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The Rashbam’s Interpretation of the Sale of Yosef

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )


Bereishit, 37:23-28: “And it was when Yosef came to his brothers, and they stripped Yosef of his garment and special coat which was upon him. And they took him and they threw him into the pit, and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. And they sat to eat bread, and they raised their eyes, and they saw, behold, a convoy of Ishmaelites were coming from Gilad, and their camels were carrying spices, balsam and lotus, going to bring them to Egypt. And Yehuda said to his brothers, ‘what profit is there if we kill our brother and cover his blood. Let us go and sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hands will not be upon him because he is our brother, our flesh’, and his brothers listened. And Midianite merchants passed by and they pulled up and brought Yosef out from the pit and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver pieces, and they brought Yosef to Egypt.
Rashi, 37:29, Dh: Vayimshechu: The sons of Yaakov [pulled] Yosef from the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites and the Ishmaelites [sold him] to the Midianites and the Midianites [sold him] to Egypt.
Rashbam, 37:28: While they were sitting to eat bread, and they were quite far from the pit so as not to eat ‘al hadam’, and they were waiting for the Ishmaelites that they saw, and before the Ishmaelites came, Midianites passed by that way, and they saw him in the pit and pulled him out, and the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites, and it seems that the brothers did not know…

The events of the sale of Yosef are very well-known, but a number of early commentatos1 interpret what actually happened in a dramatically different fashion from the normal understanding. Everyone agrees that the brothers initally planned to kill Yosef, then, due to Reuven’s arguments, they refrained from actively killing him, and rather they left him in a pit, perhaps to leave him to die without being actively harmed. However, then Yehuda sees a convoy of Ishmaelite merchants and argues that they should not let their brother die, rather they should sell him. At this point, the standard understanding, as explained by Rashi, is that the brothers then pulled Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites.2

According to the simple reading of the verse, this reading is subject to questioning. The verse states: “Midianite merchants passed by and they pulled up and brought Yosef out from the pit and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites.” Rashi understands that ‘they’ refers to the brothers, however, the Rashbam argues that according to the basic pshat, the word ‘they’ should go on the last people mentioned – that is the Midianites. Accordingly, he reads the verse as saying that the brothers decided to sell Yosef, but before they could do so, the Midianites came by and saw Yosef, pulled him out themselves and then sold him to the Ishmaelites. The Rashbam elaborates on the general situation at the time. The brothers sat down to eat far from Yosef because of the halacha to not ‘eat on the blood’ which means that one should not eat after having judged someone guilty of death. While they were eating, they saw the Ishmaelites a considerable distance away and decided to sell Yosef to them. Since the Ishmaelites were far away, the brothers had a considerable amount of time to finish eating and wait for the Ishmaelites to reach them. However, in the meantime, out of sight of the brothers, the Midianites came far nearer to Yosef and pulled him out of the pit. Later, when Reuven arrived, the discovered that Yosef was no longer there, and that is when the brothers discovered that Yosef had been sold.3

The Rashbam addresses an obvious question on his interpretation: Years later, when Yosef reveals himself to the brothers, he says, “I am Yosef whom you sold to Egypt”4, implying that they did indeed sell Yosef. The Rashbam explains that it should be read to mean that Yosef was saying that ‘your deeds caused me to be sold to Egypt’, meaning that their actions led him to being sold.

This interpretation is very interesting, but is there any practical lesson that can be learnt from its ramifications? Rabbi David Fohrman suggests there is: He notes that as the tragic events unfolded, the brothers’ plans evolved over time, gradually becoming less severe. Initially, they planned to outright kill him (Rabbi Forhman calls this ‘Plan A’). Then, due to the persuasion of Reuven, they decided to leave him to die indirectly in the pit (Plan B). Thirdly, following Yehuda’s suggestion, then decided that leaving him to die was also too severe, and so they decided to sell him to the Ishmaelites (Plan C). As we wrote above, there was a considerable amount of time that would pass from the time that the brothers decided to sell him to the oncoming Ishmaelites, and to when the Ishmaelites would actually reach them. Sadly, in the meantime, the Midianites came and sold Yosef, but, Rabbi Fohrman wonders, what could have happened had the Midianites not come on the scene. In his words:

But if you think about it, what is happening to create Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C? Aside from the people who are creating those plans, time is creating those plans. Time is elapsing, and as time elapses you get to think about it more, you get to ruminate about it more, your initial impulse to just get rid of him gets less and less severe. And the great question is, what would have happened had the Midianite traders not gotten there before the brothers? If the brothers really did have the time, thought about it more over lunch the Ishmaelite trades are off in the distance, they'll eventually get here, could there have been a plan D? What would have a plan D been like? Would a plan D have been that when they finally got to the pit, you know, and the Ishmaelite traders are there and the brothers are there, would they in fact have gone through with selling him? Or just as Plan A got replaced by Plan B and just as Plan B got replaced by plan C, would Plan C have gotten replaced by Plan D? Would it have been, you know, we'll haul Yosef out of the pit and give him a tongue-lashing and tell him, you know, this is ridiculous what happened here and we'd have to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Would that had been the case and maybe there never would have been a sale of Joseph at all. But there was… because the brothers ran out of time.

Rabbi Forhman is pointing out that as time progressed, the brothers watered down their plan of action. And had they had even more time, then perhaps they would have refrained from selling Yosef. This reminds us of the importance of avoiding acting impulsively. Many terrible deeds were perpetrated through impulsivity. Likewise, numerous destructive disputes began because of rash behavior. This idea is highly pertinent in modern society has technology enables people to convey messages to anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. Experience has proven that impulsive emails, whatsapp messages, or twitter posts, have been the cause of great pain and damaged relationships.5 In the past, if a person wanted to convey his feelings, he would write a letter – but the time it took for someone to actually write the letter, get a stamp, and post it, gave the writer time to contemplate the propriety of sending it.6 Nowadays, with a click of a few keys, and a send button, there is no time for the person to consider whether it would be sensible to rethink what he has written. One suggestion to help with this is to keep important messages in ‘draft’ setting, leave them there for a few hours, and return to them later to check if what was written was appropriate. This approach has saved people from a lot of unnecessary strife and pain.

May we merit to learn the importance of letting time help us make the right decisions.

  1. We will focus on the Rashbam’s words, but this approach is also adapted by the Chizkuni, and Rabbeinu Bechaye. Also see Daat Zekeinim Mibaalei HaTosefot.
  2. Indeed, this understanding appears to be based on the Rabbinic sources.
  3. This is in contrast to Rashi according to whom, the brothers except for Reuven, sold Yosef themselves, and Reuven who had been away from the brothers, discovered what they had done later. According to the Rashbam, Reuven was with the brothers the whole time, but discovered that Yosef had been sold first, perhaps because he was trying to free him before Yosef could be sold.
  4. Bereishit, 45:4.
  5. This is not to enter into the other damaging aspects of many aspects of modern technology.
  6. In this vein, a very strong letter written by Abraham Lincoln to one of his Generals was found in his possessions – the letter was never sent. Evidently, he thought better of sending it.

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