Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Yosef and His Many Names

Jacob’s penultimate son was born to him by his beloved with Rachel after many years of her going childless. The Bible relates that upon his birth, Rachel exclaimed, “Hashem has gathered up (asaf) my embarrassment,” further noting that she called him Yosef, with the wishful prayer “Hashem shall add [yosef] for me another son” (Gen. 30:23–24). But Yosef was not his only name. In one place in the Bible, Joseph is actually referred to as Yehosef (Ps. 81:6), with an additional HEY between the first two letters of Yosef. Moreover, the Bible itself reports that when Joseph took a leadership role in the Egyptian government, people called him Avreich (Gen. 41:43) and the Pharaoh called him Tzafnat Paneach (Gen. 41:45). In this essay, we discuss Joseph’s various names, exploring the etymology of each appellation and showing how each name focuses on a specific aspect of the amazing tzaddik.

The name Yosef appears more than 200 times throughout the Bible in reference to Joseph and/or his descendants. By the way, Jacob’s son Joseph was not the only person named Yosef in the Bible. There are three more people who bore that name: Yosef, whose son Yigal was the spy from the tribe of Issachar (Num. 13:7); Yosef from the family of Assaf, who was one of the singers in the time of King David (I Chron. 25:9); and Yosef who is listed among the returnees from the Babylonian Exile in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 10:42, Neh. 12:14).

As you may have realized, the name Yosef is derived from the verb yosef (“he shall add”), just like his mother Rachel explained. The early Hebrew lexicographer like Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, and Radak trace this word to the triliteral root YOD-SAMECH-PEH (“add/extra”). However, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) understands that the letter YOD is not integral to the root, and he sees the core root as the biliteral SAMECH-PEH (“end”). Other words derived from this root include sof (“end,” “conclusion”), sayif (“sword,” the implement that brings about the end of a person’s life), safah (“lip,” “edge,” “riverbank”), saf (“threshold,” the edge of a certain domain), and asifah (“gathering,” which alters the boundaries/ends of a set). In something similar to his explanation of this last word, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that hosafah/tosefet (“adding”) entails redefining the limits within a certain boundary and extending the “end” to reach somewhere that it had not yet stretched.

The Talmud (Sotah 10b, 36b) teaches that because Joseph sanctified the name of Hashem in private by justly refusing to sin with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph merited that an extra letter of Hashem’s name (HEY) be added to his own name, thus turning Yosef into Yehosef. Nonetheless, this name was not added to Joseph’s name immediately; rather when the arch-angel Gabriel sought to teach Joseph all seventy languages, he added the HEY to Yosef to become Yehosef.

Interestingly, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1810) infers from a piyyut recited at Shacharit on the first day of Rosh HaShanah (Even Choger) that Joseph was already named Yehosef while he was still in his mother’s womb, long before he was in Egypt. The Berditchever reconciles these traditions by explaining that a fetus inside its mother’s womb is said to study the entire Torah by way of angel (see Niddah 30b), so Joseph already studied all seventy languages via his angelic in-utero tutor (because all seventy languages are subsumed within the wisdom of the Torah); as a result, the name Yehosef already applied to him from then. However, once Joseph was born, he forget everything he learned in his pre-natal studies. Because of this, Gabriel had to later re-teach Joseph those languages and bring him back to a state of Yehosef, as opposed to Yosef.

According to Maimonides (Laws of Klei HaMikdash 9:9), Joseph was listed among the other tribes on the Shoham Stones (affixed to the Kohen Gadol’s shoulders) under the name Yehosef, even though on the Choshen breastplate, his name was spelled Yosef (see Minchat ChinuchMitzvah #99).

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (1927–2021) is reported to have maintained that Yosef and Yehosef should be considered two different names, implying that there’s nothing wrong with a father naming one son Yosef and another son Yehosef. But he later retracted from this position and wrote that when it comes to naming siblings or being careful about names for shidduchim, one should be stringent to treat Yosef and Yehosef as the same name. Rabbi Mordechai Gross of Bene Barak similarly expresses uncertainty as to whether they ought to be viewed as one or two names.

The origin of the name Tzafnat Paneach and its meaning are quite obscure. Many explanations and translations of this name have been offered. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah §90:4) offers four different ways of understanding the name. Three out of four of those explanations understand the word tzafnat as related to the Hebrew root TZADI-PEH-NUN (“hidden”), whose derivatives appear throughout the Bible.

However, there is less of a consensus regarding the second word of this name — paneach. It seems to be derived from the four-letter root PEH-AYIN-NUN-CHET, which is otherwise unattested to in Biblical Hebrew. In the Midrash, some explain the word paneach as combining the two-letter root PEH-AYIN (“appearing/manifesting”) and NUN-CHET (“easy/placing/placating”), explaining the name Tzafnat Paneach as referring to Joseph’s uncanny knack for easily deciphering hidden mysteries, or to his ability to placate people’s inquiries by revealing that which is hidden.

Rashi (to Gen. 41:45) explains Tzafnat Paneach as “revealer of mysteries,” but Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762–1839) — better known for his work Chatam Sofer — writes that the name actually means “concealer of mysteries,” in reference to Joseph undertaking to keep the secret of Pharaohs’ inability to speak Hebrew (see Sotah 36b).

In general, grammarians like Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) and Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) assert that words derived from quadriliteral roots are not native to Hebrew, but instead come in as loanwords from other languages. This would suggest that to decipher the meaning of Tzafnat Paneach, we should turn to Egyptian. I did precisely that in my book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press) where I offered a collection of possible translations of Tzafnat Paneach based on the assumption that the name is of Egyptian origin. These translations include: “lord of life,” “Neth speaks life,” “the god speaks and [this man] lives,” “redemption of the age,” “savior of his time,” “he who is called Ip-Ankh,” “the man who knows things.”

