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Seventy Nations of the World


In the end of this week’s parasha we read about the Dor Hapalaga – the Generation of Dispersion, which resulted in humanity’s division into seventy nations. Are the seventy nations still discernable? Are there actual differences in character and mannerisms between nations? How are the different nations defined? Which areas in the world belong to them? What did Sancheriv do to those nations? How does the Migration Period that saw the fall of the Western Roman Empire reflect in halacha? Which halachos refer to different nations? Are these halachos relevant nowadays? Why did the Rambam live in Egypt despite the prohibition to reside there? Are the present-day Egyptians and the ancient Egyptians one and the same?

Family of Nations

The seventy members of Noach’s family who descended from his three sons fathered the nations and languages that fill the world. Of what importance is this division? Who are these nations today? And why is identifying them important?

World Order

The Kuzari (maa’mar 1:95) notes that the sons of Yefes inherited the lands in the northern hemisphere; the descendants of Cham inherited the southern lands, and the central lands, with their comfortable climate, went to the descendants of Shem. Comfortable weather is conductive for wisdom, and that is Shem’s mission. The Jewish nation was given the holy land because it is conducive for prophecy. The Abarbanel (Bereshis 9-10) expounds on this and points out that the very names of the continents points to this division – Asia, which is the largest of the continents was partially given to the descendants of Yefes: Persia and Madai, for example. But as the years passed, different groups migrated into Europe. Shem’s habitat is beneficial for wisdom. Cham’s habitat is rich in natural resources, gold, and diamonds. Yefes’s people are known for their height, beauty and graciousness. Just like a flower that doesn’t end with a fruit, Yefes’s beauty has no content or serves no higher purpose.


The Abarbanel (Bereshis 10) explains that human nature and temperament is also divided among Noach’s three descendants, and each is expressed in his name. Shem is his name because he a man of renown אנשי השם–  his discernment and learning is the basis for all wisdom which originated in the East – Babylonia, Assyria, India. The later empires of Persia and Greece conquered those early empires and adopted their wisdom. The Abarbanel points out two facts that result from their imported knowledge: after being conquered by Rome, Greece ceased to produce philosophers, since they were knowledgeable, not wise. Since they themselves were ignorant before conquering the eastern lands, Greek philosophers were unable to apply philosophy to reality. As a result, sciences refuse to accept anything it cannot prove. Since their wisdom was not their own, they didn’t have the inner tools with which to internalize their knowledge.

Since their wisdom is not their own, they remain dependent on Shem’s wisdom for further development. Aesthetics, on the other hand, is Yefes’s own area of expertise. They also have impressive leadership and expression.

The descendants of Cham, on the other hand, lack governmental qualities. They naturally tend towards farming and servitude, lust and physical pleasures. They work towards the short-term goal of realizing desires, here and now.

The Malbim (Divrei Hayomim I, 1-4) explains why the Torah, both in this week’s parasha and in Diveri Hayomim, provides so many details about the seventy nations. He explains that it is important for us because we must know that there are three types of people in creation. There are the servants of G-d, the descendants of Shem. There are the descendants of Cham who are only material and lack all inclination towards spirit and culture, and then there are those who take up the middle ground – at times they are attracted to the servants of G-d, and at times – to the physical. Those are the descendants of Yefes.

Rav Hirsch (Bereshis 9:27) poignantly states:

The very names of the three sons mark their character and that of the descending families of nations. שם, above all, emphasizes spiritual values (which consists mainly of recognizing facts and things and the ability to give them “names”). חם (hot) symbolizes pronounced sensuality; and in יפת lives the susceptibility for beauty. (יפת is derived from יפה, beautiful, also from פתה, …”to force one’s way into someone’s mind” ). …Cham… Their highest aims are conquest, destruction and enjoyment. They are slaves of their own sensuality and sink lower and lower to finally become “slaves of slaves” : Because they are slaves of themselves, it is easy for similar slaves of sensuality to rule them. Tyrants always enslave their people to make them blind tools of their selfish aims before subjugating them with brutal oppression…. More than any other nation, the Jewish people, looking to Shem as their ancestor, strive towards … “the G-d of Shem,” i.e. G-d as Shem knows Him, will find ever-growing recognition… Between Cham and Shem stands Yefet. Yefet has found his greatest perfection in the Greeks. With Greek culture we associate the worship of beauty. Cham finds his pleasure in brutal force, but Shem and Yefet turn away and cover the shame. “G-d will open the minds to Yefet,” i.e. Yefet will gain in influence and eventually dominate the mind of the world…. Judaism demands that men “build their huts on earth” that G-d may live in them and their lives may again partake of G-d’s Shechinah … Canaan will be conquered by Yefet and will then, together with Yefet, serve Shem. This is the road on which the G-d of history leads His men back to Gan-Eden.”

