Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parshah Vayeishev 5770

This weeks Parshah Vayeishev – Bereishis (Genesis) 37:1-40:23)

Question: There are two incidents in this weeks parshah that point to the anti-Semitism in Egyptian society even in the time Yosef was a slave. What are these incidents?

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Answer: The first incident of anti-Semitism is when you have Potiphar’s wife stating

Bereishis Chapter 39 14. that she called to the people of her house, and she spoke to them, saying, “Look! He brought us a Hebrew man to mock us. He came to me to lie with me, but I called loudly. יד. וַתִּקְרָא לְאַנְשֵׁי בֵיתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לֵאמֹר רְאוּ הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ בָּא אֵלַי לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי וָאֶקְרָא בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל:

Ramban remarks that this refers to the fact that the Egyptians hated the Jews (Avraham and his descendants who were called Ivrim because they ahd come from across the Jordan). She blamed the incident on Potiphar going against Egyptian tradition and appointing a Hebrew slave to run his household and into a position of trust- whereas they were only fit to be servants in the fields according to the general Egyptian society. In Parshah Miketz the fact that the Egyptians saw just eating with the Ivrim to be an abomination is explictly stated in

Chapter43 32. And they set for him separately and for them separately, and for the Egyptians who ate with him separately, because the Egyptians could not eat food with the Hebrews, because it is an abomination to the Egyptians. לב. וַיָּשִׂימוּ לוֹ לְבַדּוֹ וְלָהֶם לְבַדָּם וְלַמִּצְרִים הָאֹכְלִים אִתּוֹ לְבַדָּם כִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּן הַמִּצְרִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶת הָעִבְרִים לֶחֶם כִּי תוֹעֵבָה הִוא לְמִצְרָיִם:

The second incident is as stated by Zvi- the cupbearer forgettign about Joseph. Ramban remarks that when Tosef approached the Baker and Cupbearer he was taking his life into his hands- he was a slave in the prison, they, even in captivity, officers of the Royal Household that could order his death. As such, just his courage in speaking up- let alone giving an accurate and true account of the dream of the Royal cupbearer should have made him eminently memorable. Instead, what we had was the Royal cupbearer trying to forget the incident, the reaction of people who don’t want to acknowledge the help of someone they hate. Only when it benefits him, when he can gain prestige through the incident does he “remember” and bring Joseph and his ability to truthfully interpret dreams to the attention of Pharoah.

Thus we see that this anti-Semitism of the Egyptians was there from the start. yet according tot he Midrash, it seems that Avraham was received there with honour since it states that Hagar was a daughter of Pharoah that chose to become his servant to live in his righteous house when he was there with Sarah. What had ahppened in the interim? Perhaps we see the nascent germ of hatred without cause against Jews here. The Jews did not do anythign to the Egyptians, they probably had little to no contact, yet in a short period of time, the Egyptians had already formulated rules to ostracise them!  even Yosef, their saviour was treated like this.  he was given authority, he had saved the nation from starvation and extended its power- yet they would not eat with him.

We see the same kind of attitude in the modern world.  Many countries are only too willing to have Jewish citizens that pay taxes, add to their prosperity and work as everyone else.  Yet they are quick to jump up and attack all Jews.  If someone commits fraud, it is someone committing fraud- if a Jew commits fraud, it is because Jews are greedy and out to control the world and so on.  The world has never needed a real reason to hate Jews- any excuse would do.

The time in Egypt of the Jews demonstrates this perfectly.  The egyptians were happy to take a group they hated and despised in because they would prosper from it.  yet when they saw the Jews prospering, growing, being succesful- their hatred took the upper hand.  Did Pharoah have any reason to be suspicious of the Jews/  Did they do anything to make him think they would rebel?  No- his only justification for hating them was that they were growing numerous and prospering!  And the same pattern has applied throughout history.  Rulers woudl invite Jews to stay on their land.  Let them build and live their lives- enriching themselves through taxation on the Jews.  Then they would start borrowing money from them for purposes both bad and good.  Inevitably, not wanting to repay their loans, they would expel the jews, stealing all their property in the process.  As long as they felt they prospered more than the Jews on their land, they were happy.  let the jews start seeming to be prosperous and succeeding, and the old jealousy and hatred gets aroused.

The modern era sees a continuation if this.  Overtly, such behaviour cannot be seen.  But once you look beyond the glowing official facades the rot beneath is seen.  White power and neo-Nazi groups calling for the destruciton of the Jews because we are a “lesser” race oppressing the “superior” race  (the logic of this escapes me- if we are so inferior, then how does a group of approximately 14 million “lesser” people oppress over 2 billion “superior” people?  Clearly their IQs are as deficient as their logic!)  We have people in Islamic terror organisations, and leaders of Islamic countries calling for the destruction of Jews for daring to have the temerity to take pack what has always been ours and make it prosper.  It also manifests in other ways- we get the “good Jew”- the one that says what the haters like, that provides the politcal justification for hating all Jews, the Norman Finkelsteins and Richard Goldstones of the world.  Here we see the excuse of Pharaoh for hating Jews “lest they come to attack us”- with the court jews it is: “These jews are good- the other will come to attack us because they are bad.”

