A storm of discussion is generated by Ya’akov’s missing daughters in this week’s parsha. While the subject is already broached where we read that Ya’akov’s sons and daughters tried to comfort him about Yosef’s disappearance (Vayeshev, 37:35), it becomes really interesting when we get to the count of the seventy souls that end up in Egypt.
If we go with Rashi’s comments in the earlier section, the questions on this parsha basically go away – the daughters are either daughters-in-law or unmentioned twin sisters that are married by their brothers. Most commentators, however, reject either of these answers – the first as lacking parallels (with the possible exception of Ruth’s references to her daughters-in-law as her daughters), and the second as being something of too much importance for the Torah not to mention.
There is however an even easier option in Vayeshev – one first suggested by Ibn Ezra. And that is that daughters can include granddaughters. The notion of parentage extending to grandparents and even further back is something we often see in Tanakh. Since we know of one daughter (Deena) and one granddaughter (Serach), we are able to identify the two of them as Ya’akov’s daughters. However Ibn Ezra and those who follow him run into trouble when they get to a second mention (46:7, and also a third mention in 46:15) of Ya’akov’s daughters. Here the verse speaks about his daughters and his granddaughters. Ibn Ezra characteristically sticks to his guns and decides that Leah had servants that grew up with her, and they were considered like daughters. Alternatively, Rabbenu Bachya says that the plural in such a case sometimes also means one, and gives the example in the same section of Chusim being called the sons of Dan (46:23). It is presumably because Rashi did not want to suggest either of these answers that he chose approaches which originally sounded more outlandish.
But there is still a third approach, one that does not seem to be taken by anyone before the moderns. Independently of each other, both Netziv and Shadal (the latter citing one of his contemporaries) suggest that there were other unnamed daughters besides Deena (and similarly unnamed granddaughters besides Serach), but they were not counted as part of the seventy. The Torah does not always tell us everything that happened in the lives of its characters. Nor are most daughters in the early geneologies mentioned by name. It is true that Deena’s birth is recorded, but that may be because she ended up being an important character in the story, or because her birth came at a critical point in the saga of Rachel and Leah. But if Yaakov had other daughters whose lives were no more eventful than say Asher or Gad, the Biblical default is that they would not be mentioned.
From the simple reading of the text, the latter approach seems to be the most satisfying. But if so, what prevented the earlier commentaries from coming up with it? It doesn’t seem to require any modern assumptions or knowledge and should have been accessible to them as well.
I am aware that there could be many reasons why the earlier commentators did not think of such an approach, including simply that they did not think of it. Yet perhaps the notion that Ya’akov would have children that would be treated anonymously was simply not an option for them (except for the one of Rash’s approaches, though even that is mitigated by the concept that a husband and wife are considered like one person). Ultimately, it is a question of what it means to be a Ya’akov and what it means to be his child. It could be that for these commentators, Ya’akov and his family were such towering giants that their very existence is worth reporting.
But why was this something that depends on when a commentator lived in history? We sometimes speak about the elusive concept of yeridat hadorot – the decline of the generations over time. Why should there be such a thing, especially when the later in time a generation, the more they are able to know from the past.
Perhaps the answer is that knowing about the past is not the same as experiencing it. In other words, to have known Ya’akov’s sons is not the same as to have known him. And to know his grandsons is to get an even paler idea. And this is something that has continued downward since the existence of the greatest heroes of our people. Hence the earlier commentators may well have still shuddered in awe when they thought of Ya’akov’s daughters – how could it be that they would exist and that we would not know about them? While this does not mean that we moderns cannot have a better understanding of the text than our ancestors, it does mean that we will never have a better understanding of its characters.