Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Parashat VaYigash: Goshen as Part of Yosef’s Master Plan by Yaakov Bieler

December 28, 2011 by  
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Yosef shows himself to be a brilliant strategist, even when it comes to planning a place for his family to live when they come to Egypt.

Yosef, the brilliant administrator who possesses a gift for management that is glaringly apparent to all with whom he comes into contact, first manifesting itself in his being placed in charge of Potiphera’s household (Beraishit 39:4), then a whole prison (39:22) and finally an entire nation whose inhabitants he is expected to feed during seven years of harsh famine, also seems to have a clear plan with regard to where his family will live, once they come to join him in Egypt. As soon as he reveals his identity to his brothers, and attempts to assuage their guilt arising from their having sold him into slavery over two decades before, Yosef says to them to tell their father Yaakov, (45:9-11)

…God has Placed me as master over the entire land of Egypt. Come down to me; do not remain where you are. And you will dwell in the land of GOSHEN, and you will be close to me, you, your children and your grandchildren, your sheep and your cattle and all that you possess. And I will support you there…

What are some of the considerations that influenced Yosef to essentially attempt to “ghettoize” his family?

Keeping the Jewish herder culture separate from the agricultural Egyptians.

One approach assumes that Yosef was separating the Egyptians from the Jews in order to avoid possible conflicts between the two cultures. According to Atlas Da’at Mikra,[1]

(Goshen) is located near the seat of the monarchy during the period of Yosef’s rule, in the northern portion of the Nile Delta. The Biblical text emphasizes that Goshen was the (45:18; 47:6, 11) “best of the land” and that the house of Yaakov ate there (45:18) “the fat of the land”. On the other hand, it is remarkable that Goshen was a relatively uninhabited area in which there was virtually no indigenous Egyptian population. The reason for this was (46:34) “…it was an abomination for Egypt, anyone who was a shepherd,” i.e., it was the best of the land for anyone who was a herder, but not for the permanent farmers who comprised the majority of the Egyptians.

According to all of these indicators, as well as the testimonies of other ancient sources, Goshen was located in the eastern portion of the Nile Delta. It was a place that had sufficient water for pasture lands, but not for intense Egyptian agriculture. Furthermore, Goshen was located not all that far from Egypt’s eastern border, which was comprised of a desert area that stretches all the way to southern Canaan. Families of nomads would frequently seek shelter in Goshen during times of famine and drought. Therefore Egyptians did not enter this area of immigrants who were essentially shepherds. Yet, since Yaakov and his family were coming as long term residents, they encamped near one of the eastern most tributaries of the Nile Delta, which allowed them to benefit from the “best of the land” as was befitting to them in light of their relationship to Yosef.

Jews and animal husbandry have a long history beginning prior to Yaakov and his family.

In terms of the manner in which the family of Yaakov primarily supported itself, beginning already with Avraham, taking care of herds of animals is a, if not the, primary source of wealth and income for generation after generation. Avraham is first given significant amounts of animals as a result of his sojourn in Egypt and Pharoah’s ill-fated attempt to marry Sara (12:16). The number of animals that Avraham and Lot own becomes so considerable, that it leads to familial infighting and the ultimate parting of the ways of uncle and nephew (13:5-12). Owning herds, as opposed to engaging in agriculture, also allows Avraham to frequently relocate his encampment, as he traverses the length and breadth of Israel (13:17, 18; 20:1). Needing to take care of herds of animals also accounts for Avraham’s digging wells in a number of places (21:25—although the text states that Avraham remonstrates Avimelech regarding a single stolen well, 26:15 suggests that he made many wells during the course of his wanderings), in order to make possible watering these animals wherever they may be taken to graze. While Yitzchak’s predisposition for meat hunted by Eisav (25:28) suggests that he ordinarily did not have animals readily available to him for consumption, 26:14-15 clearly state that while Yitzchak may have begun as a farmer, he consolidated his wealth by means of the acquisition of great numbers of animals. And as for Yaakov, he serves as a shepherd for Lavan for twenty years (31:38).

The prototypical conflict between agriculture and animal shepherding.

The sharp and acrimonious dichotomy between those engaged in agriculture, in this case the Egyptians, as opposed to those who deal with domesticated animals, the Jews, is first established by the Bible by means of the ultimately fatal interaction between Kayin and Hevel (4:2). Although the Tora emphasizes the difference in quality between the sacrifices brought by each of the brothers (4:3-4), the competitive enmity between homesteaders who wish to close off their land to protect it from indiscriminate grazing by herds, and cattle and sheep ranchers who demand an open range and unlimited pasture land for their animals, is implied in this primordial story, and continues to be a classic confrontation that takes place throughout the history of human civilization. Consequently, if Egypt was primarily an agricultural society due to the regular overflowing of the Nile (Devarim 11:10), it is understandable that they would want to have as little to do as possible with a family of herders, and would be all too ready to allot to the Jews grazing land far from the center of Egyptian society.

