Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How was Yosef's milah different from that of the Egyptians?

Summary: A seeming, or very real, contradiction between two Rashis. If Yosef compelled the Egyptians to circumcise themselves, how could he present his own circumcision to his brothers as proof of his Hebrew identity? Rav Chaim Kanievsky suggests priyah or that the brothers were previously unaware of Yosef's decree. I suggest, based on another midrash Tanchuma, that Yosef's aposthia would be different than any sort of milah, since there would be no scar. And finally, I consider what midrash contradicts what other midrash, whether contradictions in Rashi are troubling, and establish for myself that I like the question but will dislike any answer.

Post: Rav Chaim Kanievsky discusses an interesting apparent contradiction in Rashi. In parashat Miketz:

55. When the entire land of Egypt hungered, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread, but Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, "Go to Joseph; what he tells you, do."נה. וַתִּרְעַב כָּל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם אֶל פַּרְעֹה לַלָּחֶם וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה לְכָל מִצְרַיִם לְכוּ אֶל יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר לָכֶם תַּעֲשׂוּ:
When the entire land of Egypt hungered: For their grain, which they had stored, had decayed, except that of Joseph. — [from Mid. Tanchuma Mikeitz 7]ותרעב כל ארץ מצרים: שהרקיבה תבואתם שאצרו חוץ משל יוסף:
what he tells you, do: Since Joseph had ordered them to circumcise themselves, and when they came to Pharaoh and said, “This is what he said to us,” he (Pharaoh) said to them, “Why didn’t you gather grain? Didn’t he announce to you that years of famine were coming?” They replied, “We gathered much, but it rotted.” He (Pharaoh) replied,“If so, do whatever he tells you. He issued a decree upon the grain, and it rotted. What if he issues a decree upon us and we die?” - [from Mid. Tanchuma Mikeitz 7, Gen. Rabbah 91:5]אשר יאמר לכם תעשו: לפי שהיה יוסף אומר להם שימולו, וכשבאו אצל פרעה ואומרים כך הוא אומר לנו, אמר להם למה לא צברתם בר, והלא הכריז לכם ששני הרעב באים, אמרו לו אספנו הרבה והרקיבה, אמר להם אם כן כל אשר יאמר לכם תעשו, הרי גזר על התבואה והרקיבה, מה אם יגזור עלינו ונמות:

and yet, here in parashat Vayigash:

4. Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Please come closer to me," and they drew closer. And he said, "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.ד. וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו גְּשׁוּ נָא אֵלַי וַיִּגָּשׁוּ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה:
Please come closer: He saw them drawing backwards. He said,“Now my brothers are embarrassed” (Tanchuma Vayigash 5). He called them tenderly and pleadingly and showed them that he was circumcised (Gen. Rabbah 93:10).גשו נא אלי: ראה אותם נסוגים לאחוריהם, אמר עכשיו אחי נכלמים, קרא להם בלשון רכה ותחנונים, והראה להם שהוא מהול:

And so too, a bit later:

12. And behold, your eyes see, as well as the eyes of my brother Benjamin, that it is my mouth speaking to you.יב. וְהִנֵּה עֵינֵיכֶם רֹאוֹת וְעֵינֵי אָחִי בִנְיָמִין כִּי פִי הַמְדַבֵּר אֲלֵיכֶם:
And behold, your eyes see: my glory and that I am your brother, for I am circumcised, and moreover, that it is my mouth that is speaking to you in the holy tongue (Gen. Rabbah 93:10).והנה עיניכם רואות: בכבודי, ושאני אחיכם, שהרי אני מהול ככם. ועוד כי פי המדבר אליכם בלשון הקודש:

This would appear to be a contradiction, for how would this be a proof that he was the son of Yaakov? After all, now all Egyptians were circumcised!

Rav Chaim Kanievsky writes, in Taama deKra:
"I was asked that behold, Rashi wrote above that Yosef commanded all Egyptians to circumcise themselves. If so, what if the proof that this was Yosef?

And there is to say that priyah was not given to Avraham Avinu. And Tosafot writes in Yevamot (71b, d"h lo) that even so, Avraham Avinu performed priyah, for he fulfilled the entirety of Torah.

And if so, Yosef commanded them to circumcise without priyah, but Yosef himself performed priyah, for the patriarchs {and shevatim} kept all the Torah.

(And according to the peshat, they did not know that the Egyptians circumcised themselves, for if not so, there is no greater proof than this that it is Torah. For if not so, why did he command them to circumcise?)"

(See also Yosef Daas on this, for a cute pshat.)

If I might throw another midrash into the mix, according to Midrash Tanchuma, Yosef, like Yaakov, was born mahul, such that no milah or priyah would be necessary -- just hatafas dam bris. This is a congenital condition called aposthiaThus, from the Chachamim, in opposition to R' Yehoshua ben Levi:

וחכמים אומרים: 
תחת אבותיך יהיו בניך (תהלים מה). ש

את מוצא כל מה שהגיע ליעקב הגיע ליוסף: יעקב נולד מהול.
 כן, שנאמר: אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף. 

