Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayigash 5768/ December 15, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



How the Mighty have Fallen:

Which Brothers did Joseph Present to Pharaoh?


Dr. Gilad Sasson


Department of Talmud, Center for Basic Jewish Studies, and Safed College


In this week’s reading the Torah tells us that Joseph introduced his brothers to Pharaoh.   Joseph instructed his brothers to present themselves as shepherds so that Pharaoh would give them the land of Goshen.   For this meeting Joseph selected only certain of his brothers:  “And selecting five of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh” (Gen. 47:2).   The Torah does not specify which five came to this meeting.  Two lists emerge from several writings of the Sages. [1]   According to one list, it was Zebulun, Gad, Dan, Naphtali and Asher, and according to the other list, the brothers chosen were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar and Benjamin.   Note that the tribes appearing in the one list do not appear in the other.

The earliest source that gives the names of the brothers is the tannaitic midrash Sifre Deuteronomy (Finkelstein edition, p. 415, par. 354).  The derasha is set in the context of a commentary on the blessings that Moses gave the tribes at the end of Deuteronomy.   With regard to the blessing given Zebulun, Sifre writes as follows:

And of Zebulun he said – why is it said?  Because it says, “And selecting five of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh,” but does not give their names; and he was one of them.

This same formulation is also used for the other four sons – Gad, Dan, Naphtali and Asher, the five tribes (along with Zebulun) who were blessed last by Moses.   How did the homilist of Sifre come up with the idea that it was these five tribes that Joseph presented to Pharaoh?  In the Bible the word katzeh, used in the Hebrew phrase about Joseph selecting five of his brothers, means “end,” so the homilist drew a connection between mi-ktzeh ehav (meaning “some of his brothers”) and the fact that these tribes were at the end of Moses’ blessing. [2]   It was not for naught that these five were blessed last.  They were, after all, the youngest son of Leah and the four sons of the concubines; perhaps these were the “lesser” of the sons, and therefore Moses blessed them last.  Aside from this, these five tribes are blessed, one after the other, immediately after the blessing to Joseph. [3]   It stands to reason that in asking, “Why is it said?” Sifre meant to ask why the blessings to these five were given after Joseph’s blessing.  The answer given is that the sons blessed after Joseph were “the remainder of his brothers” (mi-ktzeh ehav), the last ones and the “lesser” ones as well.  Sifre, however, does not explain why Joseph deliberately selected the lesser of his brothers for this meeting.

The Babylonian Talmud, as well, lists these five brothers as the ones whom Joseph presented to Pharaoh, although it does not explicitly state their names (Bava Kama 92a):

Rabba said to Rabbah bar Meri:  It says in Scripture, “and he selected five of his brothers”; which five were these?   He said to him:   Did not Rabbi Johanan say:   those whose names were doubled.   But Judah’s name was also doubled!   He said to him, his was doubled because of special circumstances.

According to Rabbi Johanan, these were the five brothers whose names were repeated in Moses’ blessing, and these are the same as the tribes mentioned in Sifre. [4]   The reservation raised by Rabba in the wake of Rabbi Johanan’s remarks is that Judah’s name also appears twice in his blessing.  Is it conceivable that Judah, leader of all the brothers, could have been considered one of Joseph’s lesser brothers? [5]   Rabbah bar Meri explains away this difficulty by saying that there is a special need for repetition in Judah’s blessing and further elaborates on this in the continuation of his remarks in the gemara.

According to Genesis Rabbah (95:4, Theodore-Albeck ed., p. 1190), the brothers whom Joseph selected were precisely those not mentioned in Sifre and the Babylonian Talmud:

And he selected five of his brothers, etc. – Why did Scriptures use the expression mi-ktzeh ehav?  It is to teach us that they were not the mighty ones of the tribes.   Who were these five persons?   Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Benjamin, and Issachar.  Why did Joseph select these five of his brothers?  He knew exactly who of all his brothers were the mighty ones, and he said wisely:   If I present the mightier of them before Pharaoh, upon seeing them he will make them his men of war.   Therefore, he presented these five, who were not mighty.  How do we know they were not mighty?  In the blessing that Moses gave, whoever had his name repeated twice in his blessing was mighty, and whoever did not have his name repeated was not mighty.   Judah, whose name was repeated – as it says, “And this he said of Judah:  Hear, O Lord the voice of Judah” (Deut. 33:7) – was mighty, and therefore he did not present him before Pharaoh.   Likewise with Naphtali, it says:   “And of Naphtali he said:   O Naphtali, sated with favor” (Deut. 33:23); likewise with Asher, “And of Asher he said:   Most blessed of sons be Asher” (Deut. 33:24); likewise with Dan, as it says:  “And of Dan he said:  Dan is a lion’s whelp” (Deut. 33:22); likewise with Zebulun, as it says: “And of Zebulun he said:  Rejoice, O Zebulun” (Deut. 33:18); likewise with Gad, as it says:   “And of Gad he said:   Blessed be He who enlarges Gad!” (Deut. 33:20).  Therefore he did not present these brothers to Pharaoh.  The remaining brothers, whose names were not doubled, were not mighty, and therefore he presented them to Pharaoh.

