Parshat Miketz begins with Joseph languishing in prison in Egypt. He has been forgotten by his would-be savior, the reinstated servant of Pharaoh. Now Pharaoh dreams a frightening dream. Joseph is summoned and offers sage advice. Pharaoh is enthralled with his new advisor:

And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants. And Pharaoh said to his servants, "Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom is the spirit of God?" And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "For as much as God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled. Only in the throne will I be greater than you."

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt." And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in cloaks of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. And he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, "Bow the knee," and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I am Pharaoh, and without you shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt." (Genesis 41:37-44)


Joseph now finds himself sovereign over Egypt. We can appreciate how the displaced advisors in Egypt must have felt about him. The Talmud tells us of the challenge they put forth to Pharaoh concerning the former slave, Joseph:

Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba said in the name of Rabbi Johanan: "At the moment when Pharaoh said to Joseph, And without thee shall no man lift up his hand, Pharaoh's astrologers exclaimed: 'Wilt thou set in power over us a slave whom his master bought for twenty pieces of silver!' He replied to them, 'discern in him royal characteristics.' They said to him, 'in that case he must be acquainted with the seventy languages.' Angel Gabriel came and taught [Joseph] the seventy languages, but he could not learn them. Thereupon [Gabriel] added to his name a letter from the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and he learnt [the languages]..." (Sotah 36b)

According to the Talmudic passage, Joseph received two things from the angel Gabriel – mastery over seventy languages, and an additional letter to his name. Both of these ideas are based on exegesis of a verse in Psalms:

Sing aloud to God our strength; make a joyful noise to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, and beat the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow a shofar on the New Moon ... For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob. This he ordained in Yehosef (Joseph) for a testimony, when he went out over the land of Egypt. I heard a language I had not known. I removed the burden from his shoulder ... You called in trouble, and I saved you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah. (Psalms 81)

The verse refers to Yehosef, that is, Yosef with an extra heh. Furthermore, the verse refers to his having heard a language I had not known. These two ideas are combined in the Talmud, producing the concept of Joseph being taught this information by the angel Gabriel.1


Joseph's name change is not as famous as the changing of Abraham's name, but it does seem to have repercussions in both Jewish thought and law.

The Midrash explains the origins of the addition to Joseph's name as related to a previous episode, the spurning of the seductive advances of the Potiphar's wife:

There were three who fled from transgression and with whom the Holy One, blessed be He, united His name. They are: Joseph, Yael, and Palti. How do we know it of Joseph? Because it says, He appointed it in Yehosef for a testimony. What is the implication of the expression Yehosef? God testifies in regard to him that he did not touch Potiphar's wife. (Midrash Rabbah - Leviticus 23:10)

Joseph's allegiance to God brought about a merger, reflected in the change of Joseph's name. The new form, Yehosef, serves as an ongoing testimony to his fidelity. This association between the name Yehosef and his rejection of Potiphar's wife, allows us further insight into another passage in the Talmud, commenting on Genesis 39:11:

[When Potiphar's wife] caught him by his garment, at that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: "Joseph, thy brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and thine amongst theirs. Is it your wish to have your name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?" (As it is written: He that keeps company with harlots wastes his substance.) (Sotah 36b)

Joseph's "super-ego" motivates him to reject the carnal advances, but the specific connection with the ephod seems obscure. So many other expressions of Joseph's solidarity with, or isolation from, his brothers could have been mustered.


The context of the passage is a Talmudic discussion of the ephod, which, we are told, is inscribed with exactly 50 letters:

The High Priest had two precious stones on his shoulders, one on this side and one on the other side; upon them were inscribed the names of the twelve tribes, six on one stone and six on the other, as it is said: Six of their names on the one stone, [and the names of the six that remain on the other stone, according to their birth]. [This indicates that] the second six were to be according to their birth, but the first six were not to be according to their birth; because [the name of] Judah came first, and there were fifty letters, twenty-five on each stone. (Sotah 36b)

In order to make the equation work, one suggestion in the Talmud2 is that Joseph's name needs another letter:

[It was stated above that on the stones of the ephod] were fifty letters; but there were fifty less one! Rabbi Isaac said: "One letter was added to the name of Joseph, as it is said: He appointed it in Yehosef for a testimony, when he went out over the land of Egypt." (Sotah 36b)

Had Joseph sinned, he would have been rejected, excluded from the totality of the Twelve Tribes, and his name would not have appeared on the ephod. By retaining his purity, Joseph received an extra letter which serves as eternal testimony to his righteousness.

