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Avram Friedman





Judah’s Speech to Joseph: The Subtext





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Avram Friedman





Judah’s Speech to Joseph: The Subtext








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Judah’s Speech to Joseph: The Subtext

After Joseph’s goblet is found in Benjamin’s sack, Judah makes a passionate speech to save Benjamin, in which he claims that if Benjamin leaves his father, “he will die.” Who will die? Why does the Torah phrase this so ambiguously?


Judah’s Speech to Joseph: The Subtext

Joseph and his brothers, Pier Francesco Mola, 1657. Wikimedia

Judah Speaks to Joseph

After Joseph has his divining cup planted in Benjamin’s sack, Joseph sends his men to arrest Benjamin, spurring the brothers to return to Egypt to plead on their brother’s behalf.[1] Speaking for the brothers, Judah offers that all of them will remain in Egypt with Benjamin as slaves to Joseph, but Joseph says he will not hear of such a thing, and he will only detain the thief.

Judah then steps up again with a long speech, trying to convince Joseph to change his mind, explaining why it would be disastrous to keep Benjamin so far from his father. Judah begins by reminding Joseph how it is that Benjamin ended up in Egypt:

בראשית מד:יט אֲדֹנִי שָׁאַל אֶת עֲבָדָיו לֵאמֹר הֲיֵשׁ לָכֶם אָב אוֹ אָח. מד:כ וַנֹּאמֶר אֶל אֲדֹנִי יֶשׁ לָנוּ אָב זָקֵן וְיֶלֶד זְקֻנִים קָטָן וְאָחִיו מֵת וַיִּוָּתֵר הוּא לְבַדּוֹ לְאִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו אֲהֵבוֹ. מד:כא וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל עֲבָדֶיךָ הוֹרִדֻהוּ אֵלָי וְאָשִׂימָה עֵינִי עָלָיו.
Gen 44:19 My lord asked his servants, “Have you a father or another brother?” 44:20 We told my lord, “We have an old father, and there is a child of his old age, the youngest; his full brother is dead, so that he alone is left of his mother, and his father dotes on him.” 44:21 Then you said to your servants, “Bring him down to me, that I may set eyes on him.”[2]

Judah’s first point is that they left their youngest brother at home with their father on purpose, because of the special love their father has for Benjamin, but that Joseph insisted on their bringing Benjamin to Egypt anyway, so he could see him and, ostensibly, verify their story and learn whether or not they are spies. While the dialogue thus far is embellished, it follows more or less the contours of the story as narrated earlier in the Torah (Gen 42:13­–20).[3]

If He Leaves His Father, He Will Die

Judah then continues his presentation before Joseph with what is ostensibly a paraphrase of the next part of their conversation:

בראשית מד:כב וַנֹּאמֶר אֶל אֲדֹנִי לֹא יוּכַל הַנַּעַר לַעֲזֹב אֶת אָבִיו וְעָזַב אֶת אָבִיו וָמֵת. מד:כג וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל עֲבָדֶיךָ אִם לֹא יֵרֵד אֲחִיכֶם הַקָּטֹן אִתְּכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לִרְאוֹת פָּנָי.
Gen 44:22 We said to my lord, “The boy cannot leave his father; if he were to leave his father, he would die.” 44:23 But you said to your servants, “Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, do not let me see your faces.”

In this version, the brothers warned Joseph about the inevitable harm bringing Benjamin to Egypt would cause, but Joseph insisted anyway. This claim has several problems.

1. “He Will Die” Is Ambiguous

Grammatically speaking, the subject of the verb “he will die” is ambiguous. Does it mean that Jacob will die if his beloved son is taken from him, or that Benjamin will die if he leaves his father? Or might it mean both? Or is it purposely unclear? All of these options can be found in the traditional commentators.