We can readily resolve the difficulty on this basis. Typical circumcision leaves a circumcision scar. There are pictures on this Wikipedia page depicting it.
In males who have been circumcised, the circumcision scar refers to the scar after a circumcision has healed. In some cases, the scar can be darker-colored, and, in all cases, it will encircle the shaft of the penis.
The scar is located at the boundary of the outer foreskin and the inner foreskin remnant, which is the portion of the foreskin that was not removed during circumcision. This foreskin remnant is mucosa that lies between the glans and the circumcision scar, which results in dissimilar tissue healing together. In adult circumcision part of the frenulum may remain intact. The foreskin remnant can often have a different color and texture than the rest of the penile skin. It can be pinkish or light-colored, and it can be covered with keratin to protect it from a dry environment.
If so, Yosef could have shown them his milah, and they could have examined it and noticed that there was no circumcision scar, because he was born mahul. Meanwhile, even though the Egyptians practiced milah (and perhaps even priyah!) they would have had a circumcision scar.

And because aposthia is an incredibly rare condition, it would serve well to identify Yosef as their brother.

But as much as I take joy in producing such novel midrashim and harmonizations, based on textual sources, ultimately I do not think that this was the intent of the midrashim under discussion.

My inclination regarding this is that it is indeed a contradiction, and that Rashi will, on occasion, bring contradictory midrashim.

In terms of Midrash Tanchuma, one of Rashi's sources, I don't think there is any contradiction at all, and so there is nothing to harmonize. That is, in parashat Miketz, Tanchuma siman 7, we see compulsive milah:

כשהיה רעב בימי דוד בקש רחמים מלפני הקב"ה, ואמר: ריבון העולם נהיג את צאנך כיוסף, שזן את העולם בשני רעבון, כיון שחזק עליהם הרעב בארץ מצרים נתקבצו המצרים ובאו אצל יוסף. 
א"ל: תן לנו לחם. 
א"ל: אלוהי אינו זן את הערלים, לכו ומולו עצמכם ואתן לכם לחם.
הלכו להם אצל פרעה והיו צועקין ובוכין לפניו, שנאמר: ותרעב כל ארץ מצרים ויצעק העם אל פרעה ללחם.
ויאמר פרעה לכל מצרים: לכו אל יוסף. 
אמרו לו: הלכנו אצלו ומדבר לנו דברים ריקים, שאומר: מולו עצמכם. 
אמר להם: שוטים לא כך אמרתי לכם מתחלה עבדוהו, וקנו לעצמכם תבואה, וכי לא היה קורא לכם כל אותן שני השבע וצווח לכם, הוו יודעים שרעב בא לעולם, אם אתם פשעתם בנפשותיכם, מה תצעקו אלי, מפני מה לא הנחתם בבתיכם תבואה של שתים של שלש של ארבעה שנים? אמרו לו: כל תבואה שהייתה בבתינו כבר הרקיבה. 
אמר להם: לא נשתייר לכם קמח מאתמול? 
אמרו לו: פת שהיה בכלינו עפשה. 
אמר להן: לכו אל יוסף ואשר יאמר לכם תעשו. 
ומה אם שגזר על התבואה והרקיבה מתייראין אנו, שאם יגזור עלינו שנמות, כולנו מתים, אלא כל אשר יאמר לכם תעשו. 

and in parashat Vayigash, in Tanchuma siman 5, no mention is made of Yosef's milah or showing the brothers his milah. Rather, we have:

כיון שראה יוסף שהייתה להם בושה גדולה, אמר להן: גשו נא אלי ויגשו וכל אחד ואחד היה מנשקו ובוכה עליו, שנאמר: וינשק לכל אחיו ויבך עליהם, ו

Indeed, there are two explanations in Rashi as to the meaning of גשו נא אלי ויגשו. The first is that:
He saw them drawing backwards. He said,“Now my brothers are embarrassed” (Tanchuma Vayigash 5). He called them tenderly and pleadingly...

And this is drawn from Midrash Tanchuma. So, according to that source, there is nothing to harmonize. But only then does Rashi add a secondary explanation, that

and showed them that he was circumcised 

In terms of Bereishit Rabba 91:5, in terms of the compulsatory milah, one can read it here. And in terms of showing his brothers his milah, see here, in 93:10:

גשו נא אלי ויגשו הראה להם את המילה. 

This is indeed a contradiction. Perhaps we can say, though, that Midrash Rabba is bringing different sources which are indeed ultimately contradictory. Different Tannaim or Amoraim offered these different interpretations.

