Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayeshev

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 sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.

Parashat Vayeshev 5759/1998

The Truth Will Tell

Dr. Abraham Elkayam

Department of Philosophy

"The chief baker saw how favorably/well [Heb. tov] he had interpreted" (Gen. 40:16). "He" refers to Joseph in the dungeon, after he had interpreted the dream of the chief cupbearer. The meaning of these words is far from clear.[1] To begin with, tov is ambiguous. It could mean favorably, for the good, i.e. that the chief baker saw that Joseph had predicted a turn for the better in the cupbearer's fortune, and this prediction was sufficient encouragement for the baker, too, to put his trust in Joseph. According to this view, the chief baker never doubted Joseph's ability to interpret the dream even before he had heard the interpretation, rather he feared the future prediction for him would be bleak and therefore did not turn to him until he had heard his favorable prediction on behalf of the cupbearer.

Tov can also be understood as "well," i.e., that he interpreted the dream properly, revealing its true meaning. Interpreting "well" means interpreting the truth. On the face of it, such a reading of the text is problematic, for how could the chief baker know that Joseph had interpreted the dream accurately and that his prediction would come to pass, when any conclusive proof of the truth of Joseph's solution was three days in the future?

We shall try to resolve this dilemma by distinguishing between various theories of truth: the correspondence theory; the coherence theory; and the performative theory, which is based on the concept of the speech act.[2] The brief discussion below focuses on the connection between the interpretation of dreams and theories of truth.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth

According to the correspondence theory, the truth of a statement[3] is judged by the relationship between it and the world, by its correspondence to the facts. The best known example of this type of theory is Aristotle's theory of truth: "To say of that which is, that it is not, or to say of that which is not, that it is, is to speak falsehood. To say of that which is, that it is, and of that which is not, that it is not, is to speak truth." (Metaphysics, 1011b).[4]

This approach is consonant with Rashi's comment on 40:5, based on Genesis Rabbah: "A Midrashic explanation [of the verse "each his own dream and each dream with its own meaning"] is that each dreamed the dream of both of them, i.e., he dreamed his own dream and the interpretation of the other's dream. This is what it means when it states (v. 16), 'And the chief baker saw that he had interpreted well.'" In other words, according to the midrash cited by Rashi, a limited prophetic spirit inspired the chief baker so that, in addition to his own dream, he also dreamed the interpretation of the chief cupbearer's dream: that in another three days Pharaoh would pardon the chief cupbearer and restore him to his office. It was this knowledge that enabled the chief baker to judge Joseph's interpretation. Since he knew the facts that lay in the future, he could assess the correspondence between them and the proposed interpretation, thus seeing that the interpretation was true.

The Coherence Theory of Truth

A completely different solution to this problem is provided by coherence theories such as Rescher's,[5] holding that a statement is true when it is part of a coherent system of statements. In other words, a statement is not examined in terms of its correspondence to the facts, or to reality, but in terms of its correspondence to other statements. An isolated statement can neither be true nor false, since being true means being consistent with other statements; hence its truth can only be established in terms of the way it relates to other statements.

Let us illustrate the difference between these two theories of truth. Suppose we wish to establish whether the statement 2+2=4 is true or false. According to the correspondence theory, we can take two apples and then another two, and count them. If we come up with 4, the statement is true. According to the coherence theory, we must examine the statement 1+1=2 and the relationship between it and the statement 2+2=4; if they are not contradictory, they are both true.

Rashbam's exegetical approach to the verse fits in with the coherence theory. He says, "The truth is self-evident." In other words, the chief baker realized the truth of Joseph's interpretation from the interpretation itself. No external evidence is needed to recognize the truth; rather, the truth itself attests to itself, of itself.

Rashbam's commentary is based on Tractate Sotah 9b: "'Delilah saw that he had confided everything to her' (Judges 16:18). How did she know? R. Hanun cited Rabbah: The truth is self-evident." R. Hanun's citation from Rabbah and, after him, Rashbam's commentary, are surprising and arouse wonderment: is the truth indeed self-evident? Does Truth have a mouth, declaring itself and indicating its veracity? If truth is self-evident, what is there in truth that makes this recognition possible? Or, put more formally, what is the criterion of truth?