Benjamin Will Die

Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) understands the subject of the verb as Benjamin:

ועזב את אביו ומת – אם יעזב את אביו, דואגים אנו שמא ימות בדרך, שהרי אמו בדרך מתה.
“If he leaves his father he will die”—if he leaves his father, we are afraid that he (Benjamin) might die on the trip, since his mother died on a trip.[4]

Rashi here evokes a kind of superstitious mechanism of "like mother like son." R. Moses Nahmanides (Ramban, ca. 1194–1270) offers a more prosaic, non-superstitious defense of this reading:

פירושו לא יוכל הנער לעזוב את אביו מפני נערותו, והיותו ילד שעשועים בחיק אביו אשר אהבו, ואם יעזבנו ויבא בדרך ימות הנער.
The meaning is that the lad cannot leave his father because of his youth, since he is a dandled child (Jer 31:20) in the lap of his father who loves him, and if he abandons him, and travels, the lad will die.[5]

Jacob Will Die

In contrast, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, 1085–1158) glosses the verse with אביו ימות “his father will die.” His protégé, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.), explains further:

ועזב את אביו ומת – אביו. ביום שלא יראנו, ימות.

“If he leaves his father he will die”—his father, for the very day he (Jacob) doesn’t see him (Benjamin), he will die.

R. Levi Gersonides (Ralbag, 1288–1344) reads this way as well:

רוצה לומר שכבר ימות אביו אם יעזבהו, מרוב אהבתו אותו, לפחדו שיקרהו רע.
Meaning to say, that his father will die if he (Benjamin) leaves him, due to his excessive love for him, and his fear that something bad will happen to him along the way.[6]

Both Will Die

Other scholars suggest that Judah means to imply both will die. Thus, David HaNagid (1222­–ca. 1300), writes in his homilies on Genesis:

הרי הנער אינו יכול לעזוב את אביו, וכן אביו אינו יכול לעזוב אותו, מפני שאין המשך מאחיו ומאמו אלא בו.[7]
The lad cannot leave his father, and his father cannot leave him, since there is no continuity from his brother (Joseph) and his mother (Rachel) except through him.

R. Bahye ben Asher (ca. 1255–1340) also thinks it applies to both:

ועזב את אביו ומת – ימות הנער בבואו בדרך מצד שהוא מעונג ורך ולא נסה שיבא ארח ברגליו. ויכלול עוד מה שימות גם אביו מצער בנו.
“If he leaves his father he will die”—the lad will die when he is on the road, since he is delicate and soft and untried at travel. It also includes that his father will also die, due to sorrow over his son.[8]

Unclear Who Will Die

Another group of interpreters[9] simply say that either might die, and they don’t know which. R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164) states explicitly that it is ambiguous:

אביו או הוא.[10] ולמה לא הביא המזכיר החמשה שאין להם ההכרע?
His father or him. And why didn’t the one who listed the five places where a verse is unclear (b. Yoma 52a–b) include this example?[11]

2. It Is Never Mentioned Earlier in the Story

Nowhere in the earlier part of the Joseph narrative is there mention that just bringing Benjamin to Egypt will cause Jacob or Benjamin to die. R. Isaac Arama (ca. 1420–1494), in his Akeidat Yitzhak commentary, claims it was implied by the earlier narrative:

ומאחר שלא הודינו לך בדבר ונאסרנו עליו היה לך להבין ממנו שהיתה סכנה באביו כאלו אמרנו שלא יוכל הנער לעזוב את אביו ועזב את אביו ומת.
Since we did not inform you of this (the existence of Benjamin) [until we were asked], and we allowed ourselves to be arrested [rather than immediately return home to bring him], you should have understood that there was a danger to his father, as if we had said to you that the lad cannot leave his father, for if he leaves his father, he (Jacob) will die.

In his Daʿat Miqra commentary, Yehuda Kiel (1916–2011) takes a slightly different approach, by invoking a general principle about how the Torah writes:

ולמותר להטעים שלא מצאנו שאכן טענו כך באזני יוסף. ואף כאן יש להשיב שמדרך המקראות לסתם את דבריהם במקומם ולפרשם במקום אחר.[12]
Needless to say, we do not find that [the brothers] did in fact make this claim to Joseph. Here too the answer is that it is the way of scripture to be silent about something in one place and to be explicit it in another.[13]

While this is a possible answer—that scripture can be explicit in one place and be silent in another while on the same topic—the narrative is repeated twice (before ch. 44), and neither repetition gives any hint that such a defense was offered.