An ideological reason for Egyptians preferring to distance themselves from those herding animals.

An additional reason that commentators suggest for why the Egyptians might be eager that Yaakov’s family take up residence in Goshen, is that domesticated animals in general, and sheep in particular, were the objects of Egyptian religious worship. Consequently, according to Egyptian beliefs, these animals should not be herded, shorn, milked, eaten, etc. Ibn Ezra on 46:33 compares Egyptian practice to what he observed in India, where he claims that everyone was vegetarian due to their worship of the types of animals commonly used for the purposes listed above. The hypothesis that since the Jews dealt with what the Egyptians considered holy animals in a manner that was sacrilegious for the native population, they had to be relegated to relatively uninhabited areas, revolves around the interpretation of the word “Toeiva” (abomination) in Beraishit 46:34. RaShI, Chizkuni and others understand the phrase “…because it is a ‘Toevia’ of Egypt- all those who shepherd sheep”, to connote that the Egyptians viewed as blasphemous the ill-treatment of their objects of worship. Consequently, since Yoseph’s family as guests and relatives of a high-ranking official, must be treated with respect, the Egyptians cannot insist that the Jews desist from shepherding; they are allowed to continue to engage in these practices as long as it is far from the centers of the Egyptian population. A parallel argument is made when Pharoah suggests to Moshe that rather than going into the desert to offer sacrifices of cows, goats and sheep to their God, the Jews should remain within Egypt proper and worship HaShem. (Shemot 8:22) “And Moshe said: It is not correct to do this, because ‘Toeiva’ of Egypt were we to sacrifice to the Lord our God. We would be offering up ‘Toeiva’ of Egypt before their eyes! Wouldn’t they stone us?”

Cultural rather than religious objections to animal herding.

Other commentators, such as RaShBaM and Da’at Zekeinim MiBa’alei HaTosaphot, approach the term “Toeiva” more literally, and attribute the Egyptian disdain for the Jews, not to any particular theological belief, but rather to gastronomic custom. While it could be contended that it is impossible to separate cultural practices from religious doctrines, this school of interpretation focuses upon the visceral response of disgust implied in the word “Toeiva”, as opposed to opposition to behaviors because of some symbolic association between the practice and one’s deeply held beliefs.  Perhaps as a result of the ease by which the Egyptians were able to grow outstanding agricultural crops, a vegetarian culture evolved that looked askance at all those who were carnivores. Principled vegetarians and certainly vegans are often opposed to taking animal life of any form based upon humanitarian and aesthetic considerations, rather than as a result of religious convictions.[2] The Divine Prohibition against the consumption of meat in the Garden of Eden is often cited as substantiation for claiming that consuming exclusively fruits, vegetables and grains constitutes a purer and more wholesome existence for all of mankind, independent of one’s faith system. Ibn Ezra explains that when Potiphera leaves Yosef in charge of his household, with the exception of “bread” (39:6), it is because the master of the house did not want his servant to contaminate the kitchen with his carnivorous tendencies. Ibn Ezra further states that Egyptian vegetarianism may account for why, when Yosef invites his brothers to dine, the Egyptians refuse to join them in the same room (43:32). Consequently, the basis for separation between the two peoples may have been a matter of social mores rather than theological disputes.

Perhaps the Egyptians just had a general animus towards animals, and, by extension, those who take care of them.

A fourth approach that parallels the first three is RaShBaM’s additional assumption that the Egyptians did not respect people who were shepherds because, in contrast to the hypothesis that they worshipped domesticated animals, they abhorred these animals and anyone who associated with them. While eating animals may have been particularly repulsive to the Egyptians, for a people to constantly be associated with animals, living with them, tending to them, feeding them, protecting them, etc. was demeaning in Egyptian eyes, and therefore they would look down upon the Jews as their inferiors if they lived in the same place.

Settlement in Goshen as a means of avoiding Yosef’s brothers causing additional disruptions.

However, most commentators do not understand the assignation of the Jews to Goshen as exclusively a means by which to avoid conflict between Jews and Egyptians; rather it is a deliberate strategy devised by Yosef to achieve various additional objectives, personal as well as national.

