na'ama.


Rashi makes the connection between this child born to Lemech and Tzillah and the unnamed wife of Noach. Ironically, Noach's father was also named Lemech. Lest one think that this is in fact the same Lemech, we need only review the 4th chapter of Bereishit to trace the family line of Na'ama back to Cain, and the 5th chapter of Bereishit to find the family line of Noach which began with Shet. These are, in fact, distinct, independent families that merge in the union of Noach and Na'ama, who coincidently had fathers with the same name. As we shall see, their genealogies are not only quite distinct, they are qualitatively different. But in order to fully understand the significance of the union of Noach and Na'ama, we must take a step back to view the larger picture.


The death of Hevel hovers over the narrative; it is the pivotal moment, the major episode, and, perhaps the trauma in need of healing. A replacement for Hevel must be found.

It is in this context that Na'ama's family line begins – as a postscript to the tragic murder of Hevel by his brother Cain.

And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Chanoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Chanoch. (Bereishit 4:17)

Cain moves on with his life; he marries and has a child named Chanoch.4 He then builds a city, and names it after his son. Ironically, or perhaps defiantly, Cain, who is condemned to wander the earth in punishment for the murder of Hevel, is the first person to attempt to build an urban center. The name he chooses for his son and for the city he builds, Chanoch, has a connotation of "to establish."

Chanoch, in turn, has a descendent named Lemech, who starts a family in an interesting fashion; he takes not one – but two wives.

And to Chanoch was born Irad; and Irad fathered Mehuyael; and Mehuyael fathered Metushael; and Metushael fathered Lamech. And Lemech took for himself two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. (Bereishit 4:18-19)


Rashi paints the practice of taking two wives in unmistakably negative terms: this is the behavior of the generation of the flood. One wife was wed for solely utilitarian purposes: she was to bear children and work in the household. The other wife was designated for pleasure: she would be rendered infertile by means of a birth-control potion, for the sake of maintaining her figure. This "trophy wife" would dress in beautiful clothing and eat delicacies while the other wife worked.5 While this practice was not the main transgression of the generation of the flood, it is certainly among the morally reprehensible behaviors our sages regarded as the cause of the flood.6 In fact, similar practices continued to draw harsh rebuke in the words of the Prophets – and are tragically echoed in our own day and age: The Prophets Malachi and Yeshayahu saw this practice as an expression of immorality and disloyalty, and warned that God Himself would treat those who were disloyal to "the wife of their youth" in kind.

And you say, 'Why is this so?' Because God has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, yet she is your companion, and the wife of your covenant. (Malachi 2:14 7)

For the Lord has called you as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, but the wife of (your) youth, can she be rejected? says your God. (Yeshayahu 54:6 8)

These verses are expounded by the sages of the Talmud, who stressed that the bonds between a young man and his bride are sacred, in a way that no other union can equal:

R. Eliezer said: If (a man) divorces his first wife, the very Altar sheds tears, as it is written: 'And this further you do, you cover the Altar of God with tears, with weeping and with sighing, so much that He no longer regards your offerings, nor does He receive them with good will from your hand.' Further it is written: 'Yet you say, 'Why?' Because God has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and the wife of your covenant.' Samuel b. Nahman said: All things can be replaced, except the wife of one's youth, as it is written, 'And a wife of [one's] youth, can she be rejected?' (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 22a)

The Jewish ethos abhors the rejection of the first wife. This is the case not only when a man takes two wives, but also if he casts aside the first wife, the older woman who has borne his children and built her life around him and their home, in favor of a younger woman. Lemech was the first to create the impossible situation of "eating the cake and having it, too": one wife for work and one wife for play. While this is not the only incidence in Bereishit in which a man takes two wives, in no other case did the man set out to do so as a premeditated course of action. In almost every instance the arrival of the second wife is due to infertility in the first. Other than Lemech, the only person who set out a priori to take two wives was Esav.

And Esav was forty years old when he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bas'mat the daughter of Elon the Hittite. (Bereishit 26:34)

Esav reminds us of Cain in many ways, not the least of which is his penchant for violence. We have discussed elsewhere9 Esav's propensity for superficial thinking and his insatiable need to dominate and possess. It should therefore come as no surprise that the model he chose for his most intimate relationships is this morally reprehensible practice introduced by Lemech. Indeed, this must be viewed as one more in a long list of behaviors that connect Esav with Cain and his descendents.

