“Joseph in Prison: The Commentators Fill in the Details”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

It’s hard to believe that the story of Joseph and his brethren could become any more exciting. It seems as if each verse of this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, raises the level of excitement to new heights. On top of the spellbinding storyline of the biblical narrative itself, the commentators have a field day, constantly adding fascinating details and scintillating features to an already memorable story.

Joseph has been sold as a slave to Egypt. While working in Potiphar’s house, he is accused of attacking Mrs. Potiphar.

In Genesis 39:20, we read, “Va’yee’kach adonay Yosef oto, v’yit’nay’hoo el bayt ha’so’har, makom asher a’see’ray ha’melech ah’sooreem, vah’y’hee sham b’vayt ha’so’har,” Then Joseph’s master [Potiphar] took him and placed him in the prison–the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. And he remained there, in prison.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, in his Sefer Ha’parshiyot, utilizes a vast array of Midrashic references to elaborate brilliantly upon the details of Joseph’s imprisonment. After Potiphar hears the report of the attempted rape of his wife at the hands of Joseph, Potiphar wants Joseph killed. Mrs. Potiphar, who is still obsessed with Joseph, prevails on her husband to spare the Hebrew servant, arguing that, after all, Joseph’s administrative skills and business acumen are indispensable. “Throw him into prison,” she advises her husband. Potiphar, however, was determined to see Joseph dead, until Osnat, who worked as a domestic in Potiphar’s house, privately approached Potiphar to tell him the truth about his wife’s advances on Joseph. As compensation for her brave action, G-d declares that He will reward Osnat with tribes of Israel who will be born to her. Osnat eventually becomes Joseph’s wife, and mother to Ephraim and Menashe.

Adding more intriguing details to the story, Kitov cites the Midrash that states that when Potiphar’s anger had somewhat subsided, instead of killing Joseph, he brought his Hebrew servant to be tried before the royal count, before whom only “honored” defendants were brought for judgment. Because there was no one to speak up in Joseph’s defense, the angel Gabriel, in the form of a human, appeared before the court to advocate on behalf of Joseph. He advised the king to check both Joseph’s and Mrs. Potiphar’s clothing. If Mrs. Potiphar’s clothes are ripped, then clearly Joseph was the attacker. If Joseph’s clothes are torn, then the attacker was Mrs. Potiphar. Sure enough, they found Joseph’s clothing in disrepair, and with this evidence Joseph was saved from the gallows. However, in order not to subject Mrs. Potiphar, a woman of high social standing, to embarrassment, Joseph was not totally exonerated.

The priests of Egypt sentenced Joseph to a relatively brief period of ten years imprisonment. Because of their merciful judgment, Joseph later rewards the priest by allowing them to maintain ownership of their lands during the years of famine.

Greatly distressed to learn the truth about his wife’s behavior, Potiphar tried to appease Joseph. “I know that you are not guilty, but to save face, I must place you in the dungeon. But, you will have freedom to do whatever you want there, until the anger passes.”

Rather than give him over to the court officers, Potiphar himself escorts Joseph to prison. Genesis 39:20 therefore specifies, “V’yit’nay’hoo el bayt ha’so’har,” and he [Potiphar] placed him [Joseph] in prison. Say the rabbis, like a man who gives an important gift to a friend, Potiphar said to the jailers, “See I have brought you a man of G-d, and everything that he touches is blessed.” The prison where Joseph was incarcerated was designated exclusively for high court officials, who were kept separated from common criminals, to make certain that no state secrets would be revealed. Joseph was placed there so that Potiphar’s wife’s behavior would not become public.

The rabbis say that the treatment that Joseph received in prison was extraordinarily benign, and that even though Joseph could have easily gained pardon through his wisdom or his master’s money, he chose to remain in prison. In fact, rather than return to dwell again with the poisonous serpent [Mrs. Potiphar], Joseph decided to remain in prison for the rest of his life. Suffering, in silence, he righteously accepted his fate, knowing that everything that happened reflected the will of G-d, and that his pain was divinely ordained.

Mrs. Potiphar was relentless in her pursuit of Joseph. Even the prison walls were not sufficiently secure to protect Joseph from the wiles of Mrs. Potiphar. Somehow, she found a way to visit him in prison every day, begging Joseph to give in to her. Joseph responded that he could not, for he had made a solemn oath to his master and to G-d. She threatened to have him tortured or sold to a foreign land. As a result of Mrs. Potiphar’s calumny, all the other prisoners began to torment Joseph, and his once-casual imprisonment became unbearable.

Our rabbis say that even after Potiphar put Joseph in prison, his master would call upon Joseph to do those things that he most favored. Potiphar could not eat or sleep without knowing that Joseph was in attendance, washing his dishes, setting his table and preparing his bed. He would arrange to have Joseph regularly furloughed from prison, and subsequently returned.

Mrs. Potiphar, once again, used that opportunity to torment Joseph. When she saw Joseph making the beds, she would call out to him and say, “I oppressed you with this,” and Joseph would reply, citing Psalms 156, “G-d renders justice to those who are oppressed.” “I will cut off your income.” Joseph replied, “G-d provides bread to those who are hungry.” “I will have you locked in chains.” Joseph replied, “G-d releases those who are imprisoned.” “I will reduce your stature.” Joseph replied, “G-d raises up those who are bowed down.” “I will poke out your eyes.” Joseph replies, “G-d gives sight to the blind.” She then placed an iron bar under Joseph’s head, so that he would have to look up and see her, but still Joseph refused to look at her.

Joseph’s original sentence of ten years imprisonment was a punishment that was confirmed by Heaven in retribution for the evil tales he spoke about his brothers. And even though his reports were intended as reproof and reflected his love for his brothers, he was nevertheless punished severely, because G-d holds the righteous more highly accountable, even to the width of a hair.

Why was Joseph punished now? Because that is the way of the Al-mighty. When He comes to punish the righteous, He chooses a time when their merits are at a peak, so that the righteous will accept upon themselves their suffering with love and receive extra reward for their actions.

Although scripture only briefly describes the imprisonment of Joseph, the Midrashic literature broadly expands on his trials and suffering. With this “inside view” of Joseph’s life, we are more able to fully appreciate why rabbinic literature refers to Joseph as “Yoseph Hatzadik,” Joseph the Righteous.

May you be blessed.