> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Clothes Make the Man

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The story of Joseph is one of the saddest in the Book of Genesis. The sons of Jacob are remembered for the near- fratricide, rather than for displays of love and respect we would have expected. Infamy is their legacy, and it is this episode -- their hatred of Joseph and his subsequent sale into slavery -- which defines their place in history, and mars their record.

The story itself is well known. The special coat given by Jacob to his beloved son Joseph became the object of the brothers' hatred, the symbol of animosity. When following Joseph's sale into slavery, the coat was saturated with goat's blood, we can imagine the cathartic effect for the brothers -- their anger dissipated, vengeance was taken.


* * *



Yet this coat is more than a symbol. Clothing seems to be a major theme in this week's Torah portion, providing an intriguing subtext for the stories told. We are told in passing of Joseph, Judah, Tamar, and again Joseph in various modes of dress and undress, and of Jacob and Reuben tearing their garments as follows:

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a striped coat. (Genesis 37:3)

And it came to pass, when Joseph came to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, his striped coat that was on him. (Genesis 37:23)

And Reuven returned to the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit, and he tore his clothes. (Genesis 37:29)

And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood. And they sent the striped coat, and they brought it to their father and said, "This have we found; know now whether it is your son's coat or no." And he knew it and said, "It is my son's coat; an evil beast has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces." And Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. (Genesis 37:31-34)

And she [Tamar] took off her widow's garments, and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnat. (Genesis 38:14)

And he said, "What pledge shall I give you?" And she said, "Your signet, and your cloak, and your staff that is in your hand." And he gave them to her, and came in to her, and she conceived by him. And she arose, and went away, and took off her veil, and put on the garments of her widowhood. (Genesis 38:18,19)

And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there inside. And she caught him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me," and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got out. (Genesis 39:11,12)

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself, and changed his garment, and came in to Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:14)

Clothes are given, shed, and ripped. They cover and uncover their possessors. Not all the clothing mentioned has one term, nor one thematic message -- different words are utilized to describe garments, indicating separate motifs.


* * *



The term used to describe the gift given to Joseph is k'tonet pasim. The first time the word k'tonet is used is at the dawn of history, to describe the first set of clothes which followed Adam and Eve's trespass and subsequent feeble attempt to cover themselves:

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together ... For Adam and for his wife the Lord God made coats skins and clothed them. (Genesis 3:7,21)

In this context it is somewhat strange that specifically this term is used to describe the gift of Jacob to Joseph.1

There is a tradition that these clothes were one and the same, handed down from Adam to Nimrod, to Esau, and finally used by Jacob to procure the blessing from his father.2 These were the clothes given to Joseph. If this is the case, we can appreciate the resulting enmity between Esau and Jacob, but Jacob's motivation in giving these clothes to Joseph seems obscure.

The more specific term k'tonet pasim is used one other time in scripture, also in a context involving relations between siblings:

And Amnon said to Tamar, "Bring the food into the chamber, that I may eat of your hand." And Tamar took the cakes which she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. And when she had brought them to him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, "Come lie with me, my sister." And she answered him, "No, my brother, do not force me; for no such thing ought to be done in Israel; do not do this shameful deed. And I, where shall I carry my shame? And as for you, you shall be as one of the base men in Israel. And therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you." But he would not listen to her voice; but, being stronger than she, forced her, and lay with her. Then Amnon hated her very much; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, "Get up, be gone." And she said to him, "Do not add this greater wrong of sending me away to the other that you did to me." But he would not listen to her. Then he called his servant who ministered to him, and said, "Take now this woman away from me, and bolt the door after her." And she had a striped coat upon her; for with such robes were the king's daughters who were virgins dressed. Then his servant took her out, and bolted the door after her. And Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her striped coat that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, crying aloud as she went. (2 Samuel 13:10-19)

Amnon's shameful, dastardly deed led to his murder, by order of his brother Absalom. Again, hostile, vile, violent relations between siblings are punctuated by this coat of many colors -- k'tonet pasim.

From this context, it appears that these are royal garments, the clothes of the aristocratic class.3 If this is so, one may posit that Jacob was indicating that Joseph would one day rule. This would necessarily mean that Reuben, the first of all the sons, would fall into disfavor, and the firstborn of his beloved Rachel, would now lead.4


* * *



There is, however, another usage of the term k'tonet -- in relationship with the priestly garb:

And for Aaron's sons you shall make coats, and you shall make for them girdles, and turbans shall you make for them, for glory and for beauty. And you shall put them upon Aaron your brother, and his sons with him. And shall anoint them, and consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister to Me in the priest's office. (Exodus 28:40-41)

While the connection between Joseph and the priestly garb seems obscure, the Midrash draws a connection between them:

Rabbi Simon said: "Even as the sacrifices have an atoning power, so too have the [priestly] garments atoning power, as we have learnt in the Mishnah. The High Priest officiated in eight garments, and an ordinary priest in four, namely in a k'tonet, breeches, a mitre, and a girdle. The High Priest wore, in addition, a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, and a head-plate. The tunic, to atone for those who wear a mixture of wool and linen, as it is said, And he made him a coat of many colors. The breeches atoned for unchastity [lit. the uncovering of nakedness], since it is said, And thou shalt make them linen breeches to cover the flesh of nakedness; the mitre atoned for arrogance, since it is said, And thou shalt set the mitre on his head. The girdle was to atone, some say, for the crooked in heart, and others say for thieves." (Midrash Rabbah - Leviticus 10:6)

The k'tonet pasim is understood as being made of shatnez, the product of wool and linen. Apparently this is what is meant by k'tonet -- "from flax," and pasim -- "wool." However, where do we see a sin of "wool and linen" in the Joseph story? Why would this section serve as the prototype for shatnez?5

The Vilna Gaon explained the mystical idea communicated by the prohibition of shatnez.6 Abel was a shepherd, raising sheep and producing wool, while Cain worked the land, raising plants such as flax. The tragic relationship of two brothers with an inappropriate relationship resulted in the law of shatnez, which was designed to heal the rift caused by that terrible sin. Only the priest was allowed to wear a garment of the two species together, because the priest is involved in spiritual healing.

