The Story of the Sale of Joseph, a Central Yom Kippur Service Motif
The Story of the Sale of Joseph, a Central Yom Kippur Service Motif

There is an interesting version of the story of the sale of Yosef (Joseph) which appears in the Book of Jubilees, an apocryphal work written by Jews, probably in the 2nd century BC. Most of the details of the story are the same as recounted in the Torah, except for an interesting addition - a precise date that Yosef was sold by his brothers:

Book of Jubilees 34:  11-15

And in the seventh year of this week he sent Yosef to learn about the welfare of his brothers from his house to the land of Shechem, and he found them in the land of Dothan. And they dealt treacherously with him, and formed a plot against him to slay him, but changing their minds, they sold him to Ishmaelite merchants, and they brought him down into Egypt, and they sold him to Potiphar, the eunuch of Pharaoh, the chief of the cooks, priest of On. And the sons of Yaakov slaughtered a kid, and dipped the coat of Yosef in the blood, and sent (it) to Yaakov their father on the tenth of the seventh month.”

Book of Jubilees 34:  23-25

“For this reason it is ordained for the children of Israel that they should afflict themselves on the tenth of the seventh month -on the day that the news which made him weep for Yosef came to Yaakov his father- that they should make atonement for themselves thereon with a young goat on the tenth of the seventh month, once a year, for their sins; for they had grieved the affection of their father regarding Yosef his son. And this day has been ordained that they should grieve thereon for their sins, and for all their transgressions and for all their errors, so that they might cleanse themselves on that day once a year.”

According to the Book of Jubilees, Yom Kippur was also instituted because of the sale of Yosef by his brothers!  It is not difficult to make the connection between the narrative of the sale of Yosef and the Seder Avodah (service of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol) of Yom Kippur.

First, in both narratives a goat is killed: Yosef - "And they slaughtered a goat" (Genesis 37:31), and Yom Kippur - “Then shall he kill the goat of the sin-offering” (Leviticus 16:15).

The desert is a theme in both narratives. Yosef’s brothers "threw him into this pit in the desert" (Genesis 37:24).  On Yom Kippur the instruction regarding the goat is to "send him to Azazel into the desert ..." (Leviticus 16:10).

In both narratives there is a confession. Yosef’s brothers said: “We are verily guilty concerning our brother” (Genesis 42:21).  And we are told that on Yom Kippur: “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21).

The Rambam was aware of this ancient traditional linking of the sin of the fathers’ in the sale of Yosef to atonement through the medium of the goat in the Avodah.“Our Sages z”l, however, explained the fact that goats were always the sin-offerings of the congregation, as an allusion to the first sin of the whole congregation of Israel: for in the account of the selling of the pious Yosef we read, ‘And they killed a kid of the goats’ (Gen. 37: 31). Do not consider this as a weak argument; for it is the object of all these ceremonies to impress on the mind of every sinner and transgressor the necessity of continually remembering and mentioning his sins. Thus the Psalmist says, ‘And my sin is ever before me’ (Ps. 51:3). The above-mentioned sin-offerings further show us that when we commit a sin, we, our children, and the children of our children, require atonement for that sin by some kind of service analogous to the sin committed”(Guide for the PerplexedSection III Chapter 46, Friedländer translation).

It seems, however, that the relationship between the sin of selling Yosef to Yom Kippur goes further. In fact, it is one of the major themes of the service of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in the Beit Hamikdash on Yom Kippur. The Sages were aware of this and hinted at it pointing out expressions borrowed from stories of the sale with parallels in the Avodah. Here are some examples:

  • The Kohen’s clothing is called ‘Kutonet’ (Coat), reminding us of Yosef’s ‘Kutonet Passim’ coat of many colors.
  • The Kohen’s immersion before he changes his garments is described in Mishna Yoma: “He stripped, went down, and immersed himself, came up”(Mishna Yoma, 3:4). These four procedures remind us of the actions of Yosef’s brothers: “they stripped Yosef of his coat… and immersed the coat in the blood… and they drew and lifted up Yosef… And they brought Yosef down to Egypt… “(Genesis 37: 23, 28, 31).
  • The Kohen’s confession "and so would say, Please Hashem, I have transgressed, I have committed crime and I have sinned before You …"words that remind us of the language of the brothers to Yosef: “Forgive, I pray thee now, the transgression of thy brethren, and their sin” (Genesis 50:17).
  • The unique word Teref meaning prey, torn or snatched appears in the context of the two lots cast for the goats on Yom Kippur. “He took as prey [snatched] from the lottery box and grabbed up two lots, on one it was inscribed: “For the Lord” and on the other was inscribed: “For Azazel”(Mishna Yoma, 4:1).The termTeref also is used by Yaakov to express his grief: “Yosef is without doubt prey and has been torn in pieces”(Genesis 37:33).
  • Perhaps another reminder is in the mention of the city of Hebron: When Yaakov sends Yosef to seek his brothers it is written: “So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem” (Genesis 37:14). The City of Hebron is also mentioned in the Service of Yom Kippur:“The officer said to them: ‘go and see if the time of the slaughtering has arrived.’ If it arrived, the person looking said, ‘Barkai [morning has broken and is shining]!’ Matityahu ben Sh’muel says, the entire east is lit up, ‘until Hebron?’ and he said, ‘yes’. (Mishna Yoma, 3:1).

