Jacob and Joseph's Coat - Max Ford

Vayeshev | פרשת וישב

Sefer Bereshit | ספר בראשית

Bereshit 37:1-40:23 [Hebcal] [על-התורה] בראשית לז א-מ כג

Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8 (all) | Unless it is Shabbat Chanukah

[על-התורה] הפטרה: עמוס ב ו- ג ח (ע”פ כל המנהגים ) | אלא אם כן זו שבת חנוכה)

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Parashat Vayeshev begins the arc of Yosef’s story, although we’ve already read the tragic story of his birth. In an act of revenge for their father’s favoritism towards Yosef as well as his troubling dream interpretations, his older brothers devise a plot to kill him, eventually selling him into slavery instead. In Egypt, Yosef manages to attain a modicum of success. Unfortunately for him, he also attracts the interests of his master Potiphar’s wife, who accuses him of assault we he refuses her advances. This lands Yosef in Paraoh’s prison, where he again rises to the top and interprets dreams, though this seemingly doesn’t help his pligh.t

Turning to Yosef’s Story

[Bereshit 37:1]

With Yaakov settled in the land of Canaan where his father had lived, the narrative turns to Yosef, now a seventeen-year-old. He is tasked with herding his older brothers’ sheep, as well as those of his father’s wives, Bilhah and Zilpah. Overhearing unflattering things in his capacity as shepherd, Yosef reports these back to his father.

Yosef has already won his father’s affection and favoritism as the child of his old age (בֶן זְקֻנִים). Yaakov makes for him an ornamented cloak or coat (כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים): Rashi says it was a coat of many colors 1 while Ibn Ezra says it was embroidered.[/efn_note]Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 37:3.[/efn_note] Seeing this apparent favoritism, Yosef’s brothers shun him and speak to him unkindly.

Yosef’s Dreams

[Bereshit 37:5]

Yosef has a dream which he tells to his brothers:

וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי וְגַם נִצָּבָה וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי:

“There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.”

Bereshit 37:7

Immediately perceiving this as a parable in which Yosef comes to rule over them, the brothers hate Yosef even more.

Then Yosef has another dream:

וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּוֹכָבִים מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לִי:

“Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

Bereshit 37:9

This time he reports the dream to his father as well as his brothers, causing Yaakov to exclaim, “What is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?” The brothers are ever more disgruntled and “his father kept the matter in mind” (וְאָבִיו שָׁמַר אֶת הַדָּבָר).

Yosef Cast into the Pit

[Bereshit 37:12]

One day, Yaakov sends Yosef off to his brothers who are pasturing the flocks at Schechem. In response, Yosef says the (tell-tale) hineni, “here I am” or “I am ready,” which in the Mikra indicates ensures readiness and faithfulness to the task at hand. Yosef sets off through the valley of Chevron.

When Yosef reaches Shechem, a man notices him wandering and directs him to his brothers, who have moved on to Dotan (דֹתָן). Seeing Yosef approaching, the brothers are less than enthusiastic. They plot to kill him and throw him into one of the nearby pits, saying that a wild beast got to him: “We shall see what comes of his dreams!” (וְנִרְאֶה מַה יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו).

Reuven, however, argues that the brothers should spare Yosef’s life. Instead of killing him, Reuven suggests that they cast him into a pit in the wilderness and leave him there, apparently to return Yosef to their father.2

When Yosef approaches his brothers, they strip him of his special decorated cloak and throw him into the deep pit, which was empty, with no water in it.

The Sale of Yosef

[Bereshit 37:25]

No sooner had the brothers sat down to a meal when they saw an Ishmaelite caravan coming from Gilad, loaded up with gum, balm, and ladanum (a resin) (נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט) to bring down to Egypt. Yehuda now speaks up, saying:

מַה בֶּצַע כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת אָחִינוּ וְכִסִּינוּ אֶת דָּמוֹ: לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים וְיָדֵנוּ אַל תְּהִי בוֹ כִּי אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ הוּא

“What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.”

Bereshit 37:26-27

The brothers agree. When a Midianite caravan passes by, they pull up Yosef from the pit. They sell him to Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver.3

Yosef’s Bloodied Coat of Many Colors

[Bereshit 37:29]

Reuven returns to the pit to get Yosef and sees that he is gone. He tears his clothes and confronts his brothers. The solution they proffer is to fake Yosef’s death, which they do by slaughtering a goat and dipping Yosef’s distinctive cloak in the goat’s blood.

Returning to their father, the brothers present the cloak and ask Yaakov to identify it as Yosef’s. Thinking that a wild beast has devoured Yosef, Yaakov goes into extended mourning, tearing his clothes and donning sackcloth. His sons and daughters attempt to console him, but Yaakov says, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol” (כִּי אֵרֵד אֶל בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה).

