Judaism: A Robe Too Far

Why was it this luxurious robe, rather than anything else, that aroused his brothers’ ire?
Published: Friday, December 07, 2012 3:14 PM


Parashat Vayeishev begins with Jacob finally settling down to what he surely hoped would be a peaceful life in Canaan. He had already endured a stormy childhood, having to guard himself constantly from his devious brother twin Esau and his murderous hatred, a 20-year exile with his mendacious and devious uncle Lavan, fighting his way past an angel to return to the Land of Canaan (and becoming Israel in the process), two years of wandering through Canaan on his way home, and the rape of his daughter Dinah.


Now, at the age of 108 years, Jacob had returned to his parents’ house in Hevron (Genesis 35:27), no doubt hoping that his time had come at last to settle down, to live out his old age in peace with his children and grandchildren.

Three verses into our parashah, the Torah tells us that “Israel loved Joseph the most of all his sons because he was the son of his old age, and he made him a striped robe” (Genesis 37:3). The Hebrew phrase “ketonet passim” is highly ambiguous: Targum Yonatan and Ibn Ezra render “an embroidered garment”; Rashi interprets “a garment of fine wool”; Rashbam interprets simply “a coat”; the Radak explains it to mean embroidered with stripes of different colours. The Targum Yerushalmi translates “a colourful fabric”. Both the Malbim (ad. loc.) and the Ramban (commentary to Exodus 28:2) infer that whatever this garment was, it was a garment of royalty, singling out Joseph as being honoured more highly than all his brothers.


Yet there is something puzzling here. If indeed “Israel loved Joseph the most of all his sons because he was the son of his old age”, then did he show his favouritism solely by giving him this special garment? Would he not have given his most beloved son more attention, a lighter work-load, better food, the most comfortable bed, gifts, other special garments, and so forth?

Certainly, the fact that Israel sent his other sons to tend the flock in Shechem while Joseph was living comfortably with his father at home suggests that this striped robe was not the only example of favouritism.

Why, then, does the Torah single it out? And why was it this luxurious robe, rather than anything else, that so aroused his brothers’ ire?

I suggest the following possible answer:

The brothers knew from their own family history of the previous two generations that the principle hat the elder son takes precedence of the younger does not hold. Their great-grandfather Abraham had rejected his first-born son Ishmael in favour of his younger son Isaac. A generation later, the birthright which should have been Esau’s was conferred onto his younger twin Jacob/Israel.

Now their younger brother Joseph seemed to be elbowing his way into a position of precedence over his older brothers; and this was reinforced by his dreams which he (very tactlessly) insisted on relating to his family.


Obviously, in this holiest of all families, the elder brothers (Ishmael and Esau) were rejected not for simple parental favouritism, but because they were inherently spiritually defective. Their respective parents had realised this (consciously or sub-consciously), and had reacted accordingly. Israel’s favouring Joseph sent a clear if subtle message to his other sons: Joseph was spiritually superior to them.

Indeed, the Torah hints at this in the reason that Israel loved Joseph more than the other brothers: “because he was the son of his old age”. Though the Ibn Ezra says that this is “to be taken literally, because he begat him when he was 91 years old”, other commentators disagree. The Radak and the Ramban point out that all of Jacob’s sons were born to him in his old age; as the Ramban notes, “Issachar and Zebulun were only about a year or two older than Joseph”.

Hence it is reasonable to reject the standard translation that Joseph “was the son of his old age”. We should interpret “ben zekunim” to mean not the son born to Jacob’s old age, but rather a son who had the wisdom of old age. This may seem somewhat fanciful in English translation, but Hebrew idiom allows for it.

And indeed, the Targum Onkelos (which usually translates the Torah directly into Aramaic) renders “ben zekunim” as “wise son”: “Israel loved Joseph the most of all his sons because he was his wise son” – which interpretation is favoured by the Radak. This is consistent with the Midrash: “All the halachot which Shem and Ever had taught Jacob, he taught Joseph” (Bereishit Rabbah 84:8).


The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) sees an additional allusion: he cites this Midrash, and then notes that the word “zekunim” has the same numerical value (207) as “raz” (“secret”) – “because he taught him the secrets of the Torah”; also the same numerical value as “zer” (“crowning garland”) – “because ‘the crown of old men [zekeinim] is their children’s children’ (Proverbs 17:6)”.


And then the Ba’al ha-Turim further explains the word “zekunim” to be the acronym of Zera’im (“Seeds”), Kodashim (“Consecrated Things”), Nashim (“Women”), Yeshu’ot (“Salvations”), Mo’ed (“Festival Times”) – five of the six Orders of the Mishnah.

This requires some explanation, because it refers to a statement by Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) in the Talmud.


Reish Lakish quotes the verse, “The faith of Your times will be the strength of salvations, wisdom, and knowledge” (Isaiah 33:6), and analyses: “‘Faith’ – this is the Order of Zera’im (‘Seeds’). ‘Your times’ – this is the order of Mo’ed (‘Festival Times’). ‘Strength’ – this is the Order of Nashim (‘Women’). ‘Salvations’ – this is the Order of Nezikin (‘Damages’). ‘Wisdom’ – this is the Order of Kodashim (‘Consecrated Things’, meaning sacrifices). And ‘knowledge’ – this is the Order of Tohorot (‘Purity’)” (Shabbat 31a).


Notice here that the Ba’al ha-Turim refers to the Order of Nezikin (“Damages”) as “Yeshu’ot” (“Salvations”), following this Talmudic statement.


