A Historical Look at LIFE in ALEPPO

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By: Rabbi Adi Cohen

Just as the Torah assigns a role to the Jewish people within the framework of creation, it also assigns a role to all other nations. The Jewish people have 613 commandments to observe, while the gentile nations are obliged by seven commandments, known as the sheva mitzvot beneh Noah (“seven Noachide laws”).

Just as the Jewish people are promised reward in the next world for observing the Torah’s commands, gentiles are likewise promised reward in the next world for observing their seven commandments. They must observe the Noachide laws with the intention that they were commanded by Gd, through Moshe, in the Torah, and they are then called “tzadikeh umot ha’olam – the righteous of the nations of the world.”

Since gentiles, like Jews, have a defined role in creation, the Torah relates prophecies relevant to them, just as it presents prophecies relevant to the Jewish People. The earliest such prophecy was delivered by none other than Noah.

“A Slave Among Slaves”

The Torah tells that when Noah regained his sobriety after becoming drunk, and he learned of what his son, Ham, had done to him, he placed a curse upon Ham’s son, Canaan, while pronouncing a blessing to his two other sons, Shem and Yefet: “And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren.’ And he said, ‘Blessed be the L-rd, the Gd of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them. May Gd beautify Yefet, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them” (Beresheet 9:25-27).

These verses foresee the entire future of Noah’s descendants.

Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, was cursed with slavery: “Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren.” The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, 1809–1879) explains “a slave among slaves” to mean that Canaan would be a slave of slaves – that is, a slave to his brothers, who will also be slaves. Who were Canaan’s brothers, the other sons of Ham? The Torah states: “And the sons of Ham were Kush and Mitzrayim and Put and Canaan” (ibid. 10:6). These are the nations of Africa. It is well known that Africa has always been the source for slaves; slave traffic originated there and spread throughout the world.

The Tents of Shem & the Beauty of Yefet

Noah blessed Shem that Gd should “dwell in the tents of Shem” (ibid. 9:27) – meaning, that the Divine Presence should dwell in his “tents” and the Divine wisdom should emanate from there to the rest of the world. The “tents of Shem” are the places inhabited by Shem’s descendants, who were none other than Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, the Patriarchs of the Jewish people, who taught the entire world about monotheism. This is the fulfillment of the blessing: “And may He dwell in the tents of Shem.” (Shem’s descendants also include Esav and Ishmael, the nations that believe in Christianity and Islam, which have spread monotheism throughout the world.)

Noah said about Yefet: “May Gd beautify Yefet.” Yefet was blessed with beauty and sensitivity. The Torah later tells us that the Yefet’s descendants include Greece: “The sons of Yefet were Gomer… and Yavan (Greece). And the sons of Gomer were Ashkenaz”
(ibid. 10:2-3). Ancient Greecewas famous for its preoccupation with aesthetics, for creating an entire philosophy revolving around beauty, which included sculpture, art, and architecture. The culture of beauty is important today also to Yefet’s other descendants, such as the European countries (Ashkenaz) – showing how Noah’s prophecy to these nations was fulfilled.

Significantly, the Hebrew root y.f.t. connotes beauty. The name “Yefet” is also related to the root patah, which means “expand” (Rashi, Radak, Shorashim). Others note that the root patah is used primarily in a psychological sense, referring to the expansion and enlargement of the mind. Noah’s blessing would then mean that Yefet’s descendants would reach great intellectual accomplishments, alluding to the achievements of Greek philosophy (as explained by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch).

“The Name of Impurity”

Later in the Book of Beresheet (25:5-6), the Torah states: “Avraham gave all that he possessed to Yitzhak. And to the sons of Avraham’s concubines, Avraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from his son Yitzhak while he [Avraham] was still alive, eastward, to the land of the East.” Rashi, citing the early sages, writes that the “gift” Avraham gave these sons was “the name of impurity.” The Sifteh Hachamim (classic work on Rashi’s Torah commentary) explains that Avraham foresaw that the sons of the concubines would not guard the purity of the Names of Gd, and so he gave them “the name of impurity” – names that could activate spiritual forces even when a person is in a state of impurity.

Avraham is said to have sent these sons “eastward, to the land of the East,” which refers to the Far East. Indeed, until today, the lands of the Far East, such as China, are known as the source of mysticism. For millennia, the Chinese were isolated from Western civilization and developed, among other fields, the science of Chinese acupuncture, which only in the last century made its way to Western countries.


Noah’s words to his children had a profound impact on human history, as his three sons became the fathers of humanity after the Flood. Shem was the progenitor of the Semitic races, Ham fathered the African peoples, and Yefet was the ancestor of the Indo-European nations. If today, after millennia of history, we would try to capture in a few words the contribution of each group to humanity, there would be nothing more precise than Noah’s prophecy: “Let G-d give Yefet the sense of beauty, but may He dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be their slave.” Indeed, Yefet, the ancestor of the Greeks, developed the cult of beauty and oriented man towards a culture of aesthetics, whereas “the tents of Shem” spread great religious ideas throughout the world, and the African peoples descending from Ham were the slaves of the other races.

Rabbi Adi Cohen is the head of Maagley Yosher educational institutions
who has educated hundreds of students over the years. He has authored
Hatzala K'Halacha, Moral Dilemmas and Their Solutions, and The Handbook
of Emergency Response According to Jewish Law.

The 7 Noachide Laws

1) The prohibition against eating meat taken from a live animal.

2) The prohibition against
cursing Gd.

3) The prohibition against theft.

4) The obligation to establish courts of law.

5) The prohibition against
idol worship.

6) The prohibition against certain illicit relations.

7) The prohibition against murder.