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

For a Pair of Shoes


Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )


After the brother sell Joseph, they use the money to purchase shoes.

As Yosef approaches his bothers, he does not know that they have been plotting his downfall.(1) For his part, he earnestly seeks his brothers.(2) This feeling is not reciprocated and soon Yosef is thrown into a pit, where he remains until the opportunity to permanently solve the "Yosef Problem" presents itself:

And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing gum, balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Yehuda said to his brothers, 'What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh.' And his brothers heard. (Bereishit 37:25-27)

The messy business of murder is avoided, rejected in favor of a more profitable arrangement. Once the decision is formulated to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites, a second group is introduced, the Midianites, and the sale forges ahead:

Then there passed by Midianite merchants; and they drew and lifted up Yosef out from the pit, and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; and they brought Yosef to Egypt. (Bereishit 37:28)

The reference to the Midianites is unclear; Rashi suggests that Yosef was sold more than once,(3) while the Ibn Ezra(4) says that both names refer to the same(5) caravan. There are, however, commentaries who suggest that the brothers did not actually sell Yosef: While the brothers were still discussing the idea, the Midianites rode by, and hearing Yosef's bloodcurdling screams, they "rescued" him from the pit, only to in turn sell him to the band of Ishmaelites the brothers had seen approaching. The Rashbam, who advocates this position, theorizes that the brothers, not wishing to ruin their repast, had positioned themselves at some distance from the pit into which they had thrown Yosef and from his cries for help.(6) The Hizkuni(7) goes even further and suggests that the brothers were unaware that the Midianites had sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites, a theory borne out by Reuven's futile attempt to save Yosef from the pit - after he was sold: If, in fact, the brothers had been party to the sale, Reuven's behavior would be inexplicable.(8)

These opinions seem to contradict the brothers' own admission of guilt: When they unknowingly stand before Yosef in Egypt, they admit that they had indeed heard Yosef's cries, and ignored his pleas:

And they said one to another, we are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuven answered them, saying, 'Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and you would not hear? Therefore, behold, also his blood is required.' (Bereishit 42:21-22)

Yosef himself would surely have mentioned any mitigating facts or circumstances when he consoled his brothers and attempted to make peace with them years later, but he does not seem to be aware of any such factors. If the Rashbam and the Hizkuni were correct, we would expect Yosef to have said something to them along the lines of, "it wasn't you who sold me" or "you did not know that I had been sold". Instead, he says "I am Yosef whom you sold...":

And Yosef said to his brothers, I am Yosef; does my father still live? And his brothers could not answer him; for they panicked in his presence. And Yosef said to his brothers, 'Come near me, I beg you.' And they came near. And he said, 'I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life. (Bereishit 45:3-5)

Indeed, it seems difficult to argue(9) that the brothers were not guilty of this act of perfidy.(10) Jewish tradition refers to the sale of Yosef as a stain on the collective conscience of the entire nation - a stain that much of Jewish practice and Jewish history is geared toward cleansing. The Rambam notes that a goat is always brought as a sin offering on holidays, and ties this offering directly with the goat's blood with which Yosef's coat of many colors was stained by the brothers. The goat is a symbol of the treachery which continues to haunt the collective, a blot on the integrity and unity of the entire nation. On holidays, when we gather as a family, we bring the sin offering with the blood of the goat in order to attempt to bring about healing for the sale of Yosef at his brothers' hands.(11)

In fact, our sages associate some of the most cataclysmic events in Jewish history with our collective guilt for the sale of Yosef: The martyrdom of Judaism's ten greatest scholars, retold in the Yom Kippur liturgy each year, is said to be a tikkun for the sale of Yosef. It seems an inescapable conclusion that Jewish theology considers the brothers guilty of the sale, and senses the repercussions of that episode throughout our history.(12)

When one considers the portion traditionally read as the Haftorah associated with this parsha it leads to an inescapable conclusion of guilt.

Thus says the Almighty; 'For three transgressions of Israel I will turn away punishment, but for the fourth I will not turn away its punishment; because they sold the righteous one for silver, and the poor man for a pair of shoes. (Amos 2:6)

Yosef, as distinct from all the other Patriarchs, is known as "The righteous one", and the words of the Prophet Amos supply information that is lacking in the verses of our parsha: Tradition teaches that the money they "earned" from the sale of Yosef was used by the brothers to purchase shoes.(13) The Torah recounts only that twenty pieces of silver(14) changed hands in the exchange;(15) there is not a word to indicate what was done with the money, nor any mention of shoes. This seems altogether fitting: the use made of this "blood money" does not seem relevant to the real issues of the parsha, and to the long-term effects of the brothers' actions. In other words, why do we have a tradition about this? Is the fact that the brothers bought shoes with this money really a salient fact worth recording? The very fact that they sold their brother seems enough of an outrage. What difference does it make what they did with their ill-gotten profit? As we shall see, the seemingly-irrelevant information that the Prophet preserves and transmits will help reveal other important facets and aspects of the sale.

