The Rabbi's Study

Yosef – A Man of Mystery

It is consistently striking to me that Parashat Mikeitz is nearly always read on Hanukkah. The Festival of Lights is not only a holiday in which we celebrate light in the season of darkness; the Festival of Dedication is also a time during which we reflect on our own personal and collective dedication to Torah. Our Sages of Blessed Memory wrote into the Hanukkah liturgy:

In the days of Matitiyahu ben Yohanan the Hashmona’i Kohen Gadol, and his children, when the evil Greek kingdom stood over Your people Yisrael to cause them to forget Your Torah…

For the Rabbis, Hanukkah was more about committing to a Jewish way of life than it is about celebrating a military victory. It is noteworthy, then, that while we are celebrating the dedication of the Temple and our dedication to the Torah, we are reading in our annual cycle what seems to be the process of Yosef becoming more and more influenced by Egyptian culture around him. At no moment is this more noticeable than when he is elevated to be second in command to Pharaoh, ruling all of Egypt.

Once put into that position, Yosef has a name change – however, unlike the name change of his father and great-grandfather, this name change comes from Pharaoh rather than God. The Torah says:

Pharaoh caled Yosef’s name Tzaf’nat Pa’nei-ah… (Genesis 41:45)

What does this name mean? What language is it? Why does that become his name? None of these questions are answered in the Torah!

Ibn Ezra, a grammarian and linguist, is definitely concerned with the first two questions. His comment on this verse says:

If this word is Egyptian, we do not know its explanation; and if it’s a translation then we do not know Yosef’s actual name…

In his supercommentary on the commentary of Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen of Lissa (18th century) he explains:

The rabbi is bringing the idea that whether it is Egyptian or a translation from Egyptian we do not really have a good explanation. If Pharaoh is calling Yosef by an Egyptian name we do not know his reasoning; and if it is a translation…then we do not know the explanation of why this was appropriate for Yosef…

Rashi, a master of midrash, would be interested in the third question, and he tells us:

[Tzaf’nat] can be explained as “the mysteries,” but Pa’nei-ah has no similarities in Scripture.

OK, that’s a little helpful…

In his Aramaic translation, Onkelos renders this phrase:

Pharaoh called Yosef’s name Gavra D’Mitamran

Now that’s a language we know – it is Aramaic; and they are words we can translate: Man of Mysteries.

Now we’re getting somewhere!

Ramban, a master of all four levels of Torah – the simple meaning, the allusive meaning, the midrashic meaning, and the mystical meaning – and also a philosopher and master of Talmud, lays it out in a very logical manner:

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra says, “If this word is Egyptian, we do not know its explanation; and if it’s a translation then we do not know Yosef’s actual name.” However, the early Sages refer to God in the High Holy Day liturgy as “discerning hidden things, ha’mefanei’ah ne’elamim,” and so perhaps Pharaoh gave Yosef a name in the language of Yosef’s native land, and Pharaoh asked Yosef [how to say it in Hebrew]. Or, perhaps the king knew the language of the land of Kena’an because it was a close by to him. So the name would then mean “revealer of mysteries.” We also find that Pharaoh’s daughter gave Moshe Rabbeinu a name in his own language from “I drew him, m’shiti’hu,” (Ex. 2:10). Now, do not be surprised that the Egyptian books call Moshe “Monius,” because writers change names into a word that is familiar to their readers, just like Onkelos translated “between Kadesh and Shur,” as “between Rekam and Hagra,” because he rendered the names of the places that his readers would know, and he did this for many names, but with other names he did not change them at all! Onkelos uses Sihon, King of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, and many others as well. This was all following what Aramaic speakers would be familiar with, and Christian and other translators have done the same thing.

So Ramban essentially posits: maybe it’s Hebrew, maybe it’s Egyptian, it’s just a name, and don’t get too caught up on it.

But I am caught up on it, and following Onkelos and Rashi, I want to understand why is Yosef called the Man of Mysteries?

There are two obvious possibilities, in my mind: 1) because he has proven himself to be an accurate interpreter of dreams, and this is a reasonable and simple suggestion. But what if there’s something deeper here? In this Torah portion, Yosef will be able to hide his identity from his brothers, and appear as an Egyptian. He is, in essence, allowing himself to become assimilated into the Egyptian aristocracy. However, according to Rabbinic tradition, Yosef observed Shabbat in Egypt, as a Midrash teaches. The Torah tells us Yosef was 17 when his brothers threw him into the pit; and it tells us that he is 30 when Pharaoh promotes him. This means he has spent nearly as many years in Egypt as he did at home, and an overwhelming majority of those years he spent as a servant or in prison. It is a mystery to others why is constantly succeeding.

Yosef is truly a Man of Mystery!


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