OzTorah: Torah reading – Vayyeshev.


The plea that we should not be tempted into sin is not only found in the Jewish prayer book, but in other faiths too. Children of a certain different religion who were supposed to say,

“Lead us not into temptation”

are on record in New York as saying,

“Lead us not into Penn Station!”

The whole subject – naturally in more serious form – comes into this week’s Torah portion, where we see that Joseph, the handsome Hebrew youth, was constantly tempted by the wiles of the wife of his employer Potiphar (Gen. 39).

The wife’s name is not given in the Torah but according to tradition she was called Zulaikha. The young man must have found her very difficult to resist, and the Torah story shows that in the end he had no choice but to rush out, though leaving his cloak behind.

The sages of the Talmud (Yoma 35b) reconstruct the conversation between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. When she threatened to lock him up, Joseph replied,

“God loosens the bound”.

When she said she would torture him, he said,

“God raises up those who are bowed down”.

When she said she would pluck out his eyes, he said,

“God gives sight to the blind”.

Whatever she said, he found in God a strength and support. So it is, the Talmud tells us, with anyone who faces temptation: their belief in God gives them the power to resist.

The Zohar says,

“In the messianic age, the Holy One, blessed be He, will slay the Tempter before the eyes of the righteous, and temptation will cease for ever”.

The rabbis say in Pir’kei Avot,

“Who is the hero?”

Their answer?

“He who controls his passions”.



Potiphar, to whom Joseph was sold as a servant, is a leading character in the Joseph story. He is called in the Torah Pharaoh’s “sar hatabbachim”, which some versions translate “chief steward”.

Latin Vulgate was the accepted Bible of Western Christendom.

He was obviously a major official in the Egyptian government. The Latin Vulgate calls him the king’s chief bodyguard or the captain of the palace guard, a very important staff member because the royal person was in constant danger and needed constant protection.

But whilst “sar” means a chief or prince – some think it is the origin of “sir” and “sire”, though that is only etymological imagination – the difficult question is what “tabbachim” means. In Hebrew it has a connection with food; perhaps it means a slaughterman, since “tabbach” is a butcher. There are those who believe Potiphar was the royal chef, trusted by the king to prepare his food without being suspected of poisoning the dishes. Rashi considers the word means “chief slaughterman of animals”, once again a task which required trustworthiness.

Onkelos, supported by Saadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra, give the name a political significance as “chief executioner”, i.e. chief slaughterman of human beings. In the type of kingdom which Pharaoh ruled, it was the chief executioner who carried out the ultimate penalty, “Off with his head!”



After a tragic series of events, Joseph’s brothers took his coloured coat, dipped it in blood and brought it to their father with the words,

“Look – is this not your son’s coat?” (Gen. 37:32).

Surely they knew their brother’s name, so why did they call him “your son”?

It seems to be a regular human habit not to use the name of someone you dislike. Saul says at a time when he is angry with David,

“Why has the son of Yishai not come?” (I Sam. 20:27).

Husbands and wives tend to follow this practice; the husband is annoyed with his child, so he says to his wife,

“Look what your son has got up to!”

The wife is angry with her daughter, so he says to her husband,

“Did you give your daughter permission to stay out so late?”

Note how the Torah tells the rest of the story. Jacob wasn’t having any of this “your son” idea. He looked at the blood-soaked coat and said,

“Yes, it is Joseph’s coat – a wild beast must have attacked him”.

He added, “Tarof toraf Yosef” – “Joseph has been torn to pieces”. There is an implication, “Tarof toraf ‘yosef'” – “(the name) Joseph has been torn out (of the family)”.

Just as there is a strict rule against deleting the name of God, by extension one should not delete the name of any of God’s children. If there is an exception it is only for an Amalek: someone who is inhuman and inhumane may have their name eradicated (Deut. 25:19). That explains why we allow people to attempt to drown out Haman’s name. It also explains why we refer to the Nazi tyrant with the words “Yimmach sh’mo” – “may his name be blotted out”.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Blog: http://www.oztorah.com

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