Shoes appear in the Torah in several contexts. The first is when Moshe is told to remove his shoes in deference to the holy ground on which he stands:

And Moshe said, 'I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Almighty saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, 'Moshe, Moshe.' And he said, 'Here am I.' And He said, 'Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. (Sh'mot 3:3-5)

In this context, removing one's shoes indicates an awareness of holiness. On the other hand, when the Jews prepared to leave Egypt, they were told to put on their shoes:

And thus shall you eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste; it is the Pesach for the Almighty. (Sh'mot 12:11)

While it might seem that the commandment to put on shoes is purely pragmatic, preparing the Jews for the long walk on which they will soon embark, the deeper significance may be learned from the third context in which shoes appear: There is one halachic section of the Torah, one Torah law, in which a shoe is a significant element. When a man refuses to marry his deceased brother's childless wife, a unique ceremony is carried out:(16)

If brothers live together, and one of them dies, and has no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry outside to a stranger; her husband's brother shall go in to her, and take her to him for a wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. And if the man does not wish to take his brother's wife, then let his brother's wife go up to the gate to the elders, and say, 'My husband's brother refuses to raise to his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform his duty as my husband's brother.' Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak to him; and if he persists, and says, 'I do not wish to take her'; Then shall his brother's wife come to him in the presence of the elders, and pull his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, 'So shall it be done to that man who will not build up his brother's house.' And his name shall be called in Israel, "The house of him who has his shoe pulled off." (Dvarim 25:5-10)

The ritual performed when a man refuses to marry his brother's widow and carry on his late brother's name and family line, is called haliza. One central part of this ritual is the removal of the man's shoe. (17) Alternatively, if the living brother chooses to marry his brother's widow and build the family, the term used to describe the ceremony is yibum. In fact, the first appearance of yibum in the Torah is found in the verses that immediately follow the sale of Yosef, when Yehuda's surviving sons are responsible for the yibum of Tamar. Unfortunately, they were not interested in continuing their brother's legacy and they frustrated the natural yibum process.(18)

And Yehuda said to Onan, 'Go in to your brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to your brother.' And Onan knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, rather than give seed to his brother. And his behavior was wicked in God's eyes and (Onan), too, was put to death. (Breishit 38:8-10)

The tragic story of Yehuda's sons must, necessarily, be seen in light of Yehuda's callous call to sell his brother Yosef in the preceding verses. Yosef is their flesh and blood, and yet he speaks of profit, of personal benefit, of manipulating the law by avoiding murder while capitalizing on the situation for personal gain:

And Yehuda said to his brothers: 'What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh.'

Apparently, Yehuda's children learned a lesson in fraternal relations and responsibilities from their father. They learned that their brother is not their concern; a pair of shoes is preferable to a brother. It is surely no coincidence that when the Torah teaches the law regarding a man who refuses to build his brother's home, the rejected widow is instructed to remove a shoe from the indifferent brother's foot. When he fails to recognize his brother's holiness and the sanctity of the family he is charged to preserve, his shoe is removed as a reminder (as it was for Moshe) or as a symbol of his callousness (as when the brothers purchased shoes with "blood money").

The sale of Yosef began as the brothers callously broke bread while Yosef cried out to them from the pit. That meal, the symbol of a family divided, was interrupted by a passing caravan that soon provided shoes for the brothers, eventually took the brothers themselves to Egypt. They thought they had found a convenient way to dispose of their annoying brother; they thought they were selling him as a slave. Instead, they and their descendants became slaves. And when the time arrives for their descendents to finally to leave Egypt and begin their journey back to the Land of Israel, they are commanded to sit and have a meal together - as families, whole and reunited.(19) At that meal, they are finally ready to put shoes back on their feet and begin the long trip back to Israel. This is a healing meal, a celebration in which each recognizes the holiness of the others; finally, they become one family, united.

