Torah Study

Shem and Yefet – Holiness and Beauty

Yefes was Noach’s eldest son. He is mentioned in parashas Bereishis but features mainly in Noach. Yefes received the blessing of beauty as a result of his role in covering his father after he was disgraced by his son Cham. Yefes was the progenitor of the Greek nation. His sons were Gomer, Magog, Madai, Yavan, Tuval, Meshech, and Tiras.

On Chanukah we celebrate the momentous defeat of the Chashmonaim over the mighty Greek army and the subsequent miracle of the oil that lasted eight days. The war with the Greeks was far more than a standard military confrontation between two nations striving for power. It was a clash of irreconcilable outlooks. Initially, the Greeks had no desire to harm the Jewish people. They simply hoped to “enlighten” us about the superiority of Hellenism over Judaism. However, once the majority of Jews rebuffed these attempts, the Greeks became hostile and pressured us to abandon the Torah. After the Chashmonaim successfully resisted the Greeks and drove them out of Eretz Yisrael, Chazal decided to commemorate this triumph through the festival of Chanukah. Thus, every year we recall the Judaic-Hellenistic conflict of old. Though distant in time, the ideological battle of Chanukah remains highly significant to every Jew. Plumbing the depths of this conflict can teach us vital lessons.

To understand the relationship between Greece and Klal Yisrael, let us examine the Torah’s account of the progenitors of these great nations, Yefes/Yavan and Shem. In parashas Noach, the Torah tells us how Noach’s son Cham uncovered his drunken father’s nakedness. In response, Cham’s brothers, Shem and Yefes, covered their father and restored his dignity. According to Rashi, quoting the Midrash, Shem initiated this meritorious deed, and Yefes followed. Both were rewarded for their righteous actions, but Shem far more so. His descendants, Klal Yisrael, were given the mitzvah of tzitzis, while Yefes’ offspring were accorded a respectful burial. Shem’s descendants were rewarded with a new mitzvah, an opportunity for spiritual growth, whereas Yefes’ reward benefits only the body, not the soul. Why did Shem’s initiative earn him a reward so qualitatively superior to that of Yefes? The commentaries explain that Shem was not merely more eager than Yefes to cover their father. Rather, Shem and Yefes were operating on completely different levels. Shem saw the uncovering of Noach in a spiritual sense and resolved to spare his father such indignity. Yefes took a more physical approach: Noach’s body was being degraded, so Yefes covered it. Shem’s higher motivation spurred him to greater zerizus (alacrity) than Yefes’ more aesthetic assessment. Accordingly, Shem received a great spiritual reward, whereas Yefes was awarded merely a decent burial, which benefits only the body.

Immediately after this incident, Noach makes a seminal statement regarding the role of the two brothers in history: “G-d will give beauty to Yefes and dwell in the tents of Shem.” The commentaries explain that Yefes will be blessed with the most superficial kind of beauty, that which is only skin-deep. For that beauty to be utilized correctly, it must be placed in the “tents of Shem,” i.e., used to enhance spirituality. Thus, the Mishnah tells us that a Torah scroll may be written in Greek. The Gemara elaborates that doing so places the beauty of Yefes in the tents of Shem.

Why were Shem and Yefes given these blessings in particular? It seems that Yefes’ helping Shem cover their father earned him this blessing; applying his logical indignation at the ugliness of a person being physically exposed, Yefes joined his spiritually motivated brother in sparing their father embarrassment. On this basis, Noach blessed Yefes with the attainment of great heights if his logical appreciation for the beauty of a covered body remained directed toward spirituality, in conjunction with Shem.

However, the blessing applies only when Yefes strives to deepen his natural logic and appreciation of beauty with the depth of Shem. If he rejects that depth, the result will be very different. Physical beauty without spiritual depth quickly degenerates into a base physicality in which superficiality rules. This degeneration was indeed the case with the Greeks: They emphasized the natural beauty of man to the extent that they committed gross acts of indecency and immorality.

Rav Chaim Friedlander, ztzl, describes another way in which Yavan failed to utilize Noach’s blessing that he place his wisdom in the tents of Shem: This wisdom remained very superficial, having no influence on the inner greatness of its practitioners. Rav Friedlander notes that the great Greek philosopher Aristotle was once caught committing an indecent act. His students asked how he could do such a thing, blatantly contradicting his teachings. He answered, “When I did what I did, I was not Aristotle.” The rav explains that Aristotle was saying he didn’t have to practice what he preached. This is another example of how Yefes without Shem constitutes a dangerously superficial way of life. In contrast, the Torah obligates us to take a far deeper approach to wisdom and apply its lessons to our inner beings. A person who learns Torah but doesn’t internalize it is not considered a Torah scholar. Maharal writes that these differences between Yavan and Yisrael led to the fierce antagonism between the two nations. Instead of appreciating the Torah’s great depth, the Greeks were determined to destroy this rival wisdom.

Rav Zev Leff, shlita, sees in the letters of Yavan’s name a fascinating allusion to this nation’s failure to deepen its physical beauty. The yud, vav, and final nun are all straight lines, epitomizing superficiality.

We have seen that the battle of Chanukah was far more than a conflict between two warring nations. It was a clash of two ideologies: the superficiality of Yavan against the spirituality of Yisrael. We won that particular battle, but it seems that the war rages on. The Western world is greatly influenced by Greek thought, in particular its emphasis on physicality devoid of depth. One cannot walk down the street without being exposed to the Western obsession with base physicality.

This superficiality continues to threaten the spiritual integrity of Klal Yisrael. Even a Torah-observant Jew may be caught up in externals in many aspects of his life. For instance, he may attach greater importance to clothing than to character. He may feel very frum just because he dresses frum. Dress certainly merits consideration, yet one must remember that who we are on the inside is what matters most. Similarly, he may judge others by what they have rather than who they are. Likewise, a person’s avodas HaShem can be dominated by superficiality. For example, the way he appears to others when he davens may mean more to him than what’s actually in his head and heart when he speaks to HaShem. Furthermore, the Torah he learns is liable to remain superficial, never influencing his character.

Thus, we see that the scourge of Greek superficiality persists to this very day. The story of Chanukah teaches us that this ideology is a great threat to the integrity of the Torah. May we all achieve true depth in our avodas HaShem.


From the book “Beacons of Light”


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