The sages were not certain that the Torah listed the three sons in the correct order. Though the text speaks of Shem, Ham and Japhet, the view of the rabbis was that Shem was not the oldest but the youngest, and Japhet was the first born.
They propose this on the basis of Gen. 10:21, which they read as “Shem, the brother of Japhet the elder”.
As against this view, it could be argued that the verse really means, “Shem, the elder brother of Japhet”.
But if the rabbis are right, the reader wonders why the Torah would have listed Shem first, and the answer is clearly that Shem was the most important brother (he is known as Shem Rabba – “Shem the great one” in Sanh. 108b) and from him the Hebrews traced their descent.
Morally Shem is regarded as the best of the brothers; when No’ach was drunk and naked in his tent, Shem took the initiative in covering him (Gen. 9:23).
His reward was that the Divine Presence would dwell in the tents of Shem (Yoma 10a) and that the Jewish people would have the privilege of covering themselves with tallit and tefillin (Ex. R. 18:5).
Shem, later joined by Ever, is said to have created a bet midrash and to have established a bet din.
The rabbinic tradition is much less favourably disposed towards Ham (the “H” in his name is a chet and should be pronounced “ch”).
Ham mistreated No’ach on the occasion when his father was drunk and naked; it is said that he emasculated No’ach in order to prevent him from having any more children.
Others say that it was not Ham but his son Canaan who mutilated No’ach; perhaps Canaan was cruel and sensual like his father, who saw his son’s deed and did not rebuke him for it (Ex. R. 30:5, 36:4).
The punishment imposed upon Ham and Canaan was that their family were later taken into exile “naked and barefoot and with buttocks bare” (Isa. 20:4; cf. Gen. R. 36:8).
In their comparison between Shem and Ham the rabbis revealed their value system: for them, the best role model is devout, studious and moral, whereas the least admirable type is earthy, sensual and amoral.
Japhet, the third son (his name should be pronounced Yefet), intrigued the sages. He joined Shem in covering No’ach, and hence had a moral sense, though it was Shem who was the greater in moral courage.
His name may derive from an Aramaic root that means “to extend” a reference to the verse Yaft Elokim l’Yefet (Gen. 9:27), which could mean “May God expand Yefet”.
There is a Midrash which says that his reward was to possess deserts and fields (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 24).
Another interpretation of his name links it to the Hebrew for “fair” or “beautiful”, and hence Gen. 9:27 would mean, “May God’s word be explained in the beautiful language of Yefet,” alluding to the tradition that the Greeks, with their sense of beauty, were descended from Yefet, and the Bible was translated into Greek (Meg. 9b).
What these passages tell us about the rabbinic value system is that aesthetics and wisdom deserve to be appreciated, but piety and morality are greater.