Yosef and "Tzafenat Paneach"

  • Rav Michael Hattin








Dedicated by Michael and Patti Steinmetz
 in memory of Shmuel ben Elimelech z”l



Yosef and 'Tzafenat Paneach'


By Rav Michael Hattin



Introduction – Pharaoh's Dreams


Two long years after the release of Pharaoh's butler from prison, disquieting images disturb Pharaoh's sleep.  In his dream, Pharaoh sees himself standing on the edge of the River Nile, as seven fat cows ascend from its waters and proceed to graze on the vegetation growing on its banks.  Seven gaunt and wretched cattle soon follow these seven plump bovines out of the water. The former proceed to devour the latter, yet remain as thin and emaciated as before.  Pharaoh briefly wakes with a start, but quickly falls back into a deep slumber.  Again, however, his sleep is interrupted, as he dreams of seven full ears of grain swallowed up by seven thin and scorched ones. 


Waking the next morning, his heart still beating wildly with memories of the night's phantoms, Pharaoh seeks the sage advice of his ministers, but not one of them is able to satisfactorily explain the significance of his nocturnal visions. Overhearing their futile attempts at interpretation, the butler's memory is unexpectedly jolted.  Suddenly, he remembers that during his sojourn in prison along with the chief baker his cohort, a Hebrew slave boy incarcerated with them had been able to interpret troubling dreams of theirs: "Just as he had interpreted, so did it come about.  I was returned to my position, and the baker was hanged…" (Bereishit 41:13).


Yosef's Abrupt Release from Prison


By the order of Pharaoh, Yosef is quickly summoned from prison, shorn, and given a change of clothes.  Without delay, he is brought before Pharaoh and called upon to decipher his dreams.  We can imagine in our mind's eye that taut moment during which Yosef's destiny will be forever altered, as an incredulous hush falls upon the august ministers of court and they strain to hear the measured words of the former prisoner.  "Yosef answered Pharaoh: 'It is not by my own power.  Rather, God will provide an answer concerning Pharaoh's well-being'" (Bereishit 41:16).


Miraculously, Yosef is able to provide a meaningful and convincing interpretation for Pharaoh's dreams, notwithstanding the fact that Pharaoh's most senior advisors were incapable of doing so.  The seven fat cows suggest seven plentiful years, the lean cows seven years of famine that will follow them.  The parallel dream of full and hollow ears of grain is emphatic, for "God has set the process in motion, and He will bring it about very soon" (Bereishit 41:32).  As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) perceptively observes, the cows are indicative of plowing, the ears of grain of harvest, for the primary impact of God's intervention will be upon the agricultural cycle of the land of Egypt (commentary to 41:2).  This cycle, of course, is directly bound up with the fortunes of the Nile River, ancient (and modern) Egypt's lifeblood. Pharaoh, who sees himself detachedly standing upon its banks as the dreams unfold, will be unable to alter the Divine decree.   


The consumption of the fat cows by the lean ones, and the full ears by the scorched ones, is understood by Yosef to suggest an additional facet.   The possibility of survival during the seven years of drought will be contingent upon storing up provisions during the seven years of plenty, for the lean years will 'feed' off of the fat ones. Thus, Yosef concludes his interpretation by offering astute advice to Pharaoh that he appoint an overseer to gather up grain during the seven years of plenty. "The interpretation of Yosef was good in Pharaoh's eyes, and in the eyes of all of his ministers.  Pharaoh remarked: 'Can there be found anyone else like this man, who is so animated by God's spirit?'" (Bereishit 41:38).


Yosef's Transformation


In an instant, Yosef's fate is transformed, for Pharaoh immediately decides to appoint him as that overseer.  "After God has informed you of all of this, there is no one else more wise or insightful.  You shall administer my house, and my people's sustenance will be under your authority; only my throne will outrank you…Pharaoh removed his signet ring and placed it upon Yosef's hand, he clothed him in garments of fine linen, and placed a gold chain around his neck.  He had Yosef ride in the second royal chariot, announced by those going before him as 'the Viceroy!'  Thus, Yosef was given authority over all of Egypt…Pharaoh called Yosef by the name 'Tzafenat Paneach,' and gave him Asenat, daughter of Poti Phera the priest of On, as his wife.  Yosef thus went out to oversee the land of Egypt…" (Bereishit 41:40-45).


The above description colorfully describes Yosef's ascent to the office of Viceroy.  The narrative includes Pharaoh's DECLARATION investing Yosef with authority ('you shall administer my house') and a formal ACT of that investiture ('Pharaoh removed his signet ring and placed it upon Yosef's hand').  It continues with Yosef donning distinctive EMBLEMS of the office ('garments of fine linen…a gold chain') as well as enjoying its unique expressions of PRIVILEGE ('He had Yosef ride in the second royal chariot…').  Lastly, the finality of the appointment is suggested by the NAME CHANGE ('Tzafenat Paneach'), as well as by the prerogative accorded to Yosef to receive the daughter of the distinguished priest of On in MARRIAGE.  Altogether, the description of office contained in these verses corresponds very well with what is currently known about the court and civil administration of the ancient Pharaohs.  Ancient Egyptian sources also confirm, by way of various historical examples, the possibility of a Semitic foreigner achieving such an extraordinary advancement to high position.