The word paneach is actually used in later Hebrew writings (like the ancient Nishmat prayer and the poetry of HaKallir) as the verb for “decoding/deciphering,” but this may be based on the Midrashic interpretation of paneach in Joseph’s appellation.

Let’s talk about the name Avreich. Targum Onkelos does not treat this name as a proper noun that ought to be left untranslated, rather Onkelos (to Gen. 41:43) translates Avreich into Aramaic as “this is the father of the king (dein abba l’malka).” In his first explanation, Rashi (there) agrees with Onkelos and further supports this translation by parsing the word avreich as a portmanteau of av (“father” in Hebrew) and reich, which Rashi claims means “king” in Aramaic.

The problem with Rashi’s explanation is that there is no such word reich in Aramaic that means “king.” It is generally agreed that a mistake has crept into our versions of Rashi, and instead of saying that reich means “king” in Aramaic, Rashi should be read as saying that reich means “king” in Latin. This Latin word actually appear in the Talmud (Bava Batra 4a) when relating that the Roman government opposed Herod’s plan to refurbish the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, with the emperor warning that because of Herod’s questionable lineage “he is not a reicha nor the son of a reicha.”

Indeed, the word reggio/rex in Latin means “king.” It is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root reg-, thus making it a cognate of the German word reich (“kingdom/empire”) and a whole bevy of English words (including rajroyalregalregiusreign, regentrectordirector, and prerogative). It is also the etymological basis of such names as Regina, Reginald, Reinhold, Ronald, Rhona, Richard, Heinrich, Hendrik, Aldrich, Rodriguez, Patrick, Derek, Fredrich, Imre, and Emmerich. The last of those names has a famous Italian equivalent — the name borne by Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512), who is the namesake of the continents of America.

The term reich in the sense “king” may appear in the Bible in several other contexts as well:

  • When Jacob first met Rachel, the Bible reports that Leah’s eyes were rakot while Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance (Gen. 29:17). Many have explained the term rakot in this context to mean “soft” or “weak” due to much crying (see Rashi there). However, Sefer Russiana (to Gen. 29:17) explains rakot as a cognate of reich meaning “king/royally.” A similar explanation was independently suggested by the Pittsburgher Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Abba Leifer (1918–1990) in his work Emunas Avraham (to Gen. 29:17).
  • When King David grieved the death of Avner, he said: “I am today rach and anointed to be king” (II Sam. 3:39). Targum Yonatan (there) renders King David’s statement as “I am today [like] a commoner who will grow up to be king,” and Radak implies that Targum understood the word rach as meaning “king.”
  • The Talmud (Shabbat 53a) relates that the Amora Shmuel was nicknamed Aryoch. That name Aryoch was borne by the king of Elasar, one of the four kings with whom Abraham did battle (Gen. 14:1, 14:9) and by a minister in Nebuchadnezzar’s cabinet (Dan. 2:4, 2:15, 2:24–25). Rashi (to Shabbat 53a) explains that Shmuel was called Aryoch because Shmuel was an expert in civil law and in his role a judge function in a way that resembles a king, with the rach part of Aryoch being related to the Latin word for “king.” Elsewhere, however, Rashi (to Menachot 38b) explains that Aryoch is related to the word aryeh (“lion”), which implies royalty because the tribe of Judah of was compared to a lion (Gen. 49:9).
  • In the Deuteronomic curses that Moses warns will befall the Jews should they fail to keep the Torah, it is said that the most pampered and gentle of ladies will look with askance at their husbands and children (Deut. 28:56). The Hebrew term for “pampered” used in this case is ha’rakah, literally “the soft one.” Rabbi Chaim Vital in Pri Eitz Chaim (Shaar HaYichudim ch. 19) understands that the word rakah in this context is also a cognate of reich in the sense of “royalty.”
These lectures on the histories of different cities in the Holy Land (Land of Israel) were delivered by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein at the Mechinah Program in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach (Fall 2017). These lectures focus on the cities mentioned in the Books of Joshua and Judges, but draws from all the books of the Bible.
These lectures on the histories of different cities in the Holy Land (Land of Israel) were delivered by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein at the Mechinah Program in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach (Fall 2017). These lectures focus on the cities mentioned in the Books of Joshua and Judges, but draws from all the books of the Bible.

In his second and third explanations of the name Avreich, Rashi (to Gen 41:43) offers Midrashic exegeses that presume Hebrew etymologies. The first explanation (found in Bereishit Rabbah §90:3 and Sifrei Devarim §1) sees avreich as a portmanteau of the Hebrew words av and rach (“soft/young”), expounding on the word as contrasting Joseph’s superlative wisdom to his youthful age. According to this, avreich means “father [in wisdom], and young [in years].” Based on this exegesis, the term avreich nowadays refers to a young budding scholar studying in Kollel, and, in some circles, to any young married fellow.

Alternatively, Rash cites that others (Sifrei Devarim §1) explain avreich as stemming from the triliteral root BET-REISH-KAF, from which berech (“knee”) and the act of “kneeling” derived. According to this, avreich refers to Joseph as the leader to whom the masses bend their knee in submission. As Rabbi Dovid HaLevi Segal (1586–1667) — better known as the author of Turei Zahav (TaZ) — clarifies in his work Divrei Dovid, exponents of this third explanation of avreich rejected the idea of splitting the name into two words, so they had to come up with another etymology. [Targum pseudo-Jonathan (to Gen. 41:43) offers a synthesis of the first and last explanations of avreich.]

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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