According to coherence theory, the criterion of truth is that the absence of any internal contradiction in what has been said. This criterion helps us understand Rashbam better: Joseph's interpretation of the chief cup-bearer's dream had no internal logical contradictions and his words fit together well. This inner consistency is what enabled the chief baker to assess the truth of his interpretation.

The Performative Theory of Truth

A third way to understand the verse is to apply the theory of speech acts according to Austin, Searle and Strawson. According to this approach, language is an instrument for implementing acts in the world and should be judged by this criterion. Any expression that we utter causes something to happen, or expresses a certain intention, or leads to certain changes in the person to whom we are talking. For example, someone who asks a question is expressing his intention to receive information, and his aim is to cause the person addressed to supply this information.

A speech act, according to this theory, is the act of uttering a sentence with the aim of expressing an intent which the listener must acknowledge. This intent has an effect in the world. For example, when a judge convicts the accused, his verdict changes the accused into a convicted person, creating a new factual situation that did not exist prior to then. There are many sorts of speech acts, such as interrogatives, imperatives, promises, etc.[6]

For instance, according to Strawson, we use the phrase, "It is true that," as the speech act of consent.[7] In other words, such phrases do not strengthen the claim of the sentences in which they appear, but only serve to express our agreement with that which is said. If so, saying that Joseph "interpreted well" is nothing but a way for the chief baker to express his agreement with and positive assessment of Joseph's words, consent which was not possible earlier.

This approach suits Nahmanides' commentary:

Onkelos said that he interpreted it well [Heb. yafe]; also, cf. Psalms 119:66: "Teach me good sense [Heb. tuv ta'am, also 'good taste'] and knowledge"; and Genesis 6:2: "that they were beautiful [ tovot, lit. good]". The reason this is said here is that the man had scorned Joseph, thinking he would never be able to interpret it, so he would not tell him his dream; now, however, he saw that he interpreted his colleague's dream properly and well.

In other words, according to Nahmanides, at the outset the chief baker held Joseph in low regard, and only after the latter's interpretation of the dream did he express agreement and praise. Nahmanides' solution is unique in that it focuses on the speech act of the chief baker, not on its cause. The expression yafe, well, is even more ambiguous than the original word, tov, used by Scripture. It can be understood as meaning "for the good," i.e., predicting that the future will be good; as "correct," or true; as "fair," or not offending the chief cupbearer; etc. The main point of Nahmanides' commenis not the meaning of the word but its significance as an exclamation: the switch in the chief baker's attitude from disdain and contempt to admiration and agreement, as conveyed in the speech act of saying he "interpreted it well." [The Modern Hebrew exclamation "yofi!" means "well done."]


[1] Cf. N. Leibowitz, "The Truth Speaks for Itself," Studies in Bereshit- Genesis, Jerusalem 1974, pp. 423-429..

[2] Y. Cohen, Semantic Truth Theories, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 16-22.

[3] Here I am following Bar-Hillel, who claims that truth-bearers are statements and not axioms. Cf. Y. Bar-Hillel, "Ha-im Safot Tiv'iyot Mekhilot Paradoxim? ["Do natural languages contain paradoxes?'], in: Higayyon, Lashon ve-shita, Tel Aviv 1970, pp. 29-41.

[4] Maimonides' definition of the truth fits into this theory as well, see Guide for the Perplexed, 1.50: "Belief is the affirmation that what has been represented is outside the mind just as it has been represented in the mind."

[5] N. Rescher, The Coherence Theory of Truth, Oxford 1973.

[6] A. Elkayam, "Bein Referentzialism le-Bitzua: Shtei Gishot be-Havanat ha-Semel ha-Kabbali be-Sefer Ma'arekhet ha-Elohut," Da'at 24 (1990), pp. 32-40.

[7] P. F. Strawson, "Truth," Analysis 9 (1949), pp. 83-97.