  1. See Bereishit 37:18: And when they saw him from far away, even before he came near to them, they conspired against him to slay him.
  2. See Bereishit 37:15-16: And a man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field; and the man asked him, saying, 'What do you seek?' And he said, 'I seek my brothers; tell me, I beg you, where they feed their flocks.'
  3. Rashi Bereishit 37:28.
  4. Ibn Ezra Bereishit 37:28.
  5. This position is also taken by the Bchor Shor, who first rejects other suggestions.
  6. Rashbam Bereishit 37:28.
  7. Hizkuni Bereishit 37:28.
  8. Reuven's part in the entire episode need to be explored, he was the only one who protested against their plan. Rashi offers different interpretations for Reuven's absence at the moment of the sale.
  9. A debate continues in academic circles as to Rashbam's motivation for presenting an exegesis which not only creates textual difficulties, but also goes against Rabbinic tradition. There are those who argue that the Rashbam, who not only insists that his interpretation is pshat, but he gives an introduction to his methodology specifically here in the outset of chapter 37, was motivated by polemical concerns: The story of the sale of Yosef was a common topic for Christian performances that drew a parallel between the betrayal of Yosef by Yehuda, and the betrayal of the founder of Christianity. By absolving the brothers of guilt in the sale of Yosef, the Rashbam took away a powerful polemical tool, and may have been saving Jews from persecution.
  10. See Bechor Shor 37:28.
  11. Guide for the Perplexed 3:46: From this argument of our Sages I deduce that he-goats were always brought as sin-offerings, by individual persons and also by the whole congregation, viz., on the Festivals, New-moon, Day of Atonement, and for idolatry, because most of the transgressions and sins of the Israelites were sacrifices to spirits (se'irim, lit., goats), as is clearly stated, "They shall no more offer their sacrifices unto spirits" (Lev. 17:7). Our Sages, however, explained the fact that goats were always the sin-offerings of the congregation, as an allusion to the sin of the whole congregation of Israel: for in the account of the selling of the pious Joseph 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).
  12. Mussaf prayer on Yom Kippur, and other sources.
  13. See Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev chapter 2, Pirki Drebbi Eliezer chapter 37.
  14. In the extracanonical Testament of the Twelve Tribes, Gad "admits" to having taken thirty pieces of gold (sic); in collusion with Yehuda, they only tell the others of twenty! Apparently an attempt was made in this text to be bring the story closer to that of the betrayal of the founder of Christianity, who was supposedly "sold" for 30 pieces of silver: IX. THE TESTAMENT OF GAD Concerning hatred:
    1. The record of the testament of Gad, what things he spake unto his sons, in the hundred and twenty-seventh year of his life, saying: I was the seventh son born to Jacob, and I was valiant in keeping the flocks. I guarded at night the flock; and whenever the lion came, or wolf, or leopard, or bear, or any wild beast against the fold, I pursued it, and with my hand seizing its foot, and whirling it round, I stunned it, and hurled it over two furlongs, and so killed it. Now Joseph was feeding the flock with us for about thirty days, and being tender, he fell sick by reason of the heat. And he returned to Hebron to his father, who made him lie down near him, because he loved him...
    2. I confess now my sin, my children, that oftentimes I wished to kill him, because I hated him to the death, and there were in no wise in me bowels of mercy towards him. Moreover, I hated him yet more because of his dreams; and I would have devoured him out of the land of the living, even as a calf devoureth the grass from the earth. Therefore I and Judah sold him to the Ishmaelites for thirty pieces of gold, and ten of them we hid, and showed the twenty to our brethren: and so through my covetousness I was fully bent on his destruction. And the God of my fathers delivered him from my hands, that I should not work iniquity in Israel.
  15. Bereishit 37:28: Then there passed by Midianites merchants; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out from the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; and they brought Joseph to Egypt. Bereishit 37:28.
  16. The Ramchal (in his commentary to Devarim) links Moshe's removal of his shoes at the Burning Bush with the ritual of haliza.
  17. While I found no early or late commentaries who make the suggestion that I put forth here, there are a number of mystical sources that relate Yosef to Shabbat. See, for example, Zohar Chadash Ko Tisa. In turn on Shabbat we say retzay vhachalitzaynu, which according to the Arizal is related to haliza. Shaar Hakavanot, Drushay Kiddush lel Shabbat, I.
  18. See the Megaleh Amukot on Vayeshev, who notes that the portion of yibum follows the sale of Yosef, because both sections have a common theme, a sin which requires souls to return in order to be perfected.
  19. See Shmot 12:3,4: Each family is encouraged to eat together; a remnant of this is still felt today when families gather to celebrate Passover and have the seder together: Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house; And if the household is too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the souls; according to every man's eating shall you make your count for the lamb.

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