First, when the brothers return home to their father, they explain that the vizier thought that they had the appearance of spies, and thus they defended themselves, unaware that they were digging themselves into a trap:

בראשית מב:לא וַנֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו כֵּנִים אֲנָחְנוּ לֹא הָיִינוּ מְרַגְּלִים. מב:לב שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר אֲנַחְנוּ אַחִים בְּנֵי אָבִינוּ הָאֶחָד אֵינֶנּוּ וְהַקָּטֹן הַיּוֹם אֶת אָבִינוּ בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. מב:לג וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֵינוּ הָאִישׁ אֲדֹנֵי הָאָרֶץ בְּזֹאת אֵדַע כִּי כֵנִים אַתֶּם.... מב:לד וְהָבִיאוּ אֶת אֲחִיכֶם הַקָּטֹן אֵלַי וְאֵדְעָה כִּי לֹא מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם כִּי כֵנִים אַתֶּם....
Gen 42:31 We said to him, “We are honest men; we have never been spies! 42:32 There were twelve of us brothers, sons by the same father; but one is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in the land of Canaan.” 42:33 But the man who is lord of the land said to us, “By this I shall know that you are honest men… 42:34 Bring your youngest brother to me, that I may know that you are not spies but honest men….”

At this point in the story, the brothers simply start unpacking their bags. They say nothing to their father in their defense, such as that they tried to dissuade the man from making them bring Benjamin to Egypt, by warning him that father and son cannot be separated.

The next example of how the older telling of the story said nothing about the brothers attempting to dissuade Joseph is even starker. Jacob at first refuses to allow the brothers to return to Egypt with Benjamin.

בראשית מב:לו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם אֹתִי שִׁכַּלְתֶּם יוֹסֵף אֵינֶנּוּ וְשִׁמְעוֹן אֵינֶנּוּ וְאֶת בִּנְיָמִן תִּקָּחוּ עָלַי הָיוּ כֻלָּנָה.
Gen 42:36 Their father Jacob said to them, “You have made me bereaved: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. All these things happen to me!”

Even though Reuben tries to convince his father to trust him to take care of Benjamin, Jacob is unconvinced:

בראשית מב:לח וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יֵרֵד בְּנִי עִמָּכֶם כִּי אָחִיו מֵת וְהוּא לְבַדּוֹ נִשְׁאָר וּקְרָאָהוּ אָסוֹן בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכוּ בָהּ וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת שֵׂיבָתִי בְּיָגוֹן שְׁאוֹלָה.
Gen 42:38 But he said, “My son must not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to sheʾol in grief.”

When the food is about to run out, and brother Simeon is rotting in an Egyptian prison, Jacob tries to convince his sons to go back to Egypt, ostensibly without Benjamin, and Judah responds by underlining that such a move would border on the suicidal, since this powerful man was clear that they should not show their faces in Egypt again unless Benjamin be with them.

Jacob then expresses his anguish and frustration, noting that the brothers never should have told this man that there was such a person as Benjamin:

בראשית מג:ו וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתֶם לִי לְהַגִּיד לָאִישׁ הַעוֹד לָכֶם אָח. מג:ז וַיֹּאמְרוּ שָׁאוֹל שָׁאַל הָאִישׁ לָנוּ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֵּנוּ לֵאמֹר הַעוֹד אֲבִיכֶם חַי הֲיֵשׁ לָכֶם אָח וַנַגֶּד לוֹ עַל פִּי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה הֲיָדוֹעַ נֵדַע כִּי יֹאמַר הוֹרִידוּ אֶת אֲחִיכֶם.
Gen 43:6 And Israel said, “Why did you serve me so ill as to tell the man that you had another brother?” 43:7 They replied, “The man kept asking about us and our family, saying, ‘Is your father still living? Have you another brother?’ And we answered him accordingly. How were we to know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother here’?”

