Conservative Judaism/Japheth=* ELDEST ?


Rabbi learner

Scripture,when studying the surface English text of the o.t., seems to indicate that japheth was the eldest son of Noah, even though shem is listed as the first born when they are mentioned in scripture. See Gen.5:32!

If japheth is the eldest, why is shem mentioned first and japheth last? What is your rabbinical perspective on this topic?


Dear Al,

Thanks for writing. Sorry for the delay but my Rabbinic plate has been full!

You are correct in noting that there is a discrepancy in the listed order of birth.

It is "Shem, Ham, and Japheth" in Genesis 5:32 and 9:18, but in reverse order in chapter 10 when speaking of their descendents.

I assume that you have noted the differing translations in the King James and the Revised Standard. Others have noted this in that there is not unanimity of opinion as to which son the Hebrew word "hagadol" = "elder" is referring.

This has been noted in Rabbinic literature and the comment shared (Rashi - 10th century) reflects this suggestions that although Japheth may have been the eldest, Shem is mentioned first because he was most righteous, a legend that he was born circumcised and that he was the ancestor of Abraham.

However, this is far from the first of inconsistencies, contradictions and open-ended questions with which we are required to study further within our respective historical and theological perspectives.

Thanks for writing.

Rabbi Dov

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Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner


Write to me with questions about Jewish customs and law, history, philosophy and tradition for answers from a Conservative perspective or conversion. I am a graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. Having served in congregational pulpits since 1970, I now am President of the Foundation For Family Education, Inc. a non-profit educational endeavor. I established it to create new formats of hands-on programs and provide free educational downloads at In addition to general informational questions I welcome your questions about programs for social action, outreach to dual-faith families, inter-faith clergy projects, healing services, education for conversion, adult education for the congregation and the community. If you have questions about Informal and Formal Education I am ready to share my extensive experience with Youth Activities, Camping and Religious School/Hebrew High School on a congregational, community and national/international level.


I have served on the National Youth Commission for more than 25 years and serve on the Boards of the Conservative Zionist movement MERCAZ and the World Council of Synagogues. I have always dual-families and taught candidates for conversion with a great sense of fulfillment. I am very proud of 25 years on the Jewish camping staff of Camps Ramah. My greatest source of pride is my family! Ask me about them, please!:-)

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