Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kedushat Levi: how the סריס Potifar could have been informed בשעת תשמיש

Summary: Harmonizing two contradictory Rashi's, that Hashem transformed Potifar into a saris when he bought Yosef for משכב זכר purposes, and that Potifar's wife falsely accused Yosef when she was בשעת תשמיש with her husband.

Post: In Kedushas Levi on parashat Vayeshev, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev points out an apparent contradiction between two Rashis.

That is, on the following pasuk in Vayeshev, in perek 39, Rashi writes:

19. Now it came about when his master heard his wife's report that she spoke to him, saying, "Your slave did such things to me," that his wrath burned.יט. וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ אֲדֹנָיו אֶת דִּבְרֵי אִשְׁתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר דִּבְּרָה אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר כַּדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה עָשָׂה לִי עַבְדֶּךָ וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ:
Now it came about when his master heard, etc.: During intercourse she told him this, and that is the meaning of“Your slave did such things to me,” [meaning] such acts of intimacy. [From Gen. Rabbah 87:9]ויהי כשמוע אדוניו וגו': בשעת תשמיש אמרה לו כן, וזהו שאמרה כדברים האלה עשה לי עבדך, עניני תשמיש כאלה:
However, in parashat Miketz, in perek 41, Rashi writes:

45. And Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath Pa'neach, and he gave him Asenath the daughter of Poti phera, the governor of On, for a wife, and Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt.מה. וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה שֵׁם יוֹסֵף צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ אֶת אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע כֹּהֵן אֹן לְאִשָּׁה וַיֵּצֵא יוֹסֵף עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

Poti-phera: He is Potiphar, but he was called Poti-phera because he became emasculated since he desired Joseph for homosexual relations. — [from Sotah 13b]פוטי פרע: הוא פוטיפר, ונקרא פוטיפרע על שנסתרס מאליו, לפי שלקח את יוסף למשכב זכר:

This is based on the gemara in Sotah 13b:

(בראשית לט, א) ויוסף הורד מצרימה א"ר אלעזר אל תיקרי הורד אלא הוריד שהוריד איצטגניני פרעה מגדולתן ויקנהו פוטיפר סריס פרעה אמר רב שקנאו לעצמו (בא גבריאל וסירסו) בא גבריאל ופירעו מעיקרא כתיב פוטיפר ולבסוף פוטיפרע:
'And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's bought him', Rab said: He bought him for himself;16  but Gabriel came and castrated him,17  and then Gabriel came and mutilated him [pera'], for originally his name is written Potiphar but afterwards Potiphera.18
Where certainly, after a closed-canon approach, the slight divergence in names contributes to the derasha. But also because the word saris in the pasuk in 39:1 is being darshened.

1. Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, Pharaoh's chamberlain, chief of the slaughterers, an Egyptian man, purchased him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.א. וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים אִישׁ מִצְרִי מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה:

He purchased him, but became a saris, and so was unable to act out his desires.

But if Potifar had become emasculated, then how could he have engaged in intercourse with his wife?!

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv answers that "according to the peshat" of the matter, the incident with his wife was before he was emasculated. And the reason he was not yet emasculated was to give opportunity to this wicked man to believe his wife's words.

This strikes me as a rather unlikely harmonization of the two midrashim. Yosef worked for Potifar for quite a while before the incident with eshet Potiphar. And the assault by Gavriel was not intended as punishment, but rather as a preventative measure to protect Yosef. Do you think that if Potifar indeed bought Yosef in large part to have intercourse with him, he would not have taken action once he was able? And after being told this by his wife, he was enraged, and sought to imprison Yosef, so when could he have tried this?

It seems like the Kedushas Levi regards it as punishment rather than preventative measure. I am not certain how to parse his last statement:

"And the Torah hints to us that, at times, Hashem Yisbarach allows the wicked to prosper when they act wickedly against the tzadik, in order that the righteous one strengthens himself in his actions. And the wicked one says in his heart that he is succeeding in this, that he is doing wickedness to the  tzadik. But in truth, Hashem Yisbarach's intent is to destroy the wicked one after this, as in the statement {in Iyov 12:23}:

כג  מַשְׂגִּיא לַגּוֹיִם, וַיְאַבְּדֵם;    שֹׁטֵחַ לַגּוֹיִם, וַיַּנְחֵם.23 He increaseth the nations, and destroyeth them; He enlargeth the nations, and leadeth them away.


If I am reading this correctly, he is saying that indeed, Potifar did succeed in his evil designs against Yosef, in having homosexual relations with him. But later, as punishment for this, Potifar became a eunuch.

But I am not sure I am reading this correctly.

I would rather say that these are indeed contradictory midrashim, that Rashi happens to cite. One is the gemara in Sotah, from Rav, and the other is in Midrash Rabba, from Rabbi Abahu. And Rashi's concern might be more the equation of the two people, rather than the detail of him being a saris.

The midrash about Potifar becoming a eunuch does not only occur in Sotah. It also appears in Midrash Rabba (86:3), anonymously:

שהיה פורע עצמו לעבודת כוכבים. 
כיון שירד הפר לשם, נעשה פויטנון סריס פרעה, שנסתרס בגופו.
מלמד שלא לקחו אלא לתשמיש, וסרסו הקדוש ברוך הוא בגופו.

משל לדובה, שהיתה משכלת בבני אדוניה. אמר: פכרון ניביה. 
כך מלמד, שלא לקחו אלא לתשמיש וסרסו הקב"ה, הה"ד: (תהלים לז)כי ה' אוהב משפט וגו'.
חסידו כתיב,
ואיזה? זה יוסף. 
לעולם נשמרו וזרע רשעים נכרת 
מלמד, שלא לקחו אלא לתשמיש וסרסו הקדוש ברוך הוא.

We should probably make diyukim in the language and presentation of this midrash. For instance, the support derash of לעולם נשמרו referring to the חסיד, Yosef, leads many meforshim to understand that this was a protective measure.


Might Garnel Ironheart said...

Perhaps it's tied to his imprisonment? That after his wife pointed Yosef out he suddenly got interested which is why he imprisoned Yosef instead of executing him, and that's when he got castrated?

joshwaxman said...

perhaps, in the abstract. but there would still be a difficulty working it out with the words of Rashi and the midrashim, which state לפי שלקח את יוסף, and שקנאו לעצמו, based in turn on the pasuk in 39:1 that וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה. It seems to me that they are all working with the assumption that Potifar's intent, at least, began together with Yosef's initial purchase as a slave.

Michael said...

Ramban asks this question and also asks how Potiphar's wife could have said "kadevarim ha'eileh" during actual intercourse. He would have been furious that she hadn't screamed to scare Yosef away before he got that far! He answers that it was merely "mishmush yadayim," something that Potiphar was capable of despite his emasculation and which would exonerate her for not screaming earlier.

See also Da'as Zekainim Ba'alei Tosfos, who say that he was emasculated in such a way that prevented him from engaging in sodomy but allowed him to engage in relations with his wife.

joshwaxman said...


thanks. (i still prefer my own answer, though.)


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