Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yeshev 5768/ December 1, 2007

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,



Family Dynamics


Dr. Tamar Kadari


Department of Talmud, Bar Ilan University

Schechter Institute, Jerusalem


How did it happen that such hard feelings of enmity between brothers, almost leading to murder, dominated the household of our patriarch Jacob?  By studying several passages from Genesis Rabbah (Theodor- Albeck edition), we shall try to learn what, in the opinion of the rabbis, accounted for this deep-seated hatred and who bore responsibility for the degeneration of family relations.

Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic.   And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him (Gen. 37:3-4).  

The Torah does not hesitate to speak openly of Jacob’s great love for Joseph.  As we know, Joseph was the first born of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, who died at a young age.  Genesis Rabbah (84.8, p. 1010) adds, however, that Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph was motivated by two other factors:

Now Israel loved Joseph … Rabbi Judah said:  Because he was his mirror image.  Rabbi Nehemiah said:   Because all the rules of halakhah that Shem and Eber had given Jacob he passed on to him.

Father’s Favorite

The tannaim disagreed over the meaning of the expressing ben, rendered above as “a child of his old age.”   Rabbi Judah plays on the letters in the key word zekunim, reading it as ziv ikonin (=icon), i.e., his “mirror image,” that is, Joseph resembled Jacob outwardly.   Rabbi Nehemiah, in contrast, relates to the word zekunim in the sense of zaken, “elder,” denoting one who is wise and learned.  Joseph is the son to whom Jacob passed on his wisdom and teaching.

The disagreement between these two Sages extends further than the interpretation of a word; rather, it stems from an essential difference in outlook.  Rabbi Judah is of the opinion that Jacob feels especially close to Joseph because of the great similarity between them; he sees Joseph as a reflection of himself.   His preference for Joseph stems from an involuntary inner feeling.  Rabbi Nehemiah, on the other hand, is of the opinion that Jacob’s preference was a voluntary and conscious choice.  He chose Joseph to be his spiritual successor, transmitting all his religious teaching to him.  This explains the hatred of Joseph’s brothers towards him.  According to Rabbi Judah, they hated him because of the special closeness that was between him and their father.   According to Rabbi Nehemiah, they hated him because their father saw him as his spiritual heir.

Genesis Rabbah (cited above) proceeds to bring the following remarks by Resh Lakish, which view Jacob’s behavior in a critical light:

He had made him an ornamented tunicResh Lakish, quoting Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah:   A person should not treat one son differently from another, for due to the ornamented tunic [which our patriarch Jacob made for Joseph] they hated him, etc.

Resh Lakish blames Jacob, not for the special bond which the father felt for his son, but for the result of these special feelings.   In Resh Lakish’s opinion, Jacob should have concealed his feelings from the rest of the brothers.  Instead, he expressed them openly and tangibly by means of an ornamented tunic.  Resh Lakish casts his remarks in general terms since he believes this incident has an important lesson to teach every parent.

Further on in the midrash, there is another homily based on the words “an ornamented tunic” (Hebrew passim is rendered by JPS as “ornamented”):   Passim – after the troubles that befell him:  P for Potiphar, S for merchants, I for Ishmaelite, M for Midianite.      This brief but biting derasha ties the story of all Joseph’s subsequent troubles to his ornamented tunic.  Had his father not made him an ornamented tunic, his brothers would not have hated him, Joseph would not have been thrown into the pit, he would not have been sold into slavery and fallen into the hands of various merchants, and he would not have ended up in Egypt, in the home of Potiphar.

Father’s Fault

So we see that this group of homilies places the responsibility for the brothers’ hatred of Joseph on Jacob’s behavior.   Jacob thought he was doing Joseph good, showering him with love and presents, but his open favoritism towards one son over the others sealed Joseph’s fate for the worse, almost leading to his death at the hands of his brothers.  In Resh Lakish’s opinion, every parent should bear this story in mind and learn an important lesson from it.

