Megillah 13

What makes a family?

One of my mentors used to say that one of the best things about converting to Judaism is that you get to choose your own Jewish family. And that’s true even more broadly: The way in which we find and choose our families can be a beautiful thing. The familial relationships we opt for, or happen into, can be just as strong as the ones we’re born into. 

Today’s page lays out several ways in which we create and join families through our own choices and actions. 

Our text grounds itself in I Chronicles 4:18: “And his [Caleb’s] Judahite wife bore Jered father of Gedor, Heber father of Soco, and Jekuthiel father of Zanoah. These were the sons of Bithiah daughter of Pharaoh, whom Mered [also known as Caleb] married.

This verse, taken from a lengthy list of genealogies, is, on its face, rather ordinary. However, the Gemara claims that several figures named in this verse — Jered and Gedor, Heber and Soco, Jekuthiel and Zanoah — all refer to Moses. The Gemara doesn’t explicitly lay out exactly how this is possible — each of those pairs, the verse tells us, are fathers and sons — but it does answer some other questions for us. 

First, why is Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah, who by all biblical accounts wasn’t Jewish, referred to as a Judahite? (The Hebrew word for Judahite, hayehudiah, could be translated as “Jewish woman.”) The Gemara answers: 

Because she repudiated idol worship, as it is written: “And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself in the river.” (Exodus 2:5) And Rabbi Yohanan said: She went down to wash and purify herself from the idols of her father’s house.

Perhaps she wasn’t quite a member of the tribe of Judah, which is also a fair translation of hayehudiah. Still, the Gemara finds a way to make Bithiah a member of the tribe, a status she creates through her own spiritual choices. Moreover, as Maimonides would write centuries later, Jews through conversion effectively become the children of our biblical ancestors and have as close a relationship with them as born Jews, making us all indistinguishable members of the Jewish family.

Second, the nature of Pharaoh’s daughter’s relationship to Moses is a little puzzling. What’s going on here exactly?

The Gemara asks: Pharaoh’s daughter bore Moses? But didn’t she merely raise him? Rather, it is telling you that with regard to anyone who raises an orphan boy or girl in his house, the verse ascribes him credit as if he gave birth to him.

For those of us who become parents through non-traditional means, there’s something beautiful and affirming about this: The children we raise are our own. We are not diminished in comparison to a biological parent. Adoptive parents are parents, period.

Finally, we return to the text of I Chronicles for a third take on parenthood and family:

The Gemara notes that the words “father of” appear three times in that same verse: “And his wife Hajehudijah bore Jered the father of Gedor, and Heber the father of Soco, and Jekuthiel the father of Zanoah.” This teaches that Moses was a father to all of the Jewish people in three respects: A father in Torah, a father in wisdom, and a father in prophecy.

Again, we’re presented with a different way of thinking about family: Our spiritual descendants are our children. Our intellectual legacy can be thought of as generating a type of parenthood. As one commentary on this page asserts, “Teachers who invest themselves in the education of their students in Torah, mitzvot, and proper behavior are also considered partners in their birth, as the students are also called ‘children.’”

So what makes a family? From today’s page, we see that family can come about through your actions, through the role you play in someone’s life, or through the legacy you leave for others. We are as much a part of our families of choice as we are our biological families. And our chosen family bonds are just as real and true as the ones into which we are born.

Read all of Megillah 13 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 25th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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