Chizkuni on 46:34 writes,

Yosef was worried that if the brothers would be made ministers in Pharoah’s house (see 47:6), they would attempt to lower him (Yosef)  from his position of power, since due to the “coat of many colors” (37:3, 23) they had sold him.

This commentator provides an interesting gloss on human nature in general, and the story of Yosef and his brothers in particular. Although a simple reading of the story suggests that once Yosef has tested the brothers to see whether they harbored the same enmity towards Binyamin as they had towards him (44:1 ff.), he was satisfied that they had learnt their lesson and that it was time to reunite with the entire family, Chizkuni suggests that the old enmity, at least in Yosef’s mind, continues to lie just below the surface. Over time, as the memory of their humiliation would fade, or perhaps specifically because of the humiliation that they had suffered at his hands, Yosef feared that the plotting against him would begin again and lead to further terrible results. Chizkuni’s approach calls to mind the following Talmudic debate: in

Yoma 86b

The Rabbis taught:

Transgressions which one has confessed this past Yom HaKippurim, one should not confess them on another Yom HaKippurim, unless he has repeated the sin. If one has not repeated the sin, and confesses them again on another Yom HaKippurim, concerning such a person it is said, (Mishlei 26:11) “Like a dog that returns to its excrement, so is a fool who dwells upon his  foolishness.”

R. Eliezer ben Yaakov says: (If he does this, not only is he not to be castigated, but)  he is all the more to be praised, as it is said, (Tehillim 51:5) “For my sins I know, and my transgressions are before me constantly.”

Even assuming that Yosef’s brothers felt remorse at this point in time over what they had done to Yosef and to their father twenty-two  years before, were there any guarantees that this sense of remorse will inform future choices that will confront them? On the one hand, to obsess over the past will prevent a person from moving on and involving himself in productive activities; however, not continually and directly confronting a weakness that may still potentially exist  is asking for trouble  and could lead to unfortunate repetitions of the original reprehensible behavior. An additional irony raised by Chizkuni, is that in the same manner that Yosef remains suspicious of his brothers to the end of his life, they return the favor by wondering when he would finally exact a full measure of revenge from them. See 50:15-17.

Living in Goshen out of consideration for Yaakov’s sensibilities.

RaMBaN on 45:10 understands Yosef’s plan to have his family take up residence in Goshen as a means of protecting Yaakov. “Yosef knew that his father did not wish to live in the land of Egypt proper where the capitol of the country was located.” Yaakov’s desire to live “far from the madding crowd” is perhaps implicitly reflected in his response to Pharoah’s inquiry concerning his age. (47:9) “…The days of my sojourning[3] are 130 years. Few and terrible have been the days of my life, and I have not lived as long as my forefathers during the days of their sojourning.” RaShI similarly interprets the word “VaYeshev” (And he dwelled) in 37:1 to the effect that Yaakov wished to be left alone in peace to remain in Canaan once and for all after all of the vagaries and difficulties of his life up until that point. But God Decided that this was not to be and that even more challenging times for Yaakov—the mystery of what had happened to his beloved son Yosef, and the dilemma of potentially losing more children by allowing the brothers to go to Egypt in order to purchase food—lay ahead.

Goshen as an anti-assimilation strategy.

But aside from the personal issues that Yosef and Yaakov respectively may have been facing in their lives that justified having the Jews live in Goshen rather than in Egypt proper, an additional, more profound concern was probably haunting both father and son with regard to the Jews’ impending lengthy stay in Egypt. Would a minority people, originally numbering less than seventy,[4] be able to maintain its identity in the face of a sophisticated, successful, affluent, and powerful dominant majority culture? RaShI comments on 46:28 wherein we learn that Yaakov sent Yehuda as an advance party “LeHorot” (to show, teach) before him to Goshen”, to the effect that while the simple meaning may connote serving as a guide so that the family will know where to go, the Midrash claims that it was Yehuda’s responsibility to set up a place for Jewish learning (“Beit Talmud”)[5] so that instructions could be issued to the members of the family concerning their heritage and identity. R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, on 47:33, regarding Pharoah’s inquiry as to the profession of Yaakov’s sons, understands this particular interaction and strategy to constitute yet another manifestation of the principle “Ma’asei Avot Siman LeBanim” (the deeds of the forefathers are precursors for what is to occur to their children):

In a state like Egypt, where caste prevailed, and men were completely absorbed into their trade, and men were born as artisans, workers on the land, soldiers, etc., the first question was naturally about their profession. To Pharoah’s question they were to unashamedly acknowledge this unpleasant fact, for the disgust which the Egyptians had for their calling, which they could not disguise—just as altogether the dislike of the Jews by the nations—was the first means for the preservation of that race that was destined for an isolated path through the ages. Until the spiritual moral morn dawns for the nations of the world, the barriers that the false conception which they have, have raised against the Jews, have served to protect them from being infected by the barbarism and demoralization of the people in whose midst they will have to wander for centuries. That is why here too Joseph at once brought to the fore the aspect of his brethren which was unpleasant to the Egyptians with the expressed purpose of obtaining thereby for them a separated province in which to settle.[6]

The very limited success of this plan.