The Name Change – Preliminary Considerations


One of these items, the name change, provides us with an unusual opportunity to consider the impact of modern scholarship on the text of the Torah.  Let us begin our investigation by indicating that by this point in the narrative of Sefer Bereishit, it is already a well-established precedent that a name change is associated with a change in fortune.  Avram and Sarai, barren and bereft of children, became Avraham and Sarah, the progenitors of a nation (Bereishit 17:5-6, 15-16).  Yaacov, forever lurking in the shadow of his brother Esav and his uncle Lavan, became Yisrael, who proudly and overtly assumed the role of God's prince (Bereishit 32:29).  In a similar fashion, Yosef, who just a short while earlier was a Semitic captive unjustly incarcerated, is unexpectedly thrust into one of the most honored and important offices of Pharaoh's realm, namely that of Viceroy or Co-regent.  It is perfectly natural that such a development should be accompanied by a name change.


What is unusual, however, is that Yosef's name is altered not by God but rather by Pharaoh.  The only similar example in the Torah for this sort of thing is the name change accorded to Hoshea (Joshua), by his mentor Moshe.  The Book of Bamidbar records that Moshe had changed Hoshea's name to Yehoshua (Bamidbar 13:16).  Significantly, although that text connects that name change with the episode of the Spies about to unfold, it is not absolutely clear that Moshe introduces the name change at that point.  In fact, the Ramban, commenting on Yehoshua's first appearance at the conclusion of Parashat Beshalach (Shemot 17:9), explains that "the use of the name 'Yehoshua' already at this early juncture suggests that Moshe had changed Hoshea's name from the time that he stood before him as his student and apprentice.  Thus, we find him again referred to as Yehoshua in the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode (Shemot 32:17), [although this event also takes place quite some time before the sending of the Spies]."  The text in Sefer Bamidbar saying that Moshe had changed Hoshea's name to Yehoshua, is therefore a recollection. 


Ramban avers that Moshe had actually altered Hoshea's name much earlier, when he first became Moshe's protege and trusted disciple.  The name change was therefore not associated with an unusual alteration of Hoshea's destiny, but more importantly with the evolution of a unique relationship between himself and his beloved teacher.  In a similar vein, Yosef's name change may be the Torah's way to suggest not only a radical shift in his fortunes, but more importantly the establishment of a special bond between himself and Pharaoh, for the King of Egypt will henceforth be his patron and benefactor.


"And Pharaoh Called Yosef by the Name 'Tzafenat Paneach'"


The actual words 'Tzafenat Paneach,' the name given to Yosef by Pharaoh, have aroused much discussion among the commentaries.  Rashi (11th century, France) amends an earlier Midrashic tradition and asserts that the words imply: 'the one who explains hidden matters' (see Midrash Bereishit Rabba 90:4).  It is therefore understood as a reference to Yosef's supernatural ability to prognosticate the future by insightfully interpreting Pharaoh's cryptic dreams. 


This interpretation, adopted in various forms by most of the later commentaries, is predicated upon connecting 'Tzafenat' with the seemingly related Hebrew root of 'TzaFaN,' meaning 'hidden.'  Thus, by way of example, we shall read in a few weeks of Yocheved's valiant but ultimately fruitless attempts to hide her baby Moses and shield him from Pharaoh's cruel decree to cast all male Hebrew babies into the Nile: "The woman conceived and bore a son…and hid him ('vatiTZPiNaihoo') for three months.  She was no longer able to hide him ('haTZiFeeNo'), and so she made a box of reeds…" (Shemot 2:2-3). 


The unusual 'Paneach,' suggests Rashi, is an unprecedented usage that means 'to explain.'  "This word has no parallel in the Hebrew Scriptures" concludes Rashi, and thus constitutes what is known in scholarly writings as a 'hepax legomenon,' or a word occurring but a single time in all of the Tanakh.  Actually, Rashi's explanation of this term is first found in the Aramaic translation ('Targum') of Onkelos (2nd century, Israel), where the name is rendered as 'the man to whom hidden matters ARE REVEALED.'  Significantly, the outline of Rashi's interpretation has been incorporated into the Hebrew language, for in fleeting usages in Rabbinic Hebrew as well as in the modern Hebrew vernacular, 'paneach' means 'to decipher.'