Lemech was more than a trendsetter; his behavior represents a corruption of the morals upon which human society is based. When Lemech took two wives, he expressed a much larger, much deeper ego-centrism: 'What's in it for me? What do I gain from this relationship?'

The paradigm which existed up to this point is based upon very different principles: The first chapter of Bereishit introduces male and female with the stated purpose of procreation, while the second chapter speaks of oneness, even sexual unity, but makes no mention of procreation. Which is the "real" wife from a Torah perspective? Apparently, the answer is – "both." The merger of the two images creates the unified picture of the whole woman. To divide the roles is to objectify women based on utility; this is not the ideal to which the Torah ascribes, not the ideal toward which mankind is meant to strive. A wife, a partner, a helpmate – a soulmate – is both a mother and a lover.

Nonetheless, Lemech takes his two wives, dissecting and rebuilding the moral underpinnings of the family unit to reflect his personal greed and egocentrism. Rashi teaches that Adah was designated to be the childbearer,10 while Tzillah was chosen for her beauty.11 In fulfillment of her role, Adah bears children. First, she has a child named Yaval, a name which seems to shadow "Hevel." We are forced to consider the complexity of this situation over and over: Cain killed Hevel, and his descendents name their children, time and time again, after the "missing" brother, the brother whom their own forefather killed.

And Adah bore Yaval; he was the father of those who live in tents, and of those who have cattle. (Bereishit 4:20)

Not only is his name reminiscent of Hevel, but Yaval adopts Hevel's vocation; he becomes a man of the tents and a shepherd. Adah's second son is named Yuval, a name remarkably similar to his brother Yaval and, again, reminiscent of Hevel. He is a musician; the merger of these two sons produces a musician/shepherd, stirring for the reader images of King David.

And his brother's name was Yuval; he was the father of all who handle the harp and pipe. (Bereishit 4:21)

Lemech, fifth in the line established by Cain after his exile, seems intent on making reparations. Not only does he kill Cain, he names his children after Cain's victim, a man who never had children of his own. Lemech's children are, in some way, replacements for Hevel.

Although the names Lemech gives his children may indicate that he is attempting to replace Hevel, his modus operandi is a very Cain-like.12

And Lamech said to his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to my speech; for I have slain a man13 for wounding me, and a young man for hurting me. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold. (Bereishit 4:23-24)

Lemech is not only a descendent of Cain in terms of genealogy or genetics; his behavior indicates that he is a follower of Cain, behaviorally and perhaps philosophically. Lemech is the second person in history to commit murder; the victim is none other than the first person in history to have committed murder – Cain himself! He himself draws a parallel between them, expressing to his wives his own inner sense that his fate will parallel that of Cain.

Yet despite Lemech's best plans, Tzillah, the "trophy wife," also bears children 14: first, a son named Tuval-Cain, a name which seems to conjure up not only Hevel, but a merger with Cain. This son of Tzillah worked with metals:

And Zillah, she also bore Tuval-Cain, forger of every sharp instrument in bronze and iron... (Bereishit 4:22)

Here again, we are told of Tuval-Cain's choice of vocation. We cannot but wonder what it was that attracted Tuval-Cain to this particular line of work; was it in imitation of Cain's vocation as a farmer that Tuval-Cain produced plowshares and farming implements, or in imitation of the homicidal tendencies of Cain and his own father Lemech that he perfected the manufacture of weapons? It is not difficult to imagine either scenario, or even a third possibility: Could he have convinced others that the sharp instruments he was producing were intended for peaceful, domestic use – when in fact he fully intended to fall into step with his murderous ancestors when the opportunity presented itself?15 It seems only in passing that we are told that Tuval-Cain had a sister, Na'ama.