The starting point of the discussion in the Talmud actually concerned not the ephod, but the rite performed on Mount Grizim3 and Mount Eval:

What does the phrase "and the half of them" mean? Rabbi Kahana said: "As they were divided here [on the mountains] so were they divided on the stones of the ephod." (Sotah 36b)

The ephod is introduced into the discussion here because of the similar division of the tribes. The Talmud describes the events of the day:

After that they brought the stones, built the altar, and plastered it with plaster, and inscribed thereon all the words of the Torah in seventy languages ... Then they sacrificed burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, ate and drank and rejoiced, pronounced the blessings and the curses, packed up the stones, and came and lodged in Gilgal ... And those twelve stones, which they took [out of the Jordan, did Joshua set up in Gilgal] (Sotah 36b)


In order to understand the intrinsic connection between these ideas we must explore the nature of speech and the purpose of language. When man is created, he is endowed with numerous capabilities, as the Torah recounts:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

The Targum expands on this, and explains that man was endowed with speech. The breath of God with which man was animated gave him the capacity of speech. Evidently, the purpose of speech is for man to manifest the image of God with which he is endowed. Yet Genesis goes on to tell so many tales of individual and collective failure, that at times it seems the image of God within man has become tarnished.4 One such event was the rebellion waged by the generation of the Tower of Babel.

And the Lord said, "Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the Lord scattered them abroad from there upon the face of all the earth; and they left off the building of the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:6-9)

In the wake of this sin, man, who still possessed the ability to speak, lost the ability to communicate. The very essence of man seems to suffer due to this failure. Generations later, Joseph, who has God's name as a part of his person, is the first individual who is able to reach back to the point before this sin, when man was still able to communicate, when man's soul was still directly in touch with his mission.


This is what the Sages convey in the gemara: Joseph masters language. Joseph, who had been wrenched from his people, from his language, found himself in a depraved, alien society. Instead of confusion or crisis, Joseph is imbued with Divinity. He is able to speak clearly, and to communicate.

Ironically, the Zohar explains the origin of Joseph's greatness:

Come and see, at the moment when the wife of Potifar grabbed him, Joseph made believe that he did not understand her language... (Zohar Pinchas 213b)

Joseph's reward for this feigned ignorance which in part saved him from sin was the mastery of all language. We might trace this idea to the commandment that the Jews, upon entering the Land of Israel, were to write the words of the Torah:

Therefore it shall be when you have gone over the Jordan, that you shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, on Mount Eval, and you shall plaster them with plaster ... And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this Torah very clearly. (Deut. 27:4-8)

The Mishna explains:

...built the altar and plastered it with plaster, and inscribed thereon all the words of the Torah in seventy languages, as it is said, very clearly. (Sotah 32a)

The Torah must be taught in every language in order to bring the world to the point of clarity and communication.

Joseph was the first to set out from his home and become submerged in alien culture. Unlike Abraham, who remained on the fringe of society and taught morality to individuals, Joseph was positioned in the highest echelons of the most powerful empire of his day, under constant scrutiny, constantly compared and contrasted with the society at large. Despite this challenge, Joseph maintained holiness and purity on a personal level. Despite being pulled by his garments toward a spiritual abyss, Joseph displayed greatness.

Our vision of the future is closely intertwined with this very aspect of Joseph's greatness: In the future, the confusion in the world will end. People will speak one language, and the words of Torah will be universally understood:

For then I will convert the peoples to a clear language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one accord. (Zephania 3:9)

On that day, the peoples of the world will once again grab onto the clothing of the Jews; not in an attempt to corrupt, but, this time, in a search for God:

Thus says the Lord of Hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men from the nations of every language shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, "We will go with you; for we have heard that God is with you." (Zecharia 8:23)


  1. Previously we had seen the angel Gabriel identified as the "man" who sent Joseph on the path to find his brothers when they were not in Shechem. See "Malachei Elyon" by Reuven Margoliot (page 34, note 111) where sources are cited which identify Gabriel with "active intelligence."


  2. Despite the conclusion in the Talmud which apparently rejects this suggestion, Maimonides rules that the name of Joseph on the ephod was spelled with a heh. See Mishne Torah, Klei Hamikdash 9:9.


  3. It is interesting that this mountain is in proximity of the city of Shechem, which is in the portion of Joseph.
  4. See Rav Yitchak Hutner's "Pachad Yitzchak", Rosh HaShanah, Ma'amar 20.