Ibn Ezra and Ramban


Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, in contrast, adopts a more modest approach.  "If these words are Egyptian," he writes, "then we do not know what they mean.  If they are a translation into Hebrew of an Egyptian name, then we do not know what that name was" (commentary to verse 45).  In either case, suggests Ibn Ezra, the exact meaning of the terms defies our attempts at interpretation.  "For the word 'paneach," he concludes, "we must follow the Aramaic Targum, and it would therefore constitute an unusual four-letter root."  In contrast to most Hebrew roots that are composed of three letters, 'paneach' is composed of four letters: 'Pa,' 'Ne,' 'A,' 'Ch.'


Ramban (13th century, Spain) considers the matter from both angles.  Initially quoting Ibn Ezra who maintains that the words seem to be Egyptian, he goes on to espouse Rashi's view that they are in fact Hebrew, and mean 'to explain hidden matters.'  Of course, we must wonder why the Egyptian Pharaoh would call Yosef by a different Hebrew name, and for this Ramban provides a novel if somewhat dubious explanation: "It seems reasonable that Pharaoh asked Yosef for the Hebrew equivalent of this honorific appellation.  Alternatively, Pharaoh probably was familiar with the language of Canaan, for it was close to Egypt.  Didn't Pharaoh's daughter similarly bestow upon Moshe a Hebrew name, meaning 'from the water I have drawn him?'" (Commentary to verse 45).  What makes this explanation somewhat improbable is the simple fact that all of the other aspects concerning Yosef's elevation to Viceroy suggest a submergence of his Semitic origins, and his external adoption of Egyptian dress, conduct, and protocols in their place.  Why then would he maintain a 'Jewish-sounding' name?  In contrast to Yosef and to the romantic view of Hollywood, there is no textual evidence to necessarily suggest that Pharaoh's daughter or Moshe himself ever attempt to hide his Hebrew origins from her father or his court, and so a Hebrew name for the infant would be entirely appropriate.


The Moderns


The modern age has witnessed the unearthing of many ancient civilizations.  Since the dawn of the 19th century, our knowledge of the ancient Near Eastern world has increased exponentially with the discovery and decipherment of innumerable artifacts as well as a vast literature.  Much of this material has shed new light on the history and events of the Biblical period, for the land of Israel has always occupied an important strategic location as the geographical meeting place of Africa and Asia, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  As well, our understanding of Biblical Hebrew has been enhanced by the study of comparative ancient languages. 


With this knowledge has emerged the challenge of understanding the events of the Torah in their historical and cultural context.  For some people, such an approach invites the danger of the Torah becoming a dated and relativistic document.  It must be admitted that this 'fear' is in fact borne out by a wealth of otherwise 'objective' scholarship whose often unstated (or understated) ideological objective is to render the Torah and its exalted moral message into a primitive and irrelevant mythology. 


For others, however, the recent knowledge opens new vistas to comprehend otherwise obscure and difficult words or passages, events and customs, allowing for new and valid interpretations that need not compromise the eternal significance of the word of God, and may, in fact, provide it with additional credence.  This author adopts the latter view.


A study of ancient Egyptian demonstrates that Yosef's new name is (as Ibn Ezra surmised) in all probability, not Hebrew in origin.  The words 'Tzafenat Paneach' are in fact good transliterations of Egyptian words meaning 'the god Noot speaks, and he shall live.'  Broken down into its components, the name yields: Tza-speaks, pa-the, nat-the god Noot / pa-the, anakh-life.  In other words, Pharaoh provides Yosef with a name that suggests his remarkable turn of fortune.  The former prisoner who just a short while earlier was languishing in prison awaiting his cruel but inevitable death, now is vouchsafed life and a bright future.  The new name thus becomes part of the larger matrix of elements associated with Yosef's rise to prominence, all of which attest to his new lease on life. 


The Egyptian god Noot was a sky god, and quite important in their polytheistic pantheon.  Could it be Pharaoh's attempt to approximate the obviously foreign idea of the invisible and ethereal Hebrew God, Who alone could inspire human beings with accurate visions of the future? 




This week we looked at Yosef's meteoric rise and understood it as an expression of God's providence and guiding of human affairs, one of the most significant themes of these narratives.  But it is the application of this principle to our concrete situation that is indispensable.  The events of our own lives, in all of their complexity and sometimes inscrutability, are not haphazard accidents or cruel whims of an arbitrary or apathetic Deity.  Rather, they are directed and purposeful, and contained within them is the possibility of spiritual growth and connection to God.  This possibility, however, is predicated upon adopting a perspective of trust, in which we attempt to overcome adversity and transcend death by grasping onto the God of Life. 


Often, we are bewildered by 'bad fortune' and crushed by 'cruel fate,' but the lesson of Yosef points to the possibility of not disregarding suffering, but rather of elevating it.  The saga of Yosef, for all of its calamitous aspects and tragic twists, is life affirming; as Pharaoh himself acknowledges: "he shall live."  By internalizing its overwhelmingly positive message of God's ongoing interest and involvement, we may yet succeed in gathering up the tatters of our dislocated lives and repairing a sundered world.


Shabbat Shalom