Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

PARASHAT VAYESHEV 5763/ November 30, 2002

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.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

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PARASHAT VAYESHEV 5763/ November 30, 2002

Pharaoh-Happy Birthday


Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg
Institute of Jewish Studies,
University College London

The sidra opens with the two dreams of Joseph, and ends with two others that Joseph interprets. His interpretation is put to the test at the feast made by Pharaoh, when the monarch invites his Chief Butler and his Chief Baker back to court. The Butler he restores to his position, but the Baker is put to death, as Joseph had predicted. What was the nature of this feast, at which Pharaoh made these momentous decisions?

The Torah says it was "on the third day, the birth-day of Pharaoh" (Ex. 40:20).
Now the two words 'birth day', or, indeed, the original 'yom huledet', today imply the anniversary of the day of birth in succeeding years. We therefore take 'birth-day' to mean the anniversary of his birth (as Redak), as in the French word for birthday, anniversaire. But no such anniversary day is indicated either here or elsewhere in the entire Bible. Rashi explains it as the day of Pharaoh's birth, using the word 'ginusia' (borrowed from Bereshit Rabba 88:6), which implies the actual day of birth, and he further compares it to Ezek. 16:4 - Beyom huledet 'otakh, which also refers to the actual day of birth. But this is hardly possible, as Pharaoh on his day of birth could never be handing out decrees of life and death! Further, what is the significance of the wording yom huledet 'et Par'oh? Does the determinative of the object, 'et, have a special significance?

I would submit that the Torah is indeed careful to call this occasion "the day of the birthing of Pharaoh". It was a ceremony at which the Pharaoh was born again as far as Egyptian protocol was concerned. This is the "Heb-Sed" festival, sometimes called the Jubilee ceremony, the festival of the renewal of the Pharaoh after a reign of many years. On the Rosetta stone, it is called "the thirty-year feast".

It appears that after a reign of twenty-five or thirty years, the ruling Pharaoh had to prove his fitness to remain in power on the throne, representing Horus, the royal god, by running four times round the courtyard of his temple, watched by the gods of Egypt. In earlier times, he may have had to run round the walls of the whole city with an onion round his neck, an obvious symbol of his fitness and fertility. In even earlier times, this may have been the opportunity to rid oneself of a weak or waning leader and replace him with one younger and more vigorous. This is underlined by the fact that the festival took place on the first day of the month after winter, the time of renewal (Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten, 1968, pp. 28-9).

A good example of a Heb-Sed courtyard is extant in the funerary complex of Zoser at Saqqara, 15km south of Cairo (as fig. 1). The courtyard measures approximately 80m. by 15m. and incorporates, at one end, a throne, where the Pharaoh would be seated after completing the circuit. This example is dated to c. 2700 BCE; it is quite possible that at later times the Pharaoh was permitted to appoint a representative to run on his behalf. Nevertheless, both the Pharaoh and his eldest son are depicted at these ceremonies wearing a very short skirt, suitable for sporting activities. The eldest son was on hand, at least in theory, to take the throne if his father failed the test.

Once the ancient test had taken place, there were festivities extending over several weeks, to celebrate the rebirth of the Pharaoh, to celebrate yom huledet 'et Par'oh. It was no doubt at such feasts that Pharaoh handed down judicial decisions concerning his courtiers - when the lucky Chief Butler was restored to his post, and the unfortunate Chief Baker relieved of his duties and his life.

These Heb-Sed ceremonies would have been planned well in advance, so it may have been clear to Joseph, when he recognised the triple aspect found in both dreams, that a decision on the fate of the officials was likely to occur at the coming festival to be held in three days' time. He will have guessed that the outcome was to be one of life or death, and he could have interpreted which it was to be from the details of the dreams: pressing grapes and handing the cup to Pharaoh signified restoration and life, while birds plucking at the loaves that never reached Pharaoh, meant the opposite.

From existing reliefs we know that many Pharaohs lived long enough to celebrate one or more Heb-Sed festivals. After the first one, the ceremony was repeated every few years for obvious reasons. It seems that Rameses II, who reigned for nearly seventy years in the thirteenth century BCE, was able to celebrate it at least thirteen times (Aldred op. cit.). On the other hand, the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten conducted his "jubilee" after only five years on the throne, in about 1370 BCE (D.B. Redford, Biblical Archaeology Review 8, 3 [1987] p. 20), defying convention in this as in many other things.

The monuments we have indicate jubilee ceremonies held by many other Pharaohs, so our suggested equation of yom huledet 'et Par'oh with the Heb-Sed festival does not help to identify which Pharaoh it was who elevated Joseph to the rank of Viceroy, but it does indicate that the Torah exhibits an intimate knowledge of royal Egyptian protocol.