Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Miketz/Shabbat Hanukka 5767/ December 23, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



“Your servants were twelve brothers”


Dr. Ephraim Yitzhaki


Department of Talmud


We would like to pose several unrelated questions about Joseph and his brothers, in order to offer an interpretation which will cover several issues at once. This week’s reading describes the encounter between Joseph and his brothers after Joseph’s dreams had come to pass.  Joseph accuses his brothers of espionage – “You are spies.”   Of course they deny the accusation, emphasizing more than once that they are all the sons of the same man:

“We are all of us sons of the same man; we are honest men; your servants have never been spies!” (42:11).

And they replied, “We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan” (13).

“There were twelve of us brothers, sons by the same father” (32).

In this regard we must ask what Joseph thought to accomplish by pressuring his brothers, why they repeatedly stressed the fact of their being all “sons of the same man?” Further, what caused Joseph to finally let up his pressure on them?

Joseph is described in the Torah as a man who succeeds in whatever he puts his hand to, and who wins trust and appreciation, advancing wherever he finds himself – in Potiphar’s household, in prison, and then in Pharaoh’s court.  Such a depiction befits a special person: charismatic, exceptionally intelligent, amazingly adept at performing and impressive in appearance. [1]

As if all this were not enough, Joseph is described as being righteous, possessing lofty values, and not succumbing to the charms of Potiphar’s wife.  Note the juxtaposition of the story of Judah and Tamar with the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house.   The Torah pauses in the midst of the Joseph narrative in order to recount the story of Judah and Tamar, which serves as a foil highlighting Joseph’s righteousness:   Joseph, young and eligible, far from home, withstands the efforts at seduction by his master’s wife.   Judah, a fully mature man, in his own surroundings, is not able to withstand the temptation of the harlot on the highway.   This contrast serves to emphasize Joseph’s exemplary behavior.

How is it then conceivable that such a fine person as Joseph should have tattled to his father on the wrongs of his brothers? [2]   If his intention was to mend his brothers’ ways, why did he choose to inform on them, instead of approaching the matter sensibly and educationally?  In the end, he only achieved the opposite; the brothers added crime to sin, selling Joseph.

We have a suggestion that answers all these questions. [3]

Joseph is described at the beginning of Parashat Va-Yeshev (Gen. 37:2) as “a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah” – the first time in the Torah that Bilhah and Zilpah are mentioned as being his father’s wives.  Until now, they had always been mentioned as maidservants.  Even when the Torah listed the sons of Jacob in chapter 35:25-26, it said:  “The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid:  Dan and Naphtali.   And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid:   Gad and Asher.   These are the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.”

The difference of opinion between Joseph and his brothers can be explained as an ideological struggle.   Joseph maintained that the sons of the maids should be treated equally to the sons of the mistresses, his father’s wives.  If we be allowed a derash comment of our own, the verse “as a helper [Heb. ve-hu na’ar] to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah” can also be interpreted:   He shook them up [Heb. ni’er], he roused the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah [Heb. he’ir] to demand equal rights.

Of course the brothers who were the sons of the mistress Leah did not agree with Joseph and were not willing to give up their superiority and special privileges. [4]   This was the bad report about them that Joseph brought to their father.  In other words, he told his father that the brothers were treating the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah as the sons of maids, not as equals, and only he, Jacob, was the one to decide whether the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah should be considered as sons of servants or sons of his wives.   Jacob agreed with Joseph’s approach.  Indeed, that is how one should interpret the words, “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons” – he agreed with what he said, “for he was the child of his old age” – a wise son (according to Targum Onkelos), “and he had made him an ornamented tunic” – he gave him a mark of distinction.

Therefore it says that the brothers hated Joseph for his dreams and his talk.  For his dreams, which appeared to them to reflect haughtiness, and for his talk, regarding the equal status he thought should be given to the sons of the maids.

Selling Joseph can also be viewed as a sort of punishment the brothers meted out to him for his actions:   let one who fraternizes with servants – with the sons of the maids – himself be a slave.

After selling him, the brothers regretted their action and understood that Joseph had actually been right, and they accepted the sons of the maids as full equals.  Therefore, this week’s reading repeatedly emphasizes, “We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of a certain man.”   All the trials to which Joseph puts his brothers are designed to convince him that the brothers have indeed internalized the idea that they are the sons of the same man and therefore all equal.  When Joseph becomes convinced of their mutual loyalty he reveals himself to them and of course forgives them.


[1] Rashi on Genesis 49:22:  daughters tread on the wall – the daughters of Egypt used to climb up to gaze at his beauty.”

[2] Rashi, Genesis 37:2:  Bad reports – every thing he saw wrong in his brothers, the sons of Leah, he reported to his father.”

[3] See the article by Rabbi Prof. Joseph Ephrati, “Yosef ben ha-Zekunim u-Va’al ha-Halomot,” Shema’atin 104, pp. 5-9.

[4] Ephrati, loc. sit.  There were six sons of Leah as opposed to two sons of Rachel; if the sons of the maids were to join as sons with equal rights, then there would be six opposing six, and the sons of Leah would lose their majority position.