Significant evidence that the liturgists were astutely aware of this connection is the appearance of the lament of the Ten Martyrs -Elah Ezkarah- in the Yom Kippur liturgy. This lamentation appears in the Musaf prayer after the Seder Avodah and describes the murder of the Ten Martyrs as punishment for Yosef’s sale:

“Where are your forefathers who sold their brother,

to a caravan of Ishmaelite’s

and bartered him for shoes?!

You must submit to the judgement of Heaven,

for since the days of your fathers there have been none like you.

If they were alive, I would convict them in your presence;

but now it is you who must atone for the iniquity of your  fathers”.

(Machzor HaShalem, Musaf Yom Kippur, Translated Philip Birnbaum)

I would like to delve into the deeper meaning of these verses.  The peshat is that the children of Israel are paying for their forefathers’ sin of selling Yosef.

The Talmud in Tractate Brachot addresses the contradiction between the verses"visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children" and the phrase "nor the children be put to death for the fathers”. The Talmud states that God actually commands that the guilt of the fathers be visited on the sons where [the sons] retain their father’s sinful practices” (Brachot, 7a).The Kohen Gadol’s service on Yom Kippur therefore does not come to atone for the sin of selling Yosef; it is  because the descendants of the tribes of Israel, throughout the generations, remain infected with this sin of brotherly hatred and must therefore atone because they "retain their father’s sinful practices”.

Every year on Yom Kippur we are given a forceful reminder that we must change this sinful behavior. The kutonet (coat), goat, blood and confession are supposed to inspire our hearts towards Tikkun and Teshuva.  Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra’s poetic liturgy in the Musaf prayer ‘Ashrei Ayin’  (Fortunate is the Eye) appears after the Kohen Gadol’s service and states:  "Your great mercy that you gave us this fast day, Yom Kippur,  a day forgiveness of  this sin  ... a  day of  giving love and companionship, leaving competition and jealousy ..."

I would like to suggest an additional layer of meaning. Yosef’s story is not only the narrative of a grave sin nor is it just an account of reconciliation and sincere repentance. Yosef’s story is a tale about forgiveness and the ability to forgive. Yosef's greatness is that he is able to forgive his brothers. On Yom Kippur we must not only repent and atone for our own sins but we must forgive those who have sinned against us.

Rambam writes in Hilkhot Teshuva:  “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge. This is the path of the seed of Israel and their upright spirit. “(Hilkhot Teshuva Chapter 2 Halakha 10)

On Yom Kippur we remind Hashem that just as Yosef conquered his anger and forgave his brothers with his whole heart, God too should conquer His anger towards his children and, like Yosef, forgive us our transgressions.

I would like to conclude with the prayer of the Kohen Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha on Yom Kippur as set out in Tractate Brachot:  It was taught: Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha related, One time I entered the Holy of Holies to place incense in the innermost place and I saw God, the Lord of Hosts, sitting on a throne exalted and high. And God said: 'Yishmael, My son, bless Me.' And I responded'May it be Your will that Your capacity for mercy overwhelm Your capacity for anger, that Your capacity for mercy overshadow Your sterner attributes, that You behave mercifully toward all Your children, and that, for their benefit, You go beyond the boundaries of judgment.' (Tractate Brachot 7a)

Amen and may it be God’s will.

The writer holds a Ph.D. in Tanakh from Bar-Ilan University and she has been teaching Tanakh and Torah Sheb’al Peh for over two decades in Israel and abroad. Dr. Rock is a senior lecturer at Matan. Her online classes appear regularly through Yeshivat Har-Etzion's Virtual Beit Midrash, and she teaches in the Boca Raton community by video conference and as scholar in residence. Dr. Rock is a certified Rabbinical Advocate.  She lives in Bet Shemesh with her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Rock, and their five children.