Eisav And Yishmael

The Vilna Gaon (Tikkunei Zohar) points out that the  nations of the world can be divided into two groups – thirty-five from Eisav and thirty-five – Yishmael. The division is not necessarily genetic or hereditary – it is more of a cultural affinity to the powers of these nations. The Gra notices that in the sacrifices for Succos, some of the sin offerings are seir izim (younger goat), and on others – seir (older goat). Since the seventy bulls offered on Succos atone for the seventy nations of the world, on the days the nations being atoned for are from Yishmael, their sin offering is a seir, but on the days the bulls for Eisav’s nations are offered, the sin-offering is a seir izim.

The Malbim (Divrei Hayomim I 1:38) finds connection between the three items numbered seventy in the Torah. There are seventy nations in the world as mentioned in this week’s parasha; seventy nations descending from Avraham Avinu: Yishmael and his sons — 13, B’nei Ketura – 13, Eisav and his sons — 16; Seir and his sons — 26 (Eisav married into Seir’s family and took their place). Amon and Moav are the last two nations, adding up to seventy. Yaakov and his family also numbered seventy when they went down to Egypt (the Ari explains how each is parallel to one of the seventy nations of the world).

Human nature has seventy characteristics, and every nation is noted for embodying one of those characteristics. Among the nations of the world this characteristic is embodied negatively, and in Am Yisroel they are expressed positively. While Avraham Avinu’s families use their unique characteristic positively, the other nationd embody the dark side of it.

Identifying Seventy Nations

The Midrash explains that every name mentioned in this week’s parasha fathered a family which ended up being a nation. There were fourteen nations from Yefes; thirty from Cham; twenty-six from Shem. When the father is mentioned together with his son it is because he headed one nation while his son broke away and fathered a whole new nation of his own.

The following list identifying the seventy nations is based to the following sources: Gemara (Bavli Yoma 10a; Yerushalmi Megillah 1:9); Midrash (Bereshis Raba 37:1); Josephus and Kadmonius Hayehudim; Rav Saadia Gaon (Bereshis 10); Abarbanel (Bereshis 10). Obviously, many of the nations are difficult to identify, given the changes that countries underwent during and after the Roman empire’s demise.

An added difficulty in identification is a result of the difficulty to determine if the location was true for the Generation of Dispersion, or nowadays. The Abarbanel writes that although in his opinion the descendants of Yefes received land in Eurasia, Persia, and the Caucus, most eventually migrated to Europe. Since here we are only providing a general indication, the sources are intended for those who wish to examine the issue further.

Yefes Nations

1) Gomer – Germanic tribes; 2) Magog – Gothic tribes from Scandinavia who spread to Italy, France and Spain; 3) Madai – Macedonia, or the historic Medes nation that inhabited central Iran;4) Yavan – Greece; 5) Tuval – Spain, and his descendants settled in northern Italy, France, and Britany; 6) Meschech – Moesia, including south Serbia and the republic of Macedonia, north Bulgaria, south Moldova. Some say it is a land near Armenia; 7) Tiras – Turkey, or Persia, and some say they were a cruel nation that divided between Russia and England; 8) Ashkenaz – Germanic tribes (apparently in central and southern Germany); 9) Rifat – Pelagonia in norther Turkey, on the shores of the Black sea. These people spread to Italy, Venice, and northern France; 10) Turgema – Turkish tribes. Some identify Turgema with Tangiers while others identify it with the Crimea and the ancient Kuzari kingdom; 11) Elishah – Sicily, or a part of Italy. Perhaps it is the kingdom of Alashiya which was the name of Cyprus. Others see it as Carthage; 12. Tarshish – a seaside kingdom on a Mediterranean coast. Some see it as part of Italy or one of the Mediterranean islands. Others identify it with Carthage or Spain, and some think these are the resident of Lombardi. All agree this is not the destination of ships sailing the Red Sea; 13. Kitim – central Italy, Rome, or the Island of Crete where Italians and Romans originated; 14) Dodanim – Rhodes.

Cham Nations

1) Kush – Ethiopia and perhaps parts of Sudan; 2) Mitzrayim – the country known to us today; 3) Put – Libya; 4) Canaan – Eretz Yisroel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan; 5) S’va – Yemen and southern Saudia Arabia, and small areas in Ethiopia; 6) Chavila – that lands surrounding the source of the Nile ; 7) Savta; 8) Ra’ama; 9) Savtacha; 10) Sheba – Yemen and Ethiopia (whether ancient Sheba were descendants of Cham or Yoktan is up for debate); 11) D’dan; 12) Ludim – Tunisia; 13) Anemim – Alexandria; 14) Lehavim; 15) Naftuchim; 16) Patrusim – southern Egypt; 17) Kasluchim; 18) Plishtim; 19) Kaftorim; 20) Tzidon; 21) Chet; 22) Yevusi; 23) Emori; 24) Girgashi; 25) Chivi; 26) Arki; 27) Sini; 28) Arvadi; 29) Tzamri; 30) Chamati – these are the Canaanite nations who occupied Eretz Yisroel Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Semite Nations

1) Elam – in ancient Persia; 2) Ashur – Kurdistan; 3) Arpachshad – Iraq; 4) Lud; 5) Aram – southern Syria and Damascus; 6) Utz – Turkey and Kurdistan; 7) Chul – Armenia; 8) Geter – Karaman; 9) Mesh; 10) Shelach – India; 11) Ever; 12) Peleg – somewhere in Eurasia; 13) Yoktan; 14) Elmodad; 15) Shlaf; 16) Chatzarmaves – east Yemen; 17) Yerach; 18) Hadoram; 19) Uzal – Sana’a, Yemen; 20) Dikla; 21) Oval; 22) Avima’al; 23) Sh’va – nations in Yemen or Ethiopia; 24) Ophir; 25) Chavila; 26) Yovav. Apparently, the sons of Yoktan settled in Arabia and across the Red Sea in parts of Africa.