And Zillah, she also bore Tuval-Cain, forger of every sharp instrument in bronze and iron; and Tuval-Cain's sister was Na'ama. (Bereishit 4:22)

Na'ama was not "incidentally" the sister of Tuval-Cain. She was the final link in chain which began with Cain and is traced through Lemech, who bestowed upon his children the legacy of Hevel. This very Na'ama will facilitate the merger of the genealogical lines: a descendent of Cain, a stand-in for Hevel, she marries Noach, a descendent of Shet – himself a replacement for Hevel:

And Adam knew his wife again; and she bore a son, and called his name Shet, "For God has appointed me another seed instead of Hevel, whom Cain slew." And to Shet, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enosh; then began men to call upon the Almighty God by name. (Bereishit 4:25-26)

Noach preserves the line of Shet, the elevated son of Adam and Eve who was uniquely endowed with the breath of the divine. For better or worse, Cain's family line is also preserved, through Na'ama. Even after the great flood which purges the world of sin and restores purity and equilibrium, Na'ama carries the line of Cain into the world.16 Na'ama, the wife of Noach, survives; the line of Cain lives on.


Why must this be so? Does this line deserve preservation? Is the line of Cain redeemable? The crux of this question centers on Na'ama, and the answers offered by our sages vary: Some claim that she was a worthy mate for Noach; she, as he, was righteous.17 Others identify Na'ama as a demonic figure18 who was guilty of causing even the angels to fall.19 This tradition of "fallen angels" is associated with the enigmatic "bnei elohim" and the equally mysterious "Nefilim" who appear at the very end of Parshat Bereishit, as part of the backdrop to the generation of the flood:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them; That the sons of the powerful saw the daughters of men that they were pretty; and they took as wives all those whom they chose. There were Nefilim in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of powerful came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men of old, men of renown. Bereishit (6:1-4)

This passage seems to outline the existence of various strata of society – even strata of humanity: the sons of the powerful, the daughters of man, the even-more-obscure Nefilim. We have suggested the possibility that the 'sons of the powerful' are "prehistoric" soulless humanoids, offspring of Adam and Eve who did not possess the breath of the divine which distinguished Adam, Eve and their son Shet.20 This line, then, would include Cain; it is preserved through Na'ama.21


Is Na'ama a demon-like temptress, or a fitting spouse for the great tzaddik, the most righteous man of the generation? We should recall that Noach's wife entered the Ark with the other women, and Rashi noted that this indicates the abstinence that would be practiced on the boat. If this is Na'ama, the conclusion is startling, the contrast stark: This woman is the daughter of Tzillah, the "trophy wife" taken by Lemech solely for the purpose of hedonistic pleasure. Here she stands, as the waters begin to cover the earth, the leader of the women who have been chosen to bring about the historic reconciliation, the rebirth of creation – by means of preserving abstinence and holiness on the ark. Seen in this light, Na'ama is anything but a brazen seductress.

As the flood narrative unfolds, so many details of the story begin to take on different hues when viewed from the perspective of Na'ama's personal history: All of the creatures board the Ark in pairs, in what may now be seen as a polemic against Lemech's bigamy and the corruption and egocentricity of that entire generation. And yet, the order of the day, the way that Creation will be preserved and redeemed, is not through the sexuality of these pairs but through their abstinence. The family unit on the Ark that is entrusted with preserving all of creation will work together with common purpose, as helpmates, as soulmates. They will assist Noach in assuming the role of caretaker for all the species – the shepherd for all of creation, as it were. Only when the descendents of Cain and of Shet join together to assume the vocation left vacant by Hevel's death can humanity be redeemed. When Noach later reverts to the role of Cain – planting a vineyard and turning his back on the role of shepherd, he is humiliated and his descendents are cursed. The role of Hevel brings salvation; the role of Cain brings ignominy.

We may now view Cham's outrageous behavior as a throwback to the pre-flood generation,22 or as a reemergence of the Cain genes that Cham inherited through Na'ama. In fact, throughout the book of Bereishit, the men who use sexual conquest as a means of domination and abuse power and sexuality in a volatile mix are all descendents of Cham: Pharaoh,23 Avimelech, the men of Sodom24 are all descendants of Cham. The background of the flood, the corruption of a world in which women are objectified and valued only for their utility, coupled with violence and paved the way for destruction. It is for this reason that Rashi stresses that Lemech's behavior was prototypical of that generation. As we read the story of Cham's violation of Noach in the aftermath of the flood, as we trace this same streak of violence and sexuality from the Serpent,25 through Cain, to Cham, and through the generations of Cham's descendents, a certain fatalism seeps in. Was it really necessary to preserve the line of Cain, to keep this streak alive and send it out into the world after the flood? Once again, the answer lies with Na'ama: Here is the child of Lemech and Tzillah, the product of an unholy union born in hedonism and selfishness, heir to the dubious legacy of violence passed down from Cain. And yet, Na'ama was a righteous woman. She was a worthy mate for the son of Shet, a worthy progenitor for the new world that would arise after the flood.