While the strategy of separation to prevent intermarriage was extended according to the Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Parsha 5, to not changing their names, their language, not intermarrying and not reporting upon one another to the Egyptian government, Rabbinic tradition also contends that only a small percentage of the Jews actually left Egypt. Consider the interpretation of the Mechilta of R. Shimon bar Yochai, Chapter 13 on Shemot 13:18:

Not even one fifth left, and there are those who say one fiftieth, and there are those who say one five hundredth. R. Nehorai says not one five thousandth…[7]

While the Midrash is not adverse to exaggeration, at the very least, the long term benefits of residing in Goshen as well as the other attempts at insuring Jewish identity for the masses do not appear to have worked. Rabbinic sources suggest that Jews were guilty of idolatry, had ceased practicing circumcision, and were on the brink of total assimilation had God not Taken them out when He Did. Shemot Rabba 14:14 imagines what took place between the original settling in Goshen and the eventual time of the Exodus:

Why the plague of darkness (Shemot 10:21)? Blessed is the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who shows no favoritism and He Looks into human hearts, and Inspects human emotions. Since there were transgressors among the Jews, who had Egyptian patrons, and they enjoyed in Egypt honor, and wealth, they did not wish to leave Egypt…

The Midrash proceeds to explain that in order to create the illusion that all the Jews had left, those refusing to exit Egypt were done away with under the cover of darkness. Apparently Yaakov’s and Yosef’s concerns were well-founded.

Assimilation has been the enemy of strong Jewish identity from the inception of the nation. Apparently, in the case of the Egyptian exile, physical barriers could not assure Jewish continuity without a major Divine Intervention.   There are evidently no substitutes for deep belief in HaShem, commitment to full observance of Jewish tradition and practice, love of the Jewish people and the land of Israel in order to assure continued allegiance to Judaism and the Jewish ideal.


[1] Yehuda Elitzur and Yehuda Kiel, Mosad HaRav Kook, Yerushalayim, 1993, p. 94.

[2] The claim is made by some that vegetarians are typically more humanistic than their carnivorous counterparts. Yet the manner in which the Egyptians eventually treated the Jews would appear to beg this question.

[3] Yaakov depicts his life as one long series of wanderings. While this could be a figure of speech that could describe anyone’s life, i.e., a poetic means of suggesting that life on earth is temporal and fleeting, Yaakov would appear to be justified were his intent literal when one considers the time that he is forced to spend in Lavan’s home, and then his need to uproot himself and his family once more in order to journey to Egypt, where he eventually dies.

[4] Although the Tora (46:27) mentions seventy as the number of people that came down together with Yaakov to Egypt, the text notes that the number includes Yosef and his two sons who were already there. Consequently, since Yosef, Ephraim and Menashe had already acclimated to Egypt, it was the rest of the family that was most at risk in terms of culture shock and assimilation.

[5] Obviously to take the term literally, would constitute an anachronism in the sense that Ravina and R. Ashi’s compendium known as the Talmud was not completed until about 500 CE. On the other hand, Rabbinic tradition contends that the Forefathers and their families observed all of the commandments. It would be reasonable to assume that at the very least, the family’s cultural and theologically monotheistic traditions would be formally passed on from one generation to the next within some sort of structured setting. A parallel assumption is made concerning the institution of the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever. See “Stealth Tora Teachers—the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever” http://text.rcarabbis.org/parashat-noach-stealth-tora-teachers-the-yeshiva-of-shem-and-ever-by-yaakov-bieler/

[6] While R. Hirsch could put a spin upon the anti-Semitism of the Germany and German culture that he so much cherished, Nechama Leibowitz, ZaTzaL considered him to have been too naïve a romantic to realize how far this anti-Semitism could go and at what cost to the Jewish people.

[7] Considering that the first census of the Jewish people taken after the Exodus from Egypt amounted to 603,550 men above the age of 20 (BaMidbar 1:46), the Midrash suggests astronomical numbers of Jews occupied Egypt, the vast majority opting not to join Moshe and their fellow countrymen.

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