Of Sennacherib (or Sancheriv) and the havoc he wrecked in the world the Midrash tells us (Bamidbar Raba 20:16): from the times of Noach the national borders had been fixed, and one nation did not move the other. Although there were certain military conquests, in general the world order was kept and nations remained in their lands, developed them, and occupied them. Invasions resulted in becoming vassal nations to a sovereign country, but no population movement occurred. Only the Plishtim were an extraordinary case in which a Mediterranean Island nation invaded and settled in land that was not their own, and this earned them their name – Plishtim – invaders.

When Sancheriv mixed and moved nations from one land to the other, he created a migration of nations which was prophesized by Yeshayahu (10:13): “…and I remove the boundaries of peoples, and their positions have I plundered, and I lowered many inhabitants”. No longer did nations retain their early borders or uniqueness. Now they mixed with one another.

Ethnic-Related Mitzvos and Halachos

There are several mitzvos and halachos that relate to various nations:

1) Amalek is a nation we are obligated to annihilate.

2) None of the seven Canaanite nations can be left alive in Eretz Yisroel.

3) A male convert from Amon and Moav cannot marry a Jewish woman. Rather, he is permitted only to marry a mamzeret or convert.

4) Mitzri and Edomite converts, both male and female, and their children, are forbidden to marry Jews. Rather, they can only marry mamzerim or converts. This prohibition is not transferred to their grandchildren.

Contemporary Prohibitions

Are the above prohibitions relevant nowadays? The Mishna (Yadayim 4:4; Brachos 28a) tells of Yehudah, an Ammonite convert. He asked the Chachomim if he was permitted to marry. The Sages were disputed – Rabban Gamliel maintained that Sancheriv exiled the Amonite nation, but they returned to their lands as Yirmiyahu prophesized (49:6) “And afterwards, I will return the captivity of the children of Ammon, says the Lord”. However, Rabbi Yehoshua answered that a similar prophecy of the Jewish nation was not yet realized, therefore today converts from the city of Aman (the land of Amon), or southern Jordan (the mountains of Moav) are permitted to marry Jews.

Regarding Mitzrayim, the Tosefta (Yadayim 2:18) notes that the halacha is different, because they were prophetically promised to return to their lands once forty years from Sancheriv’s exile passed. Therefore the Egyptians today are considered the original Mitzriyim.

The Shulchan Aruch (EH 4:10) rules that nowadays Edomite, Amonite, and Moavite converts are accepted. However an Egyptian convert is subject to dispute between the Rambam and the Rosh. According to the Rambam the Egyptians today are not the original Mitzriyim. Most Egyptians today are a mixture of Arabian tribes that invaded in the Arabian conquests and mixed with the local Copts.

The Pri Chadash (Mayim Chaim, Melachim 7) writes that although the prohibition to return to Egypt is still effective, since the population has changed and the Egyptians today are less wicked than their predecessors, returning to Egypt is permitted. This explains how the Rambam lived in Egypt.

Based on that understanding, the Chida (Birkei Yosef EH 4:1) questions how the Gemara (Succah 51b) attributed the punishment suffered by Alexandrian Jewry to their living in Egypt. Therefore, he explains that the reason the Rambam resided in Egypt was because had planned on leaving and only lived there temporarily. Perhaps he might have maintained that the prohibition is only on one who goes to Egypt from Eretz Yisroel, but since he had come from Morocco, his trip was not included in the prohibition. Furthermore, perhaps even in his days the Rambam know most of the population was Arabian immigrants, not the original Copts.

Italian Converts

The Yaavetz (She’elat Yaavetz 1:46) maintains that an Italian converts and children of Italian converts are prohibited from marrying Jews, and only their grandchildren can marry freely. The Yaavetz explains that while Sancheriv mixed and exiled all the nations and we no longer know who is Amoni, Moavi or Mitzri, the halacha for Edom is different. Since Chazal tell us that Rome is Edom and they destroyed the Beis Hamikdash, we know who they are, and the prohibition remains in place. (This obviously does not refer to the people of northern Italy).

Most poskim did not accept this ruling, however, and practically, in Rav Nissim Karelitz’s beis din, lineage and ethnicity are not a factor in accepting or turning away converts.

In our next article on this topic we will fill in with additional details: Who is Edom today – is it Rome tor Germany? And who is Amalek? Who can be considered Canaanite today? What is the Philistine nation, and what is their mission in the world? And how is that connected to the Palestinians in Gaza who adopted their name?


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1 Comment

  1. Much work.
    Extremely interesting.
    Thank you for making it available.

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