The Precise Punishment for Mechiras Yosef

Vayomer Yehudah el echav ‘mah betza ki naharog es achinu v’chisinu es damo. Lechu v’nimkerenu laYishmaelim’ (Bereishis 37:26–27)

The Gemara in Shabbos (10b) teaches that the preferential treatment that Yosef received from Yaakov caused his brothers to become jealous of him, which led them to sell Yosef into slavery, which eventually resulted in the Jewish People descending to Egypt and becoming enslaved there. Rabbeinu Bachya writes that although Hashem had already promised Avraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land, it was only at the time of Yosef’s sale that it was established where and how painful the servitude would be as a punishment for the brothers’ hatred of Yosef.

Rashi writes (Shemos 6:16) that although the lifespans of Yaakov’s other children are not mentioned, the Torah records that Levi lived 137 years to teach us the duration of the enslavement in Egypt, which did not begin until the last of Yaakov’s sons, Levi, died. The Gur Aryeh (Shemos 13:16) elucidates the calculation as follows: Yaakov was 84 when he married Leah (Rashi, Bereishis 29:21), and two years later, she gave birth to Levi when Yaakov was 86 (as the Seder Olam writes that each of his sons was born in the seventh month).

The Torah records (Bereishis 47:9) that Yaakov was 130 when he descended to Egypt, in which case Levi was 44. Since Levi died when he was 137, he lived in Egypt for 93 years. As Rashi writes (Shemos 12:40) that the Jewish people spent 210 years in Egypt, we find that the enslavement in Egypt, which began when Levi died, spanned a period of 117 years. Why were they specifically punished with 117 years of bondage and servitude for the sin of selling Yosef?

The Ostrovtzer Rebbe, zy”a, points out that only nine of Yosef’s 11 brothers participated in the sin of selling him into slavery, as Binyamin and Reuven were not present at the time of the sale. Yosef was 17 when he was sold (Bereishis 37:2), and he was 30 when he was freed from jail and appointed viceroy (41:46), in which case his brothers’ decision to sell him caused Yosef to be enslaved for 13 years. Multiplying this by the nine brothers who sold him yields 117 years, which is the precise duration of the bitter enslavement with which their descendants were punished for their actions.

Rabbi Ronen Shaharabany adds that when Reuven returned and saw that Yosef was no longer in the pit where he had left him, he remarked (37:30), “Hayeled einenu v’ani ana ani ba — The boy is gone, and I, where can I go?” The numerical value of the word einenu is 117, as Reuven was hinting to his brothers that as a result of their actions that caused Yosef to be missing, their descendants would be punished with 117 years of bondage and servitude.

Q: The Tosefos Hashaleim points out that every verse in Parashas Vayeishev begins with the letter vav except for eight. Which book of Tanach shares the unusual characteristic that each verse in the entire book begins with vav except for eight, and what is the connection between that book and Parashas Vayeishev?

Q: While in jail, Pharaoh’s cupbearer had a dream in which he pressed grapes into Pharaoh’s cup, and the baker had a dream in which he was carrying three baskets on his head and birds were eating food out of them. Yosef told the cupbearer that his dream meant that he would be returned to his original position of serving Pharaoh, while he interpreted the dream of the baker as indicating that he would be killed, both of which came to pass. Where is it alluded to in the content of the dreams that the cupbearer would live while the baker would die?

A: The Tosefos Hashaleim points out that in both Parashas Vayeishev and Megillas Rus, every verse except eight of them begins with the letter vav, which signifies cries of vey vey. Parashas Vayeishev is full of tragic events, such as the sale of Yosef, the deaths of Er and Onan and the imprisonment of Yosef. Similarly, Megillas Rus discusses a generation whose leaders were corrupt; it begins with the deaths of Elimelech, Machlon and Kilyon, and discusses the bitter plight of Rus. The eight verses that do not begin with the letter vav correspond to the positive events discussed in each.

Additionally, Rav Matis Blum points out that both Parashas Vayeishev and Megillas Rus discuss great leaders — Yehudah and Elimelech — who, respectively, had two sons — Er and Onan, Machlon and Kilyon — who died due to their sins. In each case, unusual efforts were made to perpetuate the names of the deceased through an atypical form of yibum. Each case resulted in the continuation of the ancestry of Dovid Hamelech and Moshiach and brought them one step closer.

A: Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d, zt”l, explains that in the baker’s dream, he was standing still and inanimate with baskets on his head from which the birds were eating, as opposed to the cupbearer who was actively squeezing grapes into a cup which he then proceeded to place in Pharaoh’s hand. The lack of activity on the part of the baker hinted to his status as one marked for death, whereas the cupbearer’s productivity indicated that he was still full of life.

Harav Avigdor Nebenzahl, shlita, suggests that the dream of the cupbearer demonstrated his dedication to serving his master, as even in his dreams he was thinking about squeezing grapes and serving Pharaoh. The baker’s dream, on the other hand, revealed his lack of devotion to his job, as the birds were eating Pharaoh’s food out of the basket on his head and he took no action to try to stop them.

Harav Meir Shapiro, zt”l, answers that birds are naturally scared to approach people. From the fact that the birds in the baker’s dream were eating from the baskets on his head and weren’t afraid of him, Yosef understood that he was already like a dead man in their eyes.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email