Religion & Beliefs

Ham. The Other Black Meat.

See, I’d rather not jump into the heavy controversial stuff my second blog in, but parshat Noach is here, and I’m here, so….   "[Cham] emerged from the ark black-skinned, and all his descendants are also black forever" -The Midrash Says, … Read More

By / October 18, 2009

See, I’d rather not jump into the heavy controversial stuff my second blog in, but parshat Noach is here, and I’m here, so…. 

 "[Cham] emerged from the ark black-skinned, and all his descendants are also black forever" -The Midrash Says, copyright 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 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, G-d commands that every being within refrain from marital relations with their spouses.  All comply with this command with the exception of the dog, the raven, and Ham.  The dog and raven receive punishments, and Ham, according to the most prevalent interpretations, has his skin turned black, and so all his descendants are black-skinned forever.  And so that, the story goes, is 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 him, or doing up his own 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 people 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:

???? ???? ????? ????? ??? ??? ????? ??? ??? ???? ???? ?? ?? ??? ?????

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 that 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, because 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.  Onto Bereshit Raba 36.

? ???? ??? ? ???? ???: ??? ???? ???? ?????? ??? ???? ????? ????? ???? ???? ???? ???? ?????

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 ??? not ????, and although i’ve seen several translations which render ???? as "dark" or "dusky", it actually means neither.  ???? is actually related to ???, 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,  ???? 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 ??????? which means "deface" as in the example given later on in the same source: 

??? ???? ???? ??? ??????? ????

"The king declared: I decree that his effigy be defaced."

The interpretation of ???? 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 I'm just overlooking a source...]. Anyhoo, we reach another snafu, since, again, the "source" doesn’t exactly state this:

??? ?? ???? ?????? ???? ???? ???? ????? ??????, ??? ????? ???? ???? ??????? ??????, ??? ???? ???? ????? ??? ???? ?????, ??? ??? ??? ????? ??? ???? ?????? ?? ?????, ??? ??? ?????? ?? ???"? ??? ???? ???

Translation? Ham’s eyes became red. His lips became twisted or crooked. His hair became singed. Hmmm…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 it’s 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 ???? 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 people 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, [kol v'chomer for you s'micha types out there] 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, because there can’t be a good union between the blessed [Isaac] and the cursed [a Canaanite girl]. If the curse is extended to all of Ham’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 people really still question why Jews of Color  need a voice?  Or need to step it up in terms of observance and participation in Judaism?  There’s a whole wealth of options and interpretations that aren’t even being humored, let alone considered, because for better or for worse Judaism for the past thousand years or so has been looked at solely through a European lens. Let’s get the rest of the picture out there too, shall we?