Perhaps Jacob gave Joseph these clothes as an antidote to the insidious hatred which seethed within the family. Perhaps Jacob saw Joseph as a prototype of the High Priest.


* * *



All the discussion until this point revolves around the term k'tonet. When the Torah tells us of Adam and Eve being clothed, the text reads:

For Adam and for his wife the Lord God made coats of skins, and He clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

The concluding phrase "and he clothed them" is written in Hebrew as one word vayalbishem. The Talmud explains the etymology of this word (Shabbat 77b). The word l'vush, "to clothe" is connected with lo bushah, "without shame." The purpose of clothing is to hide one's shame. Man, who stood all but naked in the Garden of Eden, was clothed by God in an act of compassion, his embarrassment covered.

In a sense, all clothing covers the individual and hides the real person, and must be considered within this context. The Hebrew word for coat, me'il, has connotations of me'ila, a trespass.

Once we understand the association between clothing and man's sin we can understand what happens at the end of our Torah portion when Joseph becomes the object of advances of the mistress in the house of Potiphar -- advances which he heroically withstands:

And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, "Lie with me." But he refused, and said to his master's wife, "Behold, my master knows not what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand. There is none greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" ...

And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business, and there was none of the men of the house there inside. And she caught him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me," and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got out. And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and had fled out... (Genesis 39:7-13)


* * *



The sages are divided regarding Joseph's intention, when he allowed himself to be secluded with her.

Rabbi Johanan said: "This teaches that both [Joseph and Potiphar's wife] had the intention of acting immorally: He went into the house to do his work." Rav and Shmuel [differ in their interpretation]. One said that it really means to do his work; but the other said that he went to satisfy his desires.

And there was none of the men of the house... Is it possible that there was no man in a huge house like that of this wicked [Potiphar]! It was taught in the School of Rabbi Yishmael: "That day was their feast-day, and they had all gone to their idolatrous temple; but she had pretended to be ill because she thought, 'I shall not have an opportunity like to-day for Joseph to associate with me.'"

And she caught him by his garment, saying... At that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: "Joseph, thy brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and thine amongst theirs; is it thy wish to have thy name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?" (Sotah 36b)

Here the term for clothing is beged; she grabbed his clothing, b'vigdo. The root of the word is b-g-d. This is also the root of the word "rebel."7

Tradition tells us that these two words which share a common root -- rebel and clothing -- are interrelated.

Clothing is the testimony to the first and perhaps most profound rebellion which man staged against God. In the Garden of Eden, when the world was brand new and man was innocent and pure, man reached beyond his rightful grasp. The world has never been the same. Clothing is a symbol of lost innocence. When Joseph went into the room, he allowed himself to enter a spiritually precarious situation. Sin was palatable. Joseph was guilty of rebellion. At that moment she grabs his clothing, seizing his "rebellion."

Nonetheless, Joseph extricates himself, retaining his innocence. He will once again wear royal garb, just as his father had envisioned years before.

And removing his signet ring from his hand Pharaoh put it on Joseph's hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck ... Thus he [Pharaoh] placed him [Joseph] over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:42-43)

Joseph let go of his rebellion, and he emerged spiritually fortified, a man who was able to withstand temptation. Now Joseph wore royal clothes, befitting aristocracy. Joseph becomes the person his father knew he would become. His clothes now fit.



  1. The Midrash is critical of Jacob for showing favor to one son over the others. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 84:8 Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah: "A man must not make a distinction among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our ancestor Jacob made for Joseph they hated him. (return to text)


  2. Rav Kasher cites this Midrash which exists in manuscript form. See Torah Shelemah Vayeshev, chapter 17 note 50. (return to text)


  3. Nachmanides makes this observation. (return to text)



  4. King Saul's loss of the kingdom is connected to two instances relating to clothing: (1) His clothing is ripped as a sign of his impending loss of the kingdom. (2) Furthermore:


    And Saul disguised himself and put on other garments, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said, I beg you, divine for me by a spirit, and bring him up for me, whoever I shall name to you.... Because you would not obey the voice of the Lord, nor execute his fierce anger upon Amalek, therefore has the Lord done this thing to you this day. And the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow shall you and your sons be with me; the Lord also shall deliver the camp of Israel into the hand of the Philistines. (1 Samuel 28:8,18,19) (return to text)


  5. The Talmud in a number of places, says that the k'tonet atones for murder. See Z'vachim 88b, Arachin 17. This would help explain the reference to the k'tonet in the section of Amnon and Tamar, where Amnon is murdered. The Midrash in Shir Hashirim cites both traditions: Midrash Rabbah - Shir HaShirim 4:8. (return to text)


  6. Commentary to the "Sifra Deztenuta" chapter 4. (return to text)



  7. This association is already implied in the Talmud. Kiddushin 18b. See Rashi's commentary where he cites the verse referring to Joseph. See Bal Haturim, and Rabbenu B'chaye, Exodus 21:8, see the Nachmanides 39:9 where he labels Joseph's possible affair as a b'gida, rebellion; in light of the numerous times the word beged is used in this section, I would doubt that the Nachmanides did not intend this association. (return to text)




Leave a Reply

1 2 3 2,900

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram