Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

The most famous story involving Joseph is probably the one about the mysterious coat that his father had given him. Although it is widely assumed to be “a coat of many colors,” this might not be so.

Joseph is one of the bible’s most famous and beloved VIPs. He was the 11th of Jacob’s 12 sons, and Rachel’s firstborn. According to the Book of Jubilees, Joseph was born on the 1 Tammuz (28 June in that year). Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers butrose to become the second-most powerful man in Egypt, next to Pharaoh. His life story connects the era of the patriarchs and the founding of the Jewish people with the era of slavery and, eventually, the exodus from Egypt.

The most famous story involving Joseph is probably the one about the mysterious coat that his father had given him. Although it is widely assumed to be “a coat of many colors,” this might not be so.

Although the Hebrew phrase ketonet passim is indeed often translated as a coat of many colors, (as per the Septuagint translation of the passage), some have suggested that the phrase may merely mean a “coat with long sleeves” or a “long coat with stripes.” Other translations include “a long robe with sleeves” and “a richly ornamented robe.” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his The Living Torah, writes:

“It was a royal garment…The word passim can be translated as ‘colorful’ (Radak), embroidered (Ibn Ezra, Bachye), striped (Radak), or with pictures (Targum Yonatan). It can also denote a long garment, coming down to the palms of the hands (Rashbam) or the feet (Lekach Tov). Alternatively, the word denotes the material out of which the coat was made, which was fine wool (Rashi) or silk (Ibn Janach). Hence, ketonet passim, may be translated as ‘a full-sleeved robe,’ ‘a coat of many colors,’ ‘a coat reaching to his feet,’ ‘an ornamented tunic,’ ‘a silk robe,’ or ‘a fine woolen cloak.”

Joseph the Dreamer

At the age of 17, Joseph had two dreams that influenced his brothers to plot his demise. In the first, Joseph and his brothers gathered bundles of grain, of which those gathered by the brothers bowed to Joseph’s bundle. In the second, the sun (father), the moon (mother) and 11 stars (brothers) bowed to Joseph himself. These dreams, implying his supremacy, angered his brothers.

Joseph’s half-brothers were jealous and plotted to kill him, with the exception of Reuben, who suggested throwing Joseph into an empty pit, although intending to rescue Joseph when the other brothers were not looking. The brothers agreed to Reuben’s idea and threw him into a pit. Soon afterwards, they saw a camel caravan carrying spices and perfumes to Egypt, and they sold Joseph to these merchants. The brothers then painted goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat and showed it to Jacob, who therefore believed Joseph to be dead.

Ultimately, Joseph was sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, later becoming Potiphar’s personal servant and subsequently his household’s superintendent. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph many times, although he always refused. Joseph would not have an affair with Potiphar’s wife because it went against all ethical, moral and religious principles that Joseph and Judaism stood for. Angered by his refusals, she made a false claim that he had tried to rape her, and as a result, Joseph was imprisoned.

According to the Midrash (rabbinic literature), Joseph should have been immediately executed for the sexual assault charge. So why was he not killed? We are told that she had accused other servants of the same crime in the past. Potiphar knew that his wife was unfaithful and that Joseph was incapable of such an act. As such, his life was spared but some form of punishment was unavoidable due to the high-profile accusation.

While in jail, Joseph found favor with the chief warden who put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners. Soon afterward, Pharaoh’s chief butler and his chief baker, both of whom had offended the Egyptian ruler, were thrown into prison. Both had dreams that were correctly interpreted by Joseph: that the butler would be reinstated but the chief baker would be hung. Joseph requested that the butler mention him to Pharaoh in order to secure his release from prison, but the butler forgot about Joseph and he remained in prison.

Remembered when Needed

Two years later, Pharaoh dreamed of seven lean cows that devoured seven fat cows and of seven withered ears of grain that devoured seven fat ears of grain. When Pharaoh’s advisers failed to interpret these dreams, the butler finally remembered Joseph and Joseph was summoned to the palace.

Joseph predicted that there would be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, and he advised the Pharaoh to store surplus grain. As everyone realized that Joseph’s interpretation was correct, Joseph was promoted to the role Governor of Egypt and was given the name Tzafnat Pane’ach. He married Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar.

In the second year of famine, Joseph’s brothers were sent to Egypt to buy food. When they came to Egypt, they stood before Joseph but did not recognize him! But Joseph did recognize them.  After “questioning” his brothers, he accused them of being spies. After they mentioned a younger brother at home, Joseph demanded that he be brought to Egypt as a demonstration of their honesty the next time they come to purchase food.

The Israelites Begin the Era in Egypt

Eventually the brothers did go back to Egypt to purchase food, where they returned to the house of Joseph and were received with hospitality. When Joseph appeared, they gave him gifts from their father. Joseph saw his younger brother Benjamin and was overcome by emotion, but did not show it. He retreated to his chambers and wept. Eventually he could no longer restrain himself and broke down in tears. He then revealed to his brothers that he was their brother, Joseph. He wept so loudly that even the Egyptian household heard it outside. The brothers were frozen and could not utter a word.

Joseph then brought them closer and relayed to them the events that had happened and told them not to fear, saying that what they had meant for evil, God had meant for good. Then he commanded them to go and bring their father and his entire household to Egypt to live in the province of Goshen, because there were five more years of famine left. Joseph supplied them with Egyptian transport wagons, new garments, silver money and 20 additional donkeys carrying provisions for the journey.

So Jacob and his entire house of 70 souls gathered up all their belongings and began their journey to Egypt. It had been over 20 years since Joseph had last seen his father. When they met, they embraced and wept. Jacob then remarked, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive.” Afterward, Joseph’s family personally met the Pharaoh of Egypt. The family was then settled in Goshen. Joseph lived to the age of 110, long enough to see his great-grandchildren.

This is the second in a series titled “Meet the Man.” For the first, click HERE. Also stay tuned for “Meet the Woman.”