Here again, we might have expected the brothers to tell their father that they pleaded with the man not to force them to bring Benjamin, but they say nothing about it. Thus, Kiel’s answer that the Torah simply left this out of the earlier telling seems unlikely. Instead, it would appear that Judah is “reminding” Joseph of a conversation that they actually never had. Why would he do this?

3. The Claim Is Not True

Perhaps the biggest problem with the claim that someone, either Benjamin and/or Jacob will die is that it is patently false. Judah claims that a separation between Jacob and Benjamin will kill one or both of them, but Benjamin is literally standing before Joseph alive, and Judah constantly refers to his father as still living. Clearly, the separation killed neither of them.

As readers, we often miss this point because we elide this claim with the concern Judah mentions later in his speech, when quoting to Joseph what his father said to him back in Canaan:

בראשית מד:כז וַיֹּאמֶר עַבְדְּךָ אָבִי אֵלֵינוּ אַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם כִּי שְׁנַיִם יָלְדָה לִּי אִשְׁתִּי. מד:כח וַיֵּצֵא הָאֶחָד מֵאִתִּי וָאֹמַר אַךְ טָרֹף טֹרָף וְלֹא רְאִיתִיו עַד הֵנָּה. מד:כט וּלְקַחְתֶּם גַּם אֶת זֶה מֵעִם פָּנַי וְקָרָהוּ אָסוֹן וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת שֵׂיבָתִי בְּרָעָה שְׁאֹלָה.
Gen 44:27 Your servant my father said to us, “As you know, my wife bore me two sons. 44:28 But one is gone from me, and I said: Alas, he was torn by a beast! And I have not seen him since. 44:29 If you take this one from me, too, and he meets with disaster, you will send my white head down to Sheol in sorrow.”

According to this, Jacob recognizes the possibility—not the certainty—that something terrible could happen to Benjamin on the way, and only in such a scenario, does he envision himself dying of grief. Judah continues by describing his nightmare scenario of what will happen if Joseph keeps Benjamin in Egypt:

בראשית מד:ל וְעַתָּה כְּבֹאִי אֶל עַבְדְּךָ אָבִי וְהַנַּעַר אֵינֶנּוּ אִתָּנוּ וְנַפְשׁוֹ קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁוֹ. מד:לא וְהָיָה כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי אֵין הַנַּעַר וָמֵת וְהוֹרִידוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ אֶת שֵׂיבַת עַבְדְּךָ אָבִינוּ בְּיָגוֹן שְׁאֹלָה.
Gen 44:30 Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us—since his own life is so bound up with his—44:31 when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief.

Again, Judah envisions Jacob dying only in response to Benjamin’s absence when the brothers return. Even though he says that their souls are intertwined, which is reminiscent of the claim earlier in his speech, the danger to Jacob is only of Benjamin not returning—nothing is said about the danger of Benjamin leaving. But in verse 22, Judah says that the very separation will kill one or both of them.

This is actually a strange claim. It is hard to understand why Jacob would die from a simple separation, and the claim makes even less sense if we are envisioning Benjamin dying. The latter point is made stridently by Don Isaac Abravanel (question 8 on the story):

ואם חוזר לנער הנה היו דבריו שקר מבואר כי בנימן היה בן ל"א שנה ולמה ימות בעזבו אביו כיונק שדי אמו
If the text is referring to Benjamin, then the words are patently false, since Benjamin was 31 years old, why should he die just because he leaves his father, like a child still nursed by his mother?[14]

Thus, the claim that separation will be their deaths is both strange and false.

Why would Judah include this absurd and false claim in his speech, and phrase it as something he had said to Joseph earlier, when Joseph knows that he did not?

