The Carbfather

Say what you will about Yoseif (Joseph), he certainly does not shun the carbs. Every dream he encounters comes with a match featuring wheat in all of its alluring forms: sheaf, scone, stalk. Perhaps this is not surprising for the firstborn of the lone matriarch to be buried on the road to Breadhouse (Bethlehem).

Not to be confused with Bais Challah, the girls’ school in Mendy and the Golem (Issue 19, April 1985).

However, the phrase which most bedevils the commentators features not a dream loaf, but a real one–or is it metaphorical?

And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he knew not ought he had, save the bread that he ate. And Joseph was of a beautiful form and of a beautiful countenance. (Gen. 39:6)

This leads to a beautiful quadrivial dispute among the Big Four commentators.

  • Rashi (from Gen. R.):  Y. wasn’t allowed to touch the lady of the house.
  • Rashbam: Y. was even allowed to prepare his master’s meals.
  • Ibn Ezra: Y. was forbidden to touch his master’s food, because Hebrews are icky.
  • Ramban: Y. used his power only to satisfy his basic bread-‘n-salt needs.

However, I am reminded of the last 3 1/2 verses of Jeremiah (also Kings):

Evil-Merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, lifted up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah, and brought him forth out of prison. And he spoke kindly unto him, and set his seat above the seat of the kings that were with him in Babylon. And he changed his prison garments; and he ate bread before him continually all the days of his life. And his allowance was a continual allowance given him by the king of Babylon, every day a portion until the day of his death, all the days of his life. (Jer. 52:31-34)

Before Y. goes in to prison, the only symbol of his servile status is getting bread from his master. After Jehoiachin is released from prison, the only symbol of his servile status is getting bread from his master.

Now, once Y. is imprisoned, the same phrase appears, but with no qualifier (ibid. v. 23): “The keeper of the prison looked not at all to ought that was in his hand.” Is that because there was no ceremonial master-bread? We do find that Samson spends his prison time in Philistia milling (Jud. 16:21), and the smiting of the firstborn goes from “unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill” (Ex. 11:5) in theory to “unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon” in practice (Ex. 13:29). According to the Midrash (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 7:8; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 186), this is what happens to Sarah (or should that be Serah?) when she descends to Egypt. Is this why grain is בר and prison is בור?

Of course, once Y. is released, he is the one to apportion bread to the entire country (or world). He is the one giving bread to his former and current masters, as well as the father and brothers who scoffed at the idea of his lording over them. It seems like the question of who gives bread to whom is an essential one for identifying master and slave, or at least vassal and lord.

Is this why Passover requires making our own bread? Is this why the Jews receive daily bread from heaven on their way out of Egypt?

It’s certainly food for thought.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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