Another group of homilies places the bulk of responsibility for the brothers’ hatred on Joseph himself.   Genesis Rabbah (84.7, p. 1008) says:

At the age of seventeen … (Gen. 37:2) – He was seventeen years old, yet Scriptures says he was a na’ar (=lad)!?  This is but to indicate that his behavior was boyish:  he would paint his eyes, dress his hair carefully, and walk with a mincing step.

Juvenile Joseph

The homily begins by drawing a contrast between the beginning of the verse (“seventeen”) and its continuation (“a lad”).  According to the plain sense of the text, there is really nothing contradictory here, but the homilist creates a contrast in order to express an idea.   In his remarks we hear criticism of Joseph’s behavior, busying himself with his external appearance.   Joseph was already of an age to be considered mature, however his behavior was that of a young boy.   This makes his brothers’ hatred of him clear.  They bore the burden of supporting the family and being in charge of their father’s flocks, while he was busy preening and taking care of his looks.

The homily relies on facts that the Torah tells us later on:  “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” (Gen. 39:6).  This description is transferred to an earlier point in the story for a reason, and the purpose is to show that Joseph’s behavior was what led to his troubles with Potiphar’s wife.   Even as youngster one could see in him the seeds of the troubles that would beset him later in life;   cultivating his looks was what led to Potiphar’s wife setting her eyes on him.

Responsibility is placed on Joseph in yet another homily.  The Torah recounts that Joseph exploited his special status with his father in order to bring him bad reports of his brothers (Gen. 37:2).  What were these bad reports?  The homily spells them out (loc. sit., pp. 1009-1010):

Joseph brought bad reports of them  Rabbi Meir said:   Your sons are suspect of eating flesh torn from a living animal.  Rabbi Judah said:  They treat the sons of the concubines contemptuously, calling them slaves.   Rabbi Simeon said:   They cast their eyes upon the local maidens.  Rabbi Judah son of R. Simon said:  For all three [complaints, Joseph was repaid in kind], “Honest scales and balances are the Lord’s” (Prov. 16:11).   The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:  You said they are suspect of eating flesh torn from a living animal – on your life, even when doing wrong [selling Joseph] they slaughter properly, as it says, “they slaughtered a kid” (Gen. 37:31).  You said they treat the sons of the concubines contemptuously, calling them slaves –[You,] “Joseph, [were] sold into slavery” (Ps. 105:17).  You said they cast their eyes upon the local maidens – I shall set the bear on you, as it says, “his master’s wife cast her eyes [on Joseph]” (Gen. 39:7).

Three different views are given about the bad reports which the Torah did not detail.   Whence are they deduced?   The Sages concluded that Joseph’s later life was a function of his earlier days.  Dipping the ornamented tunic in the blood of a kid, selling Joseph into slavery, and the attempt by Potiphar’s wife to seduce him were punishments for Joseph’s behavior when he was a youngster.   Therefore Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Simon quotes the verse from Proverbs, “Honest scales and balances are the Lord’s.”  The Holy One, blessed be He, repays every person in accordance with his or her deeds, measure for measure.  In this homily Joseph is shown in a negative light as someone who slandered his brothers and in the end was punished for that, whereas Joseph’s brothers are shown as being righteously attentive to performance of the commandments (ritual slaughter).

Who Is To Blame?

Unlike the first group of homilies, which placed the bulk of the responsibility for the brothers’ hatred and for Joseph’s troubles on Jacob, these last two homilies view Joseph as the central figure responsible for his fate.  Joseph did not behave maturely, as would have become a person of his age, and lied to his father when he presented his brothers as people who were not attentive to performing the commandments.

Another objective of these homilies, aside from placing responsibility on Joseph, is to show the educational process that Joseph went through in his life.   All that befell him was a direct result of his actions.  The pack of troubles that Joseph was destined to suffer was designed to teach him a lesson in human behavior and interpersonal relations.   Only after going through this educational process could Joseph reencounter his brothers and again be part of the family.

As we have seen, in describing Jacob and his sons, the rabbis of the midrash sought to learn from the past and to shed light on the present; the responsibility born both by parents and by children in creating a positive and healthy environment within the family.