The Subtext of Judah’s Speech

Judah’s use of an exaggerated claim, which is both factually false and recounts a statement to Joseph that he hadn’t actually said, is used for rhetorical effect. Judah is calling Joseph’s attention to the fact that the entire situation is Joseph’s fault. This was already noted by R. Abraham Saba (1440–1508) in his Tzeror HaMor commentary, who notes that the key to the entire long speech is the subtext:

הנה האריך יהודה הרבה בדבריו עד שהוא פלא איך יוסף הקשיב לדבריו. סיפור כל המאורע מראש ועד סוף והדברים שעברו ביניהם שלא ספרה. וזה התחכמות גדול ביהודה להשיג בקשתו.
Judah made a long speech here, with matters that are shocking: How did Joseph listen to this?! He told everything that happened from the beginning to the end, and even things that (ostensibly) took place between them that were not told before. This was done very strategically by Judah, who wished to accomplish his goals.
והשומע סבור שהוא ספור העבר מקודם לכן. ואינו כן כי היה מספר העבר ובתוך סיפורו היה מודיע לעומדים שם כי כל ענייני יוסף היו תחבולה עמהם בשאלותיו. ומה לו ולהם אם יש להם אב או אח. בענין שכל דברי יהודה היו תפוחי זהב במשכיות כסף.
The person listening would think this was simply a retelling of the past, but it isn’t, for as he was speaking of the past, he was communicating to those standing there that everything Joseph had done was to trick them with his questions: Why was his issue with them, and what did he care whether they had a (living) father or another brother? In this sense, all of Judah’s words were “golden apples in silver showpieces” (Prov 25:11).

The difficulty Judah has in forming his plea to Joseph is that Judah doesn’t know how the goblet ended up in Benjamin’s bag, and what is really behind the vizier’s behavior towards them. Thus, Judah is hedging:

Benjamin Stole the Goblet: Mercy for Jacob

On one hand, Judah considers the possibility that Benjamin really did steal the cup. Indeed, Midrash Aggadah (11th cent.) envisions the brothers rebuking Benjamin for this (Gen 44:12, Buber ed.):

כיון שנמצא הגביע, אמרו לו אחיו גנב בר גנבתא, רחל אמך גנבה את התרפים ואתה גנבת את הגביע!
When they found the goblet, his brothers said to him: “Thief son of a (female) thief! Rachel, your mother, stole the teraphim, and you stole the goblet!”

If this is the case, then Judah’s point would have been to emphasize the poor father, who would be unable to survive this blow. Indeed, Judah is subtly criticizing Joseph for forcing them to bring the lad and risk their elderly father’s life. Joseph’s reaction in the next chapter, when he asks again הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי “is my father still alive?” (Gen 45:3) implies that he half believes Judah’s claim.

Joseph Planted the Cup: Mercy for Benjamin

On the other hand, Judah also considers the possibility that Joseph planted the cup. Given this entire situation was brought about by Joseph’s questioning, and that their money had been returned to them without their awareness twice, Judah suspects that Joseph has been plotting against them from the beginning. (Indeed, such is the case.)[15]

If so, Judah would be communicating to Joseph that Benjamin is an especially helpless scapegoat. Benjamin is a delicate child who cannot live away from his beloved father. If, for whatever reason, Joseph felt that he needed to make an example out of this family, he should have mercy on Benjamin and pick someone else.

The Torah Leaves Judah’s Meaning Ambiguous

Judah is being purposefully ambiguous. In the words of Robert Alter:

He leaves it to Joseph to decide whether the old man would die if he were separated from Benjamin or whether Benjamin could not survive without his father, or whether both dire possibilities might be probable.[16]

We, as readers, are left to consider multiple interpretations of Judah’s speech. Just as we are never told why Joseph accuses his brothers of spying, and why he wants Benjamin brought to Egypt, the Torah does not clarify how Judah understands Joseph’s behavior, and what he is trying to communicate in his plea. This tension is one of the elements that makes the Joseph novella so engaging.[17]

Dedicated in memory of my mother Esther Friedman z”l who passed away on the 30th of Kislev, Shabbat Chanukah this year. She instilled in her family the love for עם ישראל, תורת ישראל and ארץ ישראל. May her memory be blessed.


December 14, 2021


Last Updated

December 3, 2022


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Avram (Avi) Friedman is a Retired Managing Member of Davidson Kempner Capital Management where he co-ran the credit investing areas. He is currently an Adjunct Associate Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.