“[cham] emerged from the ark black-skinned, and all his descendants are also black forever”—the midrash says, 1980
ahh, the good ol’ “hamitic myth”. very multi-purpose, this one, capable of building bridges between jews and christians even, as not only was it the logic employed by “religious” european christians in the face of slavery as justification for barbaric acts of subjugation, it is also one of the pillars behind the subversive culture of racism and condescension that lurks within the bowels of Judaism
for the uninitiated, the “hamitic myth” or “curse of ham” is as follows: while in the ark, Gd commands that every being within refrain from marital relations with their spouse. all comply with this command with the exception of the dog, the raven, and ham. the dog and raven receive punishments, but ham, according to the most prevalent interpretations, has his skin turned black, and so all his descendants are black-skinned forever. and so that how negroes were born. alternatively, when noah and family leave the ark, noah plants a vineyard, gets plastered, and passes out, naked. ham happens to pass by and see naked passed out noah and commits acts [depending on the interpretation] ranging from doing up his dad, castrating his dad, or doing up his mom. excellent. anyhoo, when noah wakes up and gets caught up to speed, he curses canaan, ham’s son, to forever be a slave to his brothers. and that’s why it’s okay to make black ppl slaves.
are you guys all still with me? great. now pay attention. this is where things get complicated.
the problem with the hamitic myth, is that none of the sources attributed to it actually state it. the myth is supported by ambiguous talmudic statements which were translated by later medieval european commentators [most notably rashi] who no doubt looked at these sources through the lens of their society and applied racism where it was not originally intended or implied. and let’s face it: medieval europe wasn’t exactly the most “yay, black people!” place in the world.
to recap, the myth claims that the children of ham are cursed with black skin and are destined to be slaves because of the sin in the ark and the abuse of noah. which is false. ham was cursed in his skin for having relations in the ark, and only canaan was cursed to be a slave to the other brothers. the children of ham weren’t cursed in their skin, and not all the children of ham were cursed to be slaves. now on to the sources.
one of the chief and earliest sources [if not the first] is sanhedrin 108b which states:
שלשה שמשו בתיבה וכולם לקו כלב ועורב וחם כלב נקשר עורב רק חם לקה בעורו
loosely translated, the line reads “three copulated in the ark and they were all punished: the dog, and the raven, and ham. the dog [will be] tied [i.e., presumably as a pet], the raven spits [apparently this is part of the sex act for ravens], and ham was smitten in his skin.”
note there is no mention of skin color. hence, this line could mean ham was stricken with any number of ailments in his skin. my personal opinion on this is that the aforementioned “smiting” was tzaraat/leprosy based on:
1-leprosy seems to be Gd’s modus operandi for “smiting”-type punishment [see pharaoh (gen 12:17/arachin16a), moses (ex 4:6), miriam (num 12:10), gehazi (2 kings 5:27), uzziah (2 chron 26:19), et al]
2-leprosy is one of the punishments for sexual immorality (arachin 16a)
at any rate, based on this verse, there is no substantiation for the assumption that ham was turned black. which is interesting, b/c the footnote for the quote i posted at the very beginning of this piece lists sanhedrin 108b as its source. wait. what’s that you say? well look at that. apparently, the first hint of color is added to this 6th century source through an 11th century footnote by the famed author of the first comprehensive commentary on the talmud, the medieval french rabbi rashi. rashi explains “smitten in his skin” to mean: “i.e., from him descended cush (the negro) who is black-skinned.”
hmm. the plot thins. also, not sure why cush is suddenly in the ham-canaan equation, but anyway on to bereshit raba 36.