According to this source, the brothers whose names were mentioned twice were the mighty, heroic ones, whereas the other five – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Benjamin and Issachar – were weaklings.  The homilist in Genesis Rabbah did not mean that they were of lesser status, rather that they were physically weaker.  Further on he explains why Joseph deliberately chose to present the weaker ones.

Whence comes the list in Genesis Rabbah?  Was the homilist familiar with a different interpretive tradition from that of Sifre?   The fact that the list of brothers in Genesis Rabbah actually includes all those not included in Sifre and in the Babylonian Talmud could indicate that this is not a different tradition of interpretation, but a response to the tradition in Sifre. [6]   If so, why did the later homilist in Genesis Rabbah invert the list?

It follows from the homily that, like Rabbi Johanan in the Babylonian Talmud, the homilist of Genesis Rabbah viewed the repetition of the names as a criterion for identifying the brothers [7] and as a shared criteria for identifying the lesser brothers; however, he takes exception to it.   The exception can be explained by two difficulties that arise from the list of “lesser” brothers with repeated names.  1)   This list consists of six, not five, tribes: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Benjamin, Issachar, and Judah.   2)  When it is a matter of physical weakness, the question becomes all the more poignant how Judah, the heroic brother of whom Jacob said, “Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes; ... Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown” (Gen. 49:8-9), could be listed among the weakling brothers. [8]   Apparently the homilist of Genesis Rabbah was unfamiliar with the explanation given by Rabbah bar Meri in the Babylonian Talmud for the doubling of Judah’s name; therefore he found a different way of overcoming this difficulty.   He inverted the lists, so that the brothers whose names were doubled were the mighty ones, Judah being included among them, and the five remaining brothers were the weak ones.   This course that Genesis Rabbah takes, however, has its price:  1) the “weak” brothers no longer appear at the end (katzeh) of the blessing Moses gave the tribes; 2) Simeon and Levi, who “when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen” (Gen. 49:6), are no longer listed among the mighty.

[1] Rashi presents these lists in his commentary on the verse.   For an extensive review of the sources from which these lists were derived and commentators’ remarks on them, see Minhat Yehudah, a commentary in the Theodore-Albeck edition of Genesis Rabbah, Jerusaelm 1965, p. 1190, and Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shelemah, vol. 7, Jerusalem 1939, p. 1701.

[2] According to Zevi Kaddari, Millon ha-Ivrit ha-Mikra’it, under katzeh, Ramat Gan 2006, p. 955, the meaning of katzeh in this verse is “a group of people who are related,” but Sifre interpreted it in the more common sense of “end.”

[3] Note that Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, is blessed before him; therefore, he does not belong to the category of the “lesser” brothers.   Also Issachar is absent from the list of “lesser” brothers because he has no blessing of his own, but is subsumed in the blessing to Zebulun.

[4] Rabbi Johanan’s criteria of repetition of the name might be an interpretation of the question in Sifre, “Why is it said?”   Perhaps this question meant, “Why is the name of the tribe said twice?”  Rashi, in his commentary on the passage from the Babylonian Talmud, explains why the names of these tribes were repeated, as follows:   “Scripture is informing us that the weakest of them all needed strengthening; therefore their names were repeated to strengthen them.”  Note that Rashi introduces a new notion about these tribes:   their weakness.   This idea does not occur either in Sifre or in the Babylonian Talmud, and apparently worked its way into Rashi’s interpretation from the homily in Genesis Rabbah, presented below.

[5] Rabba’s question indicates that he was ignoring the fact that the list refers only to the tribes at the end of Moses’ blessing, as suggested above, for Judah is not one of the brothers blessed last.

[6] It should also be noted that Simeon, listed as one of the “weak” brothers in Genesis Rabbah, is not mentioned at all in Moses’ blessing; also, as we have mentioned, the tribe of the “weak” Issachar does not receive a blessing of its own.

[7] Like Rabba, so too, the homilist of Genesis Rabbah only accepts the criterion of doubling the name and ignores the placement of the tribes in Moses’ blessing.

[8] There are well-known legends that portray Judah as a heroic fighter.   For example, Genesis Rabbah 93:6, Theodore-Albeck ed., p. 1157.