Meanwhile, arriving in Egypt, the Midianites sell Yosef to Potiphar (פוֹטִיפַר), who happens to be a courtier of Paraoh’s (סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה) and his chief official (sar ha-tabachim – שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים).

Yehuda and Tamar

[Bereshit 38:1]

The narrative breaks now to tell the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda leaves his brothers and encamps near an Adulamite (עֲדֻלָּמִי) named Chira (חִירָה). Yehuda is taken with a Canaanite woman, the daughter of one Shua (שׁוּעַ) whom he takes as a wife. She gives birth to a son, Er (עֵר), then to another son, Onan (אוֹנָן). At Keziv (כְּזִיב), she bears a third son, Shelah (שֵׁלָה).

Yehuda arranges a wife for his firstborn son Er, whose name is Tamar (תָּמָר). But Er “was evil in the view of Hashem and Hashem took his life” (רַע בְּעֵינֵי ה’ וַיְמִתֵהוּ ה’). After Er’s death, Yehuda tells Onan that he is required to enter into levirate marriage with Tamar, since Er had died childless and his line would not otherwise continue.

Onan, however, has no intention of impregnating Tamar with children that won’t be counted as his own, and spills his seed before lying with her. G-d, seeing what Onan is doing and considering it wrong, takes Onan’s life, too. At this point, Yehuda is concerned that Tamar might bring harm to his remaining young son, Shleah. He therefore buys time by telling Tamar to return to her father’s house and live there as w widow until Shelah grown up.

A long time passes, and Yehuda’s wife dies, and he mourns her. After the mourning period is over, Yehuda returns to his duties and travels towards Timna (תִּמְנָה) to do the sheepshearing. Tamar is informed that Yehuda is on his way to Timna. Hearing this, Tamar loses her widow’s garb and covers her faith with a veil. She heads out and sits at the entrance of Einayim (עֵינַיִם – literally, “eyes”) near Timna.4 She does so, we are told, because she’s realized that Shelah has come of age but she has evidently been denied marriage with him.

Coming upon Tamar, Yehuda doesn’t recognize her with the veil covering her face and takes her to be a prostitute. He asks to sleep with her, offering to pay her with a young goat that he will send from his flock. Tamar sagely requests a pledge for the goat consisting of Yehuda’s eminently recognizable seal, cord, and staff. They have intercourse and Tamar becomes pregnant.

Yehuda sends out his friend the Adulamite with a goat to redeem his pledge to Tamar, but the friend can’t locate her, and is informed by locals that there is no prostitute in Einayim. Yehuda decides to drop the matter and let the supposed prostitute keep the pledge.

Some three months later, Yehuda is informed that Tamar is pregnant, evidently due to promiscuity. Angered, Yehuda says she deserved to be burned. Tamar sends her father-in-law a message with the seal and cord: “It’s by the man to whom these belong that I’m pregnant” (לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה). Bested, Yehuda confesses, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah” (צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי עַל כֵּן לֹא נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי).

Tamar gives birth to twins. When the hand of the first twin emerges, the midwife ties a crimson thread (שָׁנִי) to it to signify that that baby is the firstborn. But it is the second baby who forces his way out first, and for this reason he is named Peretz, “burst forth, breach” (פָּרֶץ). The baby with the crimson thread is then born, and is named Zerach, “shining, brightness” (זֶרַח).

Yosef in Potiphor’s House

[Bereshit 39:1]

The story resumes as we are told again that Yosef was taken down to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, the sar tabachim. Yosef stays in Potiphar’s household, becoming successful. Potiphar takes this as a sign of G-d’s favor towards Yosef and takes a liking to him, appointing Yosef head of household. Under Yosef’s direction, the household flourishes.

Potiphar’s wife notices that Yosef is an attractive man (יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה). One day, she asks him to sleep with her. Yosef refuses, saying that it would jeopardize everything he has worked for and that, being that she is his master’s wife, “How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before G-d?” (וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת וְחָטָאתִי לֵאלֹקים). She doesn’t exactly desist, but Yosef does not yield.

Another time, Yosef finds himself alone in the house with Potiphar’s wife. Tugging at him, she asks him again to sleep with her. Leaving her holding his garment, Yosef slips away and leaves. The wife then accuses Yosef of trying to assault her, using his garment as proof. When she informs her husband, he had Yosef thrown in the king’s prison.

Yosef in Prison

[Bereshit 39:20]

Even in prison, Hashem is with Yosef, such that he is appointed overseer of the prisoners, under the chief jailer. The chief jailer leaves Yosef to do his work, since Yosef continues to be successful at everything he does.

