Daughters of a Different Kind1
The news was heard in Paroh’s house, saying, “Yosef’s brothers have
come.” The matter was pleasing in the eyes of Paroh and in the eyes of his
The Torah gives us no hint as to why the arrival of the shevatim should have
been cause for Egyptian celebration. It is likely that Paroh’s court assumed
that Yosef’s brothers would be as intellectually gifted as he was. If so,
they would be a great asset to Egypt, just as Yosef was.
We can demonstrate that Chazal took this approach. We will endeavor to show
how and why.
A medrash applies the verse “Daughters/ banos saw her and extolled
her” to Yosef’s brothers. The Medrash points to our pasuk as the
proof-text that demonstrates that the “her” referred to is none other than
the shevatim. They are the ones extolled by these “daughters.” It is not at
all clear, however, why Paroh’s court should be termed “daughters.”
The words ben/ son and binyan/ building are related. A son is a building out
from a father. Through sons, a father builds his family. Bas/ daughter is
really a form of the same word – a shortened form of b-n-s. (The elided
“n” shows up in the plural of bas, which is banos.) A daughter also
participates in the process of building, albeit in a lesser manner. (The
function of the “s” added on to the b-n of the male is to make it ancillary
and subsidiary. The daughter’s role in building the family edifice is not
as central as that of the son, but it cannot be dispensed with.)
Tevunah/ understanding shares the same root of b-n. A wise and
understanding person is also a builder, in the sense of taking ideas that
appear unrelated to less discerning people, and joining them together into
meaningful structures. Thus, a secondary meaning of b-n is “wise one.” The
books of Mishlei and Koheles often use the word “beni” in this manner. (The
yud that follows the b-n turns it into an abstraction, i.e. not a particular
person standing opposite the speaker, but the wise person in general.)
Yechezkel uses the word “ben” similarly. He prophesies a great sword that
has been sharpened and burnished. The coming destruction of Yerushalayim
has been readied. Is there room left for any rejoicing, in the face of what
is to come upon them? He then adds, “The staff [that beats] beni scorns
every wood.” The question about rejoicing is usually taken as
rhetorical. There is indeed no room for happiness. A terrible sword of
destruction hovers, while a staff of brutal dominion hovers over the head of
beni, “my son,” the Jewish people.
If we take beni here not as “my son,” but as “wise one” we gain a completely
different understanding of his words. The reference to rejoicing is not
rhetorical at all. As the Babylonians began the process of exiling our
people with the removal of King Yehoyachin, the noblemen, officers and “the
artisans and gatekeepers…all of them mighty men, warriors” were deported as
well. Chazal tell us that these were talmidei chachamim, adept in
fighting the battles of Torah study. Years before the devastation of
Yerushalayim, Nevuchadnetzar squirreled away in Bavel a cadre of leaders of
the next generation. To be sure, this was not his intention. He harbored no
special love for Torah scholars. It is in the nature of Torah itself,
however, to protect its most accomplished students. Without any reason that
we can detect, a vanguard of the Jewish nation established roots in Bavel
prior to the arrival of the main body of the people. That group included
great talmidei chachamim whose sword of Torah proved superior to that
wielded by the Babylonian troops. Looking back at this, there is reason to
find rejoicing within the tragedy of the churban. Torah protects its own.
We’ve almost arrived at our destination. Having shown that ben can mean a
person wise in the study of Torah, we can easily see what bas connotes.
Torah is the all-important wisdom responsible for the binyan/ structure of
the universe. Lesser branches of wisdom, however, also contribute to the way
Torah imposes its pattern upon Creation. Those branches of wisdom –
essentially, all of secular knowledge – work in concert with Torah wisdom.
These branches are not banim, not sons, but banos – daughters.
These daughters make an appearance in Tehilim. “Daughters of kings honor
you. The queen stands erect at your right in the golden jewelry of
Ophir.” The gemara interprets this in regard to those who study
Torah with a fierce love, and because of it merit golden jewelry. The
“daughters” are the other branches of wisdom, usually the province of the
non-Jewish kings of the world. The Torah of those who truly toil in its
acquisition and understanding helps them in acquiring other kinds of wisdom.
The “daughter” disciplines become the property of the talmid chacham,
who uses them to better comprehend certain topics within Torah’s purview.
These daughters bring honor to the talmid chacham who masters great amounts
of wisdom. As a result, both he and the Torah he stands for are looked up
to and honored.
Yosef’s brothers were all seasoned talmidei chachamim. When they spoke, they
projected wisdom not only of Torah, but of the cognate disciplines that
would be appreciated even by others. Paroh’s advisors, accomplished in
various fields of non-Torah knowledge (making them daughters, rather than
sons), immediately sensed the gifts that the shevatim possessed. “Daughters
saw her and extolled her.”
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar and Harchev Davar, Bereishis 45:16
2. Bereishis Rabbah 90:1
3. Shir ha-Shirim 6:9
4. In Arabic, which is a closely related language, “son of” is bin, while
“daughter of” is bint.
5. Yechezkel 21:14
6. Yechezkel 21:15
7. See Rashi and Radak
8. Melachim2 24:16
9. Sifri, Devarim 321
10. Tehilim 45:10
11. Rosh Hashanah 4A
12. It is reported that secular scholars who visited the Netziv marveled at
how proficient he ways in areas of interest to them.