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How were the tribes permitted to marry their sisters?

by Rabbi Zalman Abraham


Library » History » Patriarchs, 12 Tribes | Subscribe | What is RSS?


It is disputable whether the 12 tribes indeed married their sisters. Genesis1 makes reference to Jacob's daughters (in the plural form), however, the verse only names one daughter - Dinah.

Rabbi Nechemiah interprets this to refer to his daughters-in-law who were Canaanite’s. According to Rabbi Nechemiah, the tribes did not have sisters (besides for Dinah).

Rabbi Yehudah, however, interprets this verse to refer to the twin sisters of each tribe whom they married. According to commentary,2 each tribe married a twin sister born to a different son of Jacob from a different mother (i.e. the sons of Leah married the daughters of Bilhah and Zilpah etc.). Although (according to Jewish law) a gentile is forbidden to marry their maternal sister, they are permitted to marry paternal sisters.3 Before the commandments were given at Mt Sinai, Jews had the same religious obligations as gentiles. The tribes kept the Torah before it was given, however, they preferred to transgress this optional prohibition (against marrying a paternal sister) to keep up the family tradition not to marry Canaanites.4

See Who were the Twelve Tribes? & Who was Cain's wife?


  • 1. 37:35 "And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him."
  • 2. See Siftei Chachamim to Rashi Genesis ibid.
  • 3. See Sanhedrin 58b.
  • 4. See Maskil L'David to Rashi ibid.


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Posted by: Benjy Simons, Sydney, NSW, Australia on Jan 03, 2007

If they didn't want to marry Canannites, they didn't have to marry each of their sister, firstly they could of at least married not thier twin sister but one of their half brother's twin sister which is ok to marry a half sibling and secondly, Joseph married an Egyption, Asneth the daughter or Potiphera Priest of Oin, hence they didn't have to marry their siblings and although we find Ya'akov married two sisters, that was because he promised to marry Rachael and hence he was stuck but here there was no promise so it escapes me why they married thier siblings and finally why weren't they counted with the 70 going down to Egypt, although Rashi says they died it seems very far fetched...could you shed some light?

Editor's Comment

1) Indeed they did marry their half sisters (from their father and a different mother) as explained in the article 2) According to Midrash, Osnath was the daughter of Joseph's sister Dinah born from the union with Shechem and raised in Potiphar's home (see Midrash Agadah Genesis 41:45). 3) Rashi mentions that they all died on the way to Egypt, he is forced to say so since Dinah is the only daughter counted in the names of the living descendents of Jacob.
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Fourth of the four Jewish matriarchs. Elder daughter of Laban, wife of Patriarch Jacob, and mother of six of the Tribes, including Levi and Judah.
The first book of the Five Books of Moses. It records the story of Creation and its aftermath, and chronicles the lives of the Patriarchs.
Daughter of Leah and Jacob. She was abducted by Shechem, but was rescued through the heroism of her brothers Shimon and Levi