“What’s in a Name? Zaphenath-Paneach”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is elevated to serve as viceroy of Egypt, the second most powerful position in the land.

Pharaoh is not only enamored with Joseph and his wisdom, but also with G-d, who inspired Joseph. Pharaoh declares, Genesis 41:38, הֲנִמְצָא כָזֶה–אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱלֹקְים בּוֹ “Can there be found another man like him–a man in whom is the spirit of G-d?”

Turning to Joseph, Pharaoh announces, Genesis 41:39-40: “Since G-d has informed you of all this, there could be no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and by your command shall all my people be sustained; only by the throne shall I outrank you!”

Placing Joseph in charge of all the land of Egypt, Pharaoh removes his ring from his own hand, and places it on Joseph’s hand. He then dresses Joseph in garments of fine linen, and places a gold chain upon Joseph’s neck. He has Joseph ride through the land in the second royal chariot, and all the Egyptian people proclaim before the newly-designated viceroy: אַבְרֵךְ “Avrech.”

Declaring that Joseph shall henceforth be the ultimate power in Egypt, Pharaoh exclaims, Genesis 41:44: “I am Pharaoh, and without you no man may lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt!”

Pharaoh then renames Joseph, giving him an apparent Egyptian name, and a wife, Genesis 41:45:
וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה שֵׁם-יוֹסֵף, צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ, וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ אֶת-אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע כֹּהֵן אֹן, לְאִשָּׁה; וַיֵּצֵא יוֹסֵף, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם Pharaoh called Joseph’s name “Zaphenath-Paneach,” and gave him Osnat, the daughter of Poti-phera, chief priest of Ohn, for a wife. Thus, Joseph emerged in charge of the land of Egypt.

Joseph was only 30 years old when he stood before Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. In preparation for his new appointment as Pharaoh’s viceroy, Joseph tours through all of Egypt.

While it was necessary for Pharaoh to make certain that Joseph was properly dressed for his new, exalted position, what was the purpose of giving Joseph a new name?

It seems reasonable to conclude that Pharaoh was concerned about a Jewish man serving as the single most powerful figure, aside from Pharaoh, in the land of Egypt. It is highly likely that Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name as well as an Egyptian wife in order to make him more acceptable to the Egyptian people.

But, as always, nothing is simple in the Biblical narrative, and explanations abound regarding the renaming of Joseph.

According to both Rashi and his grandson, Rashbam, the name Zaphenath-Paneach means, “one who explains what is hidden or secret.” The Rashbam seems to suggest that the name Zaphenath-Paneach was intended to reflect Joseph’s new elevated position and his great eminence.

The Rashbam, suggests that the origin of the name Zaphenath-Paneach may be found in the root of two Hebrew words, “פע” (Pah), which means to appear or to give honor, and “נח” (Noa’ch), from the word to give pleasure. The Ha’amek Davar suggests that Pharaoh gave Joseph this name because he was dazzled by Joseph’s exalted inner strength. Joseph, who endured many years of degradation and abuse, now rose to incredible heights. Pharaoh was particularly impressed by the fact that Joseph never “lost it,” and adapted to power and authority with ease. Pharaoh quickly realized that Joseph could not have come from common slave origins, but must instead hail from an exalted background and a noble family. Pharaoh names Joseph Zaphenath-Paneach, because of Joseph’s hidden strengths, and his rare inner sense of self-esteem and calm.The Da’at Sofrim states that Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name to underscore Joseph’s greatness. Pharaoh wanted to make certain that the people would accept and revere this young man, who out of nowhere, suddenly burst on to the Egyptian scene.

The Zohar suggests that the new name was accorded to Joseph by Divine Providence. Although it was well-known throughout the ancient world that a new ruler had risen in Egypt, the new ruler was known exclusively as Zaphenath-Paneach, and not by the name, Joseph. In this manner, Joseph’s identity remained concealed from his family, so that Joseph’s early dreams could be fulfilled in accordance with the Divine plan.

In a fascinating observation, B. Yeushon cites the Yalkut David (authored by Naphatli Hertz Posner), who notes that Pharaoh changed Joseph’s name because he did not want his new second-in-command to bear a name that had an obvious Jewish ring to it. Nevertheless, Joseph never personally adopted the new Egyptian name. In fact, the name is never again mentioned, and immediately after Joseph is renamed, scripture notes (Genesis 41:46) that Joseph [not Zaphenath-Paneach] leaves Pharaoh’s presence, and passes through the entire land of Egypt.

In his erudite and useful volume, Around the Shabbat Table, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David points to the importance of names and the impact that names have on a person’s life. Rabbi Ben David notes that when Joseph began his life, Joseph’s mother, Rachel, gave him a name which embodied two important, but very different, characteristics. In Genesis 30:23-24, Rachel refers to the newborn first as

אָסַף “Asaf” meaning that “G-d has taken away my shame.” Rachel then calls the child Yosef, expressing her belief that G-d will provide her with another son. Rabbi Ben David notes that the first name, אָסַף Asaf, suggests סוף -“sof,”  a conclusion – indicating that she expects this to end her misfortune and sadness. The second name, Yosef, demonstrates her desire for another son. Thus, says Rabbi Ben David, Joseph brings an end to suffering, by supplying the Egyptians with food during the famine, and also sets the stage for Judah, who would soon rise to serve as the next leader.

Known by many names, Joseph is referred to by his brothers as, בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת the dreamer (Genesis 37:19), and in the dungeon, he is called עֶבֶד עִבְרִי a Hebrew slave, by the Egyptian butler (Genesis 41:12). Pharaoh eventually renames him Zaphenath-Paneach.

Rabbi Ben David concludes:

The many names of Joseph, reflect his process of growth and transformation. His special gift of experiencing and understanding dreams undergoes a metamorphosis; once perceived negatively as “that dreamer,” he is ultimately exalted by Pharaoh as “the revealer of the hidden.” Eventually, Jewish history (Talmud Yomah 25b) will bequeath upon Joseph the most valued of all names, Yosef HaTzaddik, Joseph the righteous one.

Yosef HaTzaddik is the name that Joseph is called throughout Jewish history.

May we all bask in the radiance and merits of the righteous Joseph, who never stopped trying to improve himself.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah begins this Wednesday night, November 27th, 2013 and continues for eight days, through Thursday evening, December 5th, 2013.

Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!