But then, Rashi, who is a single individual, brings down these two midrashim. Surely he must have in mind some harmonization! Perhaps, and perhaps not. Perhaps he did not set his mind to harmonizing every side-effect and implication of every midrash, such that they would all work together. Perhaps each of these midrashim, individually, were the sort of midrash he set out to bring -- ולאגדה המיישבת דברי המקרא, דבר דבור על אופניו. But at the same time, he trusted his readers to recognize midrash as midrash rather than peshat, and to therefore realize that whether one puts forth a specific midrash on a specific pasuk is optional. If it is peshat, then it is obligatory, for it is the singular historical meaning of the pasuk (alongside whatever midrashim one brings). But if it is derash, then it is optional, and one can darshen one pasuk and then choose not to darshen a different pasuk in a contradictory manner. And yet, he brings these contradictory midrashim because they fit his criteria for midrashim to bring down.

Thus, at the end of the day, I like the question. But I don't think I would like any 'answer'. The question is right, and true, and should stand.


Rabbi Sedley said...

I have never understood in practical terms how it is possible to do milah without periah. If the periah skin is not folded back it will cover the atara and make things very awkward, and there will be a big open sore along a large section of the aiver, which (if it heals at all) would leave a very nasty scar. I understand that there was no specific mitzvah in periah, but is there any record of anyone at any time or place doing milah without periah?

joshwaxman said...

I think so; in modern Muslim circumcision, they sometimes leave the frenulum:

"Generally speaking, modern Islamic circumcision is neither fully High nor fully Low in style, it is substantially loose and it retains the frenulum. "

Meanwhile, priah involves excising the frenulum.

Anonymous said...

Surely Yosef didn't demand that the ruling class of Egypt be circumcised; only the masses. Do you think that Paroah then was circumcised?
The fact that a ruler of Egypt would have been circumcised was therefore proof.

joshwaxman said...

It is a good answer.

My hangup is that the *feel* of the midrash is that he is showing them things which, by their very nature, would clearly and immediately identify him as a Jew. Thus, that he is speaking Hebrew and that he has bris milah.

So even if it is resolvable on careful consideration, it does not *feel* to me to be the plain intent of the midrashist. Which is why I'm going to like the question better than any answer.

By the way, I just checked Birkas Avraham and see that he suggests the same as my answer, about nolad mahul. Baruch shekivanti!

Joe in Australia said...

I'm going to suggest two answers ... never a sign of confidence, but anyway:

First, a circumcision that was done close to birth surely looks different to one that is performed on an adult - within the past few years, in fact.

But even if you say that a circumcision is a circumcision then of course the circumcision itself is no proof - any random stranger might have been circumcised for one reason or another. What impressed the brothers was that Yosef knew that circumcision was significant to them, and this was what demonstrated that he was really a member of their family.

joshwaxman said...


in terms of your first answer, the Chizkuni apparently offers it:
ובס' חזקוני תירץ דשאני מילת
הישמעאלים שנימולים בהיותם בני שלש
עשרה, והיה ניכר שמילתן משונה מבני יעקב.

Ed said...

I thought about this issue over the weekend because it was parashas VaYigash, and lo and behold ran across your very interesting comment last night. I don't think that aposthia would prove to the brothers that it was Yosef. Although aposthia is a very rare condition it does occur among goyim. Midrashim list among others Shes, Noach, Balaam and Iyov as having been born this way. There are various opinions as to when Iyov lived, but some place him in the time of Yaakov. And per midrashim, he was one of the three chief advisers to Pharaoh (at a later date). Moreover, the brothers describe the man as"HaIsh' and Iyov is identified as an Ish at the beginning of Sefer Iyov. Balaam was another of those advisers. Although on the surface he lived later, there are some hints that he (and Balak) were the Bnei Lavan who complained about the "Kavod" that Yaakov took from his father--Balaam and Balak hailed from Lavan's area and Balak said "Chaveid Achabedcha Meod." Furthermore, per the Midrash Tanchuma the donkey crushed Balaam's foot because he was violating the Bris between Lavan and Yaakov-the Kir was the Gal in VaYetzei. And the language at the VaYeztei (VaYashav L'Mkomo, Shav L'Dark0) is eerily similar to the language when Balaam parted from Balak.

It is also worth noting that the Rokeach identifies Balaam and Iyov, respectively, as the first two kings of Edom listed in Parashas VaYishlach--Bela be Beor and Yovav ben Zerach M'Bazra.

Given that apothsia occurs among goyim, and in particular royalty such as Iyov and Balaam, it would not conclusively prove that the man was Yosef. Indeed, given that the brothers would have been horrified to discover that Yosef's dreams had come true, they most likely would have dismissed any proof that was not 100% ironclad no matter how unlikely the alternative. There would have to have been something special about Yosef's condition that not only distinguished him from males circumcised in the usual way but also distinguished him from apothsetic males born outside the family of Yaakov. I can think of only one possibility--the tipat dam taken from such a baby left a unique mark in the place of the milah. Such a mark would have distinguished the house of Yaakov because it would not be found on goyim who would not have drawn blood in this situation. Moreover, given that Gad was another of those born mahul, it would be possible to compare him and Yosef and see the similarity. I'm not sure, however, whether this kind of a procedure would leave any permanent mark. Do you know the answer to this?

Edward Perelmuter


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