Paraoh, angered with two of his courtiers, the chief cup-bearer (שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִים) and chief baker (וְעַל שַׂר הָאוֹפִים), put them in the same prison as Yosef. Yosef is to be their attendant.

Yosef’s Dream Interpretations in Prison

After some time, each of them has an upsetting dream on the same night. Yosef then uses his powers of dream interpretation, which he attributes to G-d (הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹקים פִּתְרֹנִים), to explain the meanings of their dreams.

The cup-bearer goes first:

בַּחֲלוֹמִי וְהִנֵּה גֶפֶן לְפָנָי: י וּבַגֶּפֶן שְׁלֹשָׁה שָׂרִיגִם וְהִוא כְפֹרַחַת עָלְתָה נִצָּהּ הִבְשִׁילוּ אַשְׁכְּלֹתֶיהָ עֲנָבִים: יא וְכוֹס פַּרְעֹה בְּיָדִי וָאֶקַּח אֶת הָעֲנָבִים וָאֶשְׂחַט אֹתָם אֶל כּוֹס פַּרְעֹה וָאֶתֵּן אֶת הַכּוֹס עַל כַּף פַּרְעֹה

“In my dream, there was a vine in front of me. On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”

Bereshit 39:9-11

Yosef explains to him that the three branches represent three days, meaning that in three days Paraoh will restore the cup-bearer to his position. He asks the cup-bearer to remember him when he is freed, and speak well of him to Paraoh, so that Yosef too might gain his freedom. Yosef adds, “For in truth, I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon” (כִּי גֻנֹּב גֻּנַּבְתִּי מֵאֶרֶץ הָעִבְרִים וְגַם פֹּה לֹא עָשִׂיתִי מְאוּמָה כִּי שָׂמוּ אֹתִי בַּבּוֹר).

Next, the chief baker, taking heart, relates his dream:

אַף אֲנִי בַּחֲלוֹמִי וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה סַלֵּי חֹרִי עַל רֹאשִׁי: וּבַסַּל הָעֶלְיוֹן מִכֹּל מַאֲכַל פַּרְעֹה מַעֲשֵׂה אֹפֶה וְהָעוֹף אֹכֵל אֹתָם מִן הַסַּל מֵעַל רֹאשִׁי

“In my dream, similarly, there were three openwork baskets on my head. In the uppermost basket were all kinds of food for Pharaoh that a baker prepares; and the birds were eating it out of the basket above my head.”

Bereshit 39:16-17

This time, however, the news is not so good: Yosef explains that the three baskets represent three days, meaning that in three days Paraoh will behead him and impale his head on a pole for the birds to peck at.

Lo and behold, three days later it’s Paraoh’s birthday. Paraoh throws a banquet and singles out his two courtiers—reinstating the cup-bearer to bear the cup at his party, and having the baker impaled. However, the freed cup-bearer forgets about Yosef (וְלֹא זָכַר שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִים אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵהוּ).

Haftarah Summary – כה אמר ה’ על שלשה פשעי ישראל

[Amos ]

On the rare occasion that the first night of Chanukah falls out on a Friday, or on years when it falls out on Shabbat and there are two Shabbatot of Chanukah, the Shabbat of Parashat Vayeshev gets a special maftir and haftarah connected to Chanukah, namely, Zecharia’s mystical vision of the Menorah that would stand in the soon-to-be-rebuilt Second Beit ha-Mikdash, in which he sees an olive tree draped over the Menorah (among other visions). [Zecahria 2:14-4:1-7]

The regular haftarah for Vayeshev comes from the book of Amos, who was a prophet in the norther kingdom of Israel and a contemporary of Yeshayahu (who prophesied in the southern kingdom of Yehuda) as well as Hoshea (who, like Amos, was from Israel). Amos’ message to the people of Israel is that they have become decadent and act poorly towards the disadvantaged. Amos 2:6 says, “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” (עַל מִכְרָם בַּכֶּסֶף צַדִּיק וְאֶבְיוֹן בַּעֲבוּר נַעֲלָיִם). This recalls the soulless cruelty of Yosef’s brothers, who sell him, too, for silver, bankrupting themselves int he process.

Image: Ford Madox Brown, “Jacob and Joseph’s Coat,” 1871.


  1. Rashi on Bereshit 37:3.
  2. Rashi on 37:22 says that Reuven’s motives were selfish; he assumed that as the eldest he’d take the fall.
  3. Rashi on Bereshit 37:28 reads the Midianites and Ishmaelites as separate caravans and says that Yosef was sold multiple time; Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 37:28 says that the Midianites and Ishmaelites are the same people, and both names apply to them.
  4. It is unclear whether this is the name of place, as Ibn Ezra says, or whether it means “out in the open,” as Rashi suggests.

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