In fact, Na'ama is held up as a shining example of the efficacy of Teshuva: Rav Zadok Hakohen points to Na'ama as proof that even Cain's Teshuva was real; no descendents of the stature of Na'ama and Avraham could have been possible otherwise. Teshuva is an absolute; it is always possible and always effective.26

Our failures are always attributable to others – background and social pressures, genetics and upbringing. We learn from Na'ama that despite the violent, oppressive nature of the surrounding society, despite the extremely challenging family history, despite the genetic and genealogical challenges with which we are born, we are all capable of making choices for our own lives. Although the line of the Serpent, of Cain, lives on within each of us,27 God does not despair of our capacity to rise above, to connect with the divine breath with which he has endowed each and every one of us. And if He believes in us, can we believe any less?


1. This shiur was originally delivered orally in honor of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary; I am pleased to offer it in written form in honor of their 54th anniversary. May they enjoy many more years together, in health and happiness, and nachat from their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

2. Rashi Bereishit 6:18.

3. See Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes "A Students Guide to the Talmud" especially chapters 11 and 12 page 172 ff.

4. As with many of the names is this chapter, Chanoch also appears in chapter 5; a cursory glance at the geneal logical record reveals that the two Chanochs are not related.

5. Rashi Bereishit 4:19.

6. Rashi 6:13 states that the final judgment was for theft, but admits there many other sins committed (Rashi 6:11). This behavior is therefore one of the reasons for the flood.

7. The rejected wife is used here as a metaphor.

8. This is part of the Haftara read on Parshat Noach.

9. See my Notes on Parshat Toldot and Parshat Vay'chi in Explorations (2000).

10. See Rashi Bereishit 4:19 ironically the name "Adah" has a connotation of beauty, which perhaps would have made her the candidate for pleasure.

11. See Rashi Bereishit 4:19, the name "Tzillah" means shadow.

12. See Rashi 4:1 which is based on Midrash Rabbah 22:2: R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: Three wonders were performed on that day: on that very day they were created, on that very day they cohabited, and on that very day they produced offspring. R. Joshua b. Karhah said: Only two entered the bed, and seven left it: Cain and his twin sister, Abel and his two twin sisters.

13. While the verse is inexplicit as to the identity of the victim of Lemech, tradition tells us that it is Cain, see Rashi 4:23.

14. See Daat Zekanim Baalie Hatosfot 4:19.

15. See Rashi Bereishit 4:22.

16. The Maharal in Gur Aryeh 4:19, suggests that the descendents of Cain hesitated to have children because they knew this line should be wiped out as punishment for Cain's sin.

17. Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 23:3: "And the sister of Tuval-Cain was Na'amah." R. Abba b. Kahana said: Na'amah was Noach's wife; and why was she called Na'amah? Because her deeds were pleasing (ne'imim). The Rabbis said: Na'amah was a woman of a different stamp, for the name denotes that she sang (man'emeth) to the timbrel in honor of idolatry.

18. See Zohar Vayikra 76b.

19. Both sides are quoted in the Midrash Ne'elam.

20. See my notes on last week's Parsha:

21. This does not help us understand the Nefilim, which literally means "the fallen ones." See Talmud Bavli Yoma 67b: Rashi explains that these were destructive angels, products of Na'ama's seduction. For more on these angels see Rav Reuven Margoliot, Malachei Elyon page 273ff, Zohar Bereshit 23a. Also see Rashi Talmud Bavli Yoma 67b, and Midrash Aggada (Buber) Bereishit chapter 4 which states that the angels were tempted by her beauty, but she avoided their advances.

22. See Maarechet Elokut chapter 13.

23. Bereishit 12:15.

24. Bereishit 10:19, 13:13.

25. See previous essay:

26. Pri Zadik Parshat Vayelech, Shabbat Teshuva section 8.

27. See Maarechet Elokut chapter 13.


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