Unfortunately, this hatred is not likely to ever die, but just to evolve.  In Egypt they used the excuse that we were growing too fast.  For the Church it was that we killed Jesus; and from there to the fact that we rejected Jesus.  For the Nazis it was that we are a lesser race.  And for the moder world:  That Jews dare to thrive and propser in a tiny nation of 7 million surrounded by enemies.  Jews defending themselves id “disproportionate”.  The USA and EU using the most modern and sophisticated military hardware and tens of thousand sof troops against terrorists in Afghanistan is not.  The difference?  As before – one standard for Jews, another for the rest of the world; just an excuse to hate


December 7, 2009 - Posted by | Parshah, Torah, Weekly Question/Issue | , , , , , , , ,


  1. I have a question regarding the nations hatred against the Jew and b’nei Noach. #1. Why are they {b’nei Noach} scarcely seen in any of these important matters or affairs regarding the saftey of a Jew?

    #2. When the Torah speaks negatively about a race such as the egyptians does it take into consideration that b’nei Noach could actually be any type of race of people one of which can also be intermingled with egyptian cultures?

    If it does {and I know it does} than this problem of hatred against the Jew is not for us to be stereotyping or generalizing a group of people but those that do hate us need to be quarrenteened or singled out in order to prevent escalations of hatred against the Jew. “sorry for any mispelling”

    Comment by Avraham Isaacs | December 17, 2009 | Reply

    • First off: My apologies for taking so long to respond. An unexpected holiday away from internet access!

      1) Bnei Noach are a very tiny group, they always have been. Some raise their voices but most are silent, not because they don’t care, but out of prudence. As a very small group, they would make a wonderful target for boigots and those who hate anything different. They are seldom the target of these attacks against Jews; they are not Jewish and do not follow Jewish law beyond the Hilchos Bnei Noach. most are Zionistic and support Israel, most also support Jews and jewish institutions, but as a small group, their voice is not soft and nor do they want to make it louder by becoming too controversial and attracting the haters to themselves.
      2) When the Torah speaks negatively about a race it is speaking generally and not specifically. You find that the Torah does ascribe certain characteristics to various groups in the Torah- but at the same time it recognises that individuals within those groups can move beyond the specific characteristics of those races. Later, we find in the Mishnah and Gemorrah that it is recognised that the various groups in those days could no longer be considered to be the identical groups as had existed at the time of the Torah and the prohibition against members of certain groups from converting (or them and theior descendants not being fully Jewish until the third generation) are removed as the groups even then were no longer clearly related to thos of the Torah. Obviously this means that in the modern era we definitely cannot prejudge or rule against people based on background ethnicity/race and all are equally welcome to convert and become Jewish immediately.

      Comment by marcl1969 | January 4, 2010 | Reply

  2. “Chapter43 32. And they set for him separately and for them separately, and for the Egyptians who ate with him separately, because the Egyptians could not eat food with the Hebrews, because it is an abomination to the Egyptians.”
    I couldn’t understand that verse before reading your explanation (I hope I do now, not sure). I thought that only Jacob and his sons were “Hebrews”. So how could the Egyptians have known any Hebrews when Jacob and his family came to Egypt for the first time? How could such an attitude already be established? Do I understand you right that all decendants of Abraham are called Hebrews? (like Esau, Ishmael)

    Comment by Diana | January 17, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Diana
      There are two possible explanations as to whom the Egyptians would have seen as Ivrim:
      The first possibility: The Jews were actually far more numerous than is commonly perceived. We read that when Avraham went to war against the five kings he had four hundred soldiers with him. Now, all of his servants were converts to Judaism- and so would there families have been. So if 400 of them were men of fighting age, you can probbaly reckon on three to four times that of wives, children, men too old to fight etc meaning that in the time of Avraham the Jews would have been a couple of thousand which was a large city state by the standards of the time. Yitzchak built up Avraham’s wealth, and Ya’akov accumulated his own wealth and still had the wealth of Avraham and Yitzchak- and he converted people himself!

      The Torah doesn’t talk much of these converts as when Yisrael took his family to Egypt (the seventy people mentioned in the Torah), these converts asimilated back into the surrounding and dissapeared

      The second possibility is that the Egyptians referred to all peopel from across the Jordan as “Ivri”- where the root comes from the Hebrew “Ever”- “across”- in other words, those people who live on the other side of the Jordan river. The Rashbam gives two explanations as to why the peopel there were hated by the Egyptians: 1) The Egyptians saw them as being inferior as the Egyptians were very haughty (this is the reason given by Ramban for the speed with which Pharoah arranged for Joseph to marry a niece of Potiphar, to try and increase his acceptance to the Egyptian upper classes) and 2) the majority of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, were shepherds dealing primarily with sheep and thus involved in an occupation that was anathema to the Egyptians as it involved an animal they worshipped. Later, after the Jews took over the land, the term was refined to refer to the Jews only as is seen in the later books in the Tanakh. However, prior to that it might well have been a generic term for any of the people living in the area. The biggest argument against it seems to be that the majority of groups already had distinctive names and labels in which case the term might well have only referred to the Jews as they would not have had any other label to apply to them.

      Thus you have two possible explanations for who the Ivrim were that the Egyptians did not like. Both seem to have support in the Torah and amongst the Rishonim and I personally favour the first one over the other but keep both in mind as possibilities. (My reasoning is based on my last comment in possibility two- the other groups in the area had other distinctive labels that were commonly applied to them and thus the term Ivri would have been superfulous for them)

      Comment by marcl1969 | January 17, 2010 | Reply

      • thanks!

        Comment by Diana | January 18, 2010 | Reply

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