ר הונא בשם ר יוסף אמר: אתה מנעת אותי מלעשות דבר שהוא באפלה לפיכך יהיה אותו האיש כעור ומפחם
ok, so noah says to ham that since ham [going according to the opinion that ham castrated noah] prevented noah from doing what is done in the dark [i.e., the wild thing], ham’s seed is cursed to be, according to popular translations, “dark”. there’s a problem here though, since the word for dark is אפל not מפחם, and although i’ve seen several translations which render מפחם as “dark” or “dusky”, it actually means neither. מפחם is actually related to פחם, which means “charcoal”. meaning the line in bereshit raba should probably translate “your seed will be like charcoal”. having skin like “charcoal” is very different from being “dark”, “dusky” or even “negro”.
on an additional note, מפחם as used in the context of the above line does not even necessarily have to mean “dark like charcoal” as it shares the same root with שיתפחמו which means “deface” as in the example given later on in the same source:
אמר המלך גוזר אני שיתפחמו פניו
“the king declared: i decree that his effigy be defaced.”
The interpretation of מפחם relating to “deface” supports my leprosy hypothesis since leprosy can be seen as a form of “defacement” both physically and socially.
however, staying on the translation of “charcoal”, let’s jump forward to 18th century spain where me’am loez quotes the 6th century tanchuma as stating ham received five punishments, three of which are:
1-his eyes became red, 2-his lips became “thick and gross like those of a negro”, 3-the hair of his head and beard became kinky. [by the way, noticed yet how there’s no discernable link from ham’s curse of blackness to canaan’s curse of eternal slavery? or from canaan’s curse of eternal slavery rebounding back to all of ham’s children? or ham’s cursed skin being inherited by all his children? perhaps im just overlooking a source…]. anyhoo, we reach another snafu, since, again, the “source” doesn’t exactly state this:
וחם על שראה בעיניו ערות אביו נעשו עיניו אדומות, ועל שהגיד בפיו נעשו שפתותיו עקומות, ועל שחזר פניו נתחרך שער ראשו וזקנו, ועל שלא כסה הערוה הלך ערום ונמשכה לו ערלתו, לפי שכל מדותיו של הקב”ה מדה כנגד מדה
translation? ham’s eyes became red. his lips became twisted or crooked. his hair became singed. big difference between “thick and gross” and “crooked”, right? between “kinky” and “singed”? combine this whole picture of a red-eyed man with singed hair, twisted lips and skin like charcoal and we get a figure resembling someone who’s been burned, no? perhaps divine-fire style ala nadav and avihu only not killed because he was necessary in the repopulation of the Earth? at any rate, i think its pretty safe to say some creative embellishment took place over the course of the centuries.
also, rebounding canaan’s curse of slavery to all of ham’s children, rendering מפחם as “dark” or “dusky”, and extending ham’s curse to all of his line offers the following problems:
1-if we go by the interpretation that all of ham’s offspring were cursed with dark-skin forever, thereby leading to the conclusion that all dark-skinned ppl are descended from ham, the problem is that elam, asshur, mesha, ophir and sepher are descended from noah’s son shem [who is also the progenitor of abraham and thus all jewry]. according to aryeh kaplan in “the living torah“, these nations are identified with medea[persia], assyria, mecca, india, and southern arabia, respectively. all of these peoples and places range from “dusky” to “dark-skinned.” so if dark-skinned people exist only because of the curse on ham and canaan, how did these nations end up with dark skin?
2-moses’ hand turns white. as white as snow, in fact. now if he was a fair-skinned person, then this means his skin turned an unnatural shade of white, which means by extension, ham and cannan’s skin turned an unnatural shade of black. or, if he were darker-skinned and thereby so shocked at the change of his hand color that it was compared to snow, then this means he was considerably dark-skinned, which again begs the question how, if all dark people were so colored because of ham’s curse?
3-canaan was cursed. this is why eliezer was sent to find a wife for isaac from abraham’s family instead of from the canaanites they lived among, b/c there can’t be a good union btw the blessed [isaac] and the cursed [a canaanite girl]. if the curse is extended to all of cham’s offspring, this is problematic, considering that moses marries tzippora, who is later identified as a cushite, thus descended from cush, one of ham’s offspring, and therefore cursed.
do ppl still question why jocs need a voice? or need to step it up in terms of observance and participation in judaism? why we need to establish our own? there’s a whole wealth of options and interpretations that arent even being humored, let alone considered, and judaism for the past thousand years or so has for better or for worse been looked at solely through a european lens. lets get the rest of the picture out there too, shall we?
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