Rashi explains four of these six references: “Faith” alludes to the Order of Seeds because man relies upon faith to separate tithes as appropriate. “Strength” alludes to the Order of Women because the Hebrew word for “strength” that Isaiah uses in this verse is “hossen”, which is also an expression of inheritance, and inheritors are born of woman. “Salvations” alludes to the Order of Nezikin because by defining the laws of damages, it “saves” man from damaging others and being damaged by others. And finally, says Rashi, “‘knowledge’ – better than ‘wisdom’”.

We can add that “Your times” as referring to the Order of Mo’ed (“Festival Times”) is self-explanatory. And “wisdom” and “knowledge” allude to the last two Orders of the Mishnah, Kodashim (“Consecrated Things”) and Tohorot (“Purity”), because they are exceptionally complex and difficult to understand, so demand great wisdom and knowledge to understand.

Rashi says, somewhat enigmatically, “knowledge – better than wisdom”. In this context, he seems to imply that taharah (“purity”) is better than kedushah (“sanctity”).

We return to the Ba’al ha-Turim, and note that the only Order missing from the acronym of the word “zekunim” according to him is Tohorot (“Purity”), which according to Rashi is better than sanctity. We put this thought on hold for the moment, and will return to it in another few paragraphs.


The Midrash expounds upon the ceremony of the consecration of the Kohanim in the Sinai Desert (Leviticus Chapter 8): “Just as the sacrifices atone, so too the [priestly] garments atone. As we have learnt, the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] ministers while wearing eight garments, and the ordinary Kohen [Priest] ministers while wearing four garments: [the ordinary Kohen wears] the Tunic [kutonet], the Trousers, the Turban, and the Sash; the Kohen Gadol additionally wears the Breastplate, the Ephod, the Robe, and the golden Head-plate” (Vayikra Rabbah 10:6; compare Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 4:5).

The manufacture of these eight garments is described in Exodus Chapter 28; the Kohanim wore them for the first time in the inauguration ceremony of the first sacrifices (Exodus Chapter 29), and again in the consecration ceremony of the Kohanim (Leviticus Chapter 8).

The Midrash (ibid.) continues: “The Tunic [kutonet] atones for having worn forbidden admixtures , as it says ‘…and he made him a striped robe [ketonet]’ (Genesis 37:3)”.

The Yedei Moshe (commentary on the Midrash composed by Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Helin) explains the connexion between the Tunic/robe [kutonet] and wearing forbidden admixtures: “The exact wording is ‘They made the Tunics of linen of woven work…’ (Exodus 37:29), and the word ‘woven’ alludes to mixtures” (commentary on Vayikra Rabbah 10:6).

Joseph’s robe, then, was the fore-runner of the Kohen’s Tunic in addition to resembling royal apparel. Joseph’s ten older brothers perceived him as attempting to claim both the Kehunah (Priesthood) and the kingship for himself.

But Joseph himself was defective. True, he was the firstborn of their father’s most beloved wife, Rachel, and might therefore have had a claim on the birthright of the firstborn, just as Isaac their grandfather had a claim on the birthright of the firstborn, even though he was thirteen years junior to Ishmael, because he was the son of Abraham’s beloved wife Sarah.


But Joseph was defective: he was indeed the “ben zekunim” – the “wise son”, to whom their father Jacob had imparted all the wisdom he had imbibed from the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever. But though (as the Ba’al ha-Turim taught us) he had five of the Orders of the Mishnah – Zera’im (“Seeds”), Mo’ed (“Festival Times”), Nashim (“Women”), Nezikin (“Damages”), and Kodashim (“Consecrated Things”) – he nevertheless lacked the sixth and final Order, Tohorot (“Purity”).


And as Rashi taught us, Tohorot (“Purity”) is more important than Kodashim (“Consecrated Things”), the Order which deals with sacrifices. So how could their younger brother, who hadn’t mastered Tohorot (“Purity”), claim both Kehunah and kingship?!

The prophet Isaiah, as we have seen, alluded to the six Orders of the Mishnah when se said “The faith of Your times will be the strength of salvations, wisdom, and knowledge”; and the prophet concludes that verse: “fear of Hashem – that is his treasure” (Isaiah 33:6).

On the same page of the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), immediately after Reish Lakish relates this verse from Isaiah to the six Orders of the Mishnah, the sage Rabba gives a different interpretation to this same verse. He derives from it that when the Jew dies and stands in judgment, the questions he is asked are: Were you honest in business and trade? Did you set fixed time to study Torah? Did you beget children? Did you look forward to the Redemption? Did you use your wisdom to fathom the intricacies of Torah? Did you use one subject to understand another?


And, continues Rabba, even if the answer to all these is “Yes!”, nevertheless “fear of Hashem – that is his treasure”. That is to say, without fear of Hashem, all the rest is worthless. Wisdom without piety has no value.

Joseph, who at his tender age still lacked Tohorot (“Purity”), was clearly not yet ready to take on the exalted offices of Kehunah and kingship, which his regal robe that his father gave him represented. His brothers could forgive, overlook, even accept with equanimity all other paternal favouritism that Joseph enjoyed. But his robe went one Order too far.


That is why the Torah singles it out from everything else Jacob had done to favour Joseph over all his other sons.


And maybe that was why when Joseph approached his brothers in Dothan, ostentatiously wearing that regal and priestly robe even when going to pasture the flock, his brothers finally decided to eliminate his ambition. And they symbolised that by snatching his robe from him, ripping it up, and drenching it in blood.