To each (of the brothers) he (Joseph) gave changes of clothing but to Binyamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothing (Gen 45:22)
The Talmudic sages (Megila 16b) ask an obvious question on this verse. How could Joseph have failed to learn a lesson from his own circumstance? As a result of his father gifting him a special coat, his jealous brothers were incited to sell him. Now he risks provoking similar jealousy by giving preferential treatment to Binyamin!
The Talmud answers: Joseph saw prophetically that in the future Mordechai, a descendant of Binyamin, would emerge from the royal palace dressed in five regal garments (Esther 8:15).
Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna (the Gra) (1720-1797) articulates the question uppermost in all our minds: Joseph’s prophetic intuition was not shared by his brothers. From their perspective it would have seemed an act of crass favouritism, pure and simple. The Gemara does not appear to resolve the question
The Gra himself suggests a solution. He suggests that each of the garments gifted to Binyamin was worth only a fifth of those given to the other brothers. Therefore, his five were equal to each of theirs in value and would not have incited envy as it was clear that Joseph’s multiple gift to Binyamin was symbolic only.
The Gra does not conjecture serendipitously. Rav Barukh haLevi Epstein (1860-1941) best known for his work Torah Temima, finds support for the thesis. In the case of the brothers the word chalifot, “changes (of clothing)”, is spelt in its full form with a vav denoting garments of ‘full worth’; whereas for Binyamin it is spelt defectively minus the vav suggesting garments of ‘defective worth’.
The Torah Temima also cites Rabbenu Bachya of Spain (11th c.) who posits that the “three hundred silver pieces” which Joseph gave Binyamin were equal to the sum for which each brother was liable as a fine for having sold him. The average value of a slave is 30 shekels (Exodus 21:32) and the Gemara rules (Gittin 44a) that a Jew sold as a slave to a gentile (thus precluding him from performing mitsvot) must redeem him for up to ten times his value. Therefore, each of Joseph’s brothers ought to have given him 300 pieces of silver. By not demanding it of them it is as though he is gifting it to them. Hence it is only fair that Binyamin – who was not involved in the sale – should receive this same amount! (See Chizkuni and Chida)
One may tentatively suggest that the five changes of clothing given to Binyamin, regardless of their value, were actually no more than Binyamin’s due and should not have provoked the envy or jealousy of the brothers. Let us recall that when the brothers had dined in the house of the viceroy, Joseph (in the guise of viceroy Tsafnat-Paneakh) sees to it that Binyamin is served a portion five times greater than the other brothers.
The effect would have been far from pleasant for Binyamin. After all, if you (or I) were among ten other guests and your host ladled out to you, in full sight of everyone, five times the amount served to everybody else, you would feel not so much gratified as embarrassed. You might even feel your host was mocking you! Maybe “Tsafnat-Paneakh” does it to appear to accentuate the subsequent “ingratitude” of Binyamin in “stealing” the silver goblet – after all, hadn’t he been treated especially royally, yet this is how he (allegedly) repays his benefactor?
Joseph’s motive all along was, of course, solely to test the reaction of his brothers. Would they, despite the overwhelming evidence against Binyamin, protect him to the extent of refusing to leave without him. Once the brothers pass that test with flying colours, Joseph can reveal himself to them all – but to this beloved, sole full-brother of his who had nothing to prove, Joseph has some serious reparations to make. The three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothing (no doubt given discreetly and without fuss) are no more than Binyamin deserves.