“Who is Osenath the wife of Joseph?”
(Updated and revised from Mikeitz 5760-1999)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is elevated to serve as מִשְׁנֶה לְמֶלֶךְ , second in authority only to king Pharaoh. Pharaoh removes his signet ring from his own hand (Genesis 41:42-43) and places it on Joseph’s. He dresses Joseph in clothes of fine linen, places a gold chain around Joseph’s neck, has Joseph ride in Royal Chariot number 2, and appoints Joseph to be the authority over all the land of Egypt.

Pharaoh also gives Joseph a new name, צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַZaph’nath Pa’neach, (Genesis 41:45), which according to some means interpreter of secrets, and gives him אָסְנַת –Osenath, the daughter of Potipherah, the Priest of On, as a wife.

According to tradition, Osenath’s father, Potipherah, is really Potiphar, Joseph’s former master. The fact that Potiphar allowed his daughter to marry Joseph serves as a vindication of Joseph in the eyes of the Egyptians, proving that the accusations made against Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, were not at all true.

But, the Potiphar that we had known until now had been a שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים , the chief butcher, or chief executioner, or in charge of the kitchens, and this Potipherah is the Priest of On. What happened? The rabbis say that after Joseph was imprisoned, Potiphar suffered devastating economic reversals, and the only way he could earn a living was by serving as a clergyman. What a comedown!

There is, however, an intriguing alternate version to the tale of Mrs. Potiphar and Osenath, which is found in Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer, chapter 38. According to Rashi  Genesis 39:1, the reason that Mrs. Potiphar was so persistent in her pursuit to seduce Joseph was because she had seen through her astrological investigations that she (Mrs. Potiphar) would be the progenitor of Joseph’s children. She could not know that it would be through her daughter Osenath, rather than herself.

The rabbis of the Midrash were apparently left terribly unsettled by the story of the rape of Dina by Shechem, which was recounted in parashat Vayishlach. Yes, it is true that Simeon and Levi avenged the rape by massacring all of the men of Shechem. But, what became of Dina?

Rashi, Genesis 46:10, citing the Genesis Rabbah, says that Simeon eventually married Dina to spare her dignity. But, another Midrash (Tractate Sofrim 21:9) relates that Dina became pregnant after the assault by Shechem, and bore a female child. Although the child’s grandfather, Jacob, tried to protect his granddaughter, the sons would not tolerate the presence of this child in their home. The sons eventually prevailed on Jacob to cast the child out of their house.

Jacob, in despair, made the child an amulet engraved with G-d’s name, to serve as a reminder that she was the daughter of Dina, the granddaughter of Jacob, and the great-granddaughter of Abraham. He attached the amulet to a chain, which he placed around the child’s neck, took her to the wilderness and placed her under a bush. The Hebrew word for bush is סנהs’neh, hence the name, Osenath. Divine providence eventually brought the child to the house of Potiphar, whose wife, being childless, raised the child as her own. Consequently, scripture refers to the girl as their daughter.

Various Midrashim, including the  Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 146, maintain that Joseph actually encountered Osenath in Potiphar’s home. But, not knowing her origins, paid no attention to her. According to the Midrash, after Mrs. Potiphar accused Joseph of attempting to violate her, Osenath came to her adoptive father on her own initiative and convinced him of Joseph’s innocence. That is perhaps why the text (Genesis 39:19) says about Potiphar, וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ , that he was very angry.

At the end of Jacob’s life, when he blesses Joseph (Genesis 49:22), Jacob says of Joseph, בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי שׁוּר . This literally means that the women “climbed the walls” to see Joseph as he passed by. According to Rashi Genesis 49:22, they did so because Joseph was so dashing and handsome. Elaborating on this, the Midrash says that as Joseph would pass in his chariot, the women would throw precious things at him from atop the wall to gain his attention. Since Osenath had nothing else, she threw her amulet. When Joseph opened the amulet, he realized that she was Jacob’s granddaughter, and married her.

This series of fascinating and complex Midrashim are an attempt to explain two issues. First, they come to vindicate Dina, who despite the horrendous tragedy that she experienced, manages to bear a child who becomes the wife of Joseph, and the progenitor of two tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Menashe. It may be a bitter consolation, but there is some sense of redemption.

Secondly, it comes to explain how Joseph, the assimilator, who married the daughter of the Priest of On, manages to raise two committed “Jewish” children, who become two of the 12 tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Menashe. The Midrash, in effect, validates the fact that Joseph must have had much help and support in raising these two special children. In fact, the mother of these two children was none other than the granddaughter of Jacob, who instilled in her children the values of Jacob.

It is no surprise then, that in Genesis 48:20, when old Jacob blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, he blesses them saying, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה , byyou shall Israel bless saying: May G-d make you as Ephraim and Menashe. With these words, Jewish parents, the world over, bless their male children every Friday night.

Why, ask the rabbis, of all the noble people of Israel, are Ephraim and Menashe selected to be the paradigms for the blessing bestowed upon male children?

Some of the commentaries explain that perhaps it is because Ephraim and Menashe were the first Jews to be reared in גלותGalut, in exile. Since most Jews throughout Jewish history would dwell in exile, Ephraim and Menashe are entirely appropriate role models for the blessing, especially since these two children, Ephraim and Menashe, reared in the fearsome galut of Egypt, remained loyal to Jewish tradition.

Says Jacob: “Bless your children that they may be like Ephraim and Menashe.” May all the male Jewish children, and female Jewish children for that matter, who grow up outside of Israel, in face of the blandishments of assimilation and in an alien culture, be like Ephraim and Menashe, and be able to resist the forces of assimilation and emerge proudly as committed Jews, committed to Jewish life and to Jewish peoplehood.

Leave it to the rabbis to bestow such a beautiful blessing on Jewish children at the conclusion of such a bitter story!

Do not think for a moment that it is a coincidence that the theme of assimilation and the battle against assimilation in the story of Joseph, is almost always read on Chanukah! It is there for a profound purpose.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Sunday night, December 22nd, 2019 and continues through Sunday night, December 29, 2019.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.