The Different Names of Yosef


Rabbi Ari Ginsberg




In this week’s parsha, Miketz, Yosef ascends from obscurity as an imprisoned foreign slave, to the grandiose position of viceroy of Egypt. This transformation of status through his successful interpretation of Paroh’s dream cannot be fully understood without acknowledgement of divine intervention interwoven throughout the process. At the culmination of Yosef’s appointment as viceroy of Egypt, the Torah emphasizes two new names bestowed upon him. He was referred to as “Avrech” (Breishis 41:43) by the people of Egypt, and “Tzafnas Paneach” (Breishis 41:45) by Paroh himself. Why does the Torah deem it necessary to reveal this information? What can we learn from these new nicknames of Yosef?

Rashi (Breishis 41:43) gives several explanations for the meaning of “Avrech.” The two explanations quoted from the Sifri (Deuteronomy: Chapter 1) utilize the grammatical structure of the word to elucidate it significance. Rabbi Yehuda states that the word can be divided into its two components of “Av” and “Rech,” which he then interprets to mean a father/master (Av) of wisdom, and soft (Rech = Rach) in years. Apparently, the Torah is revealing that the people of Egypt recognized that Yosef possessed wisdom beyond his years. Rabbi Yosi the son of Durmascith claims that Rabbi Yehuda’s explanation is a slanting of the text and therefore offers a different interpretation. The word “Avrech” comes from the word “Bircayim,” which means a person’s knees. The Reference to his knees suggests that others recognized their subservience to him, and required his permission to enter and exit before him. Aside from the grammatical basis for the argument, what are the compelling ideas that precipitate these two opinions? Furthermore, does this Sifri shed light on the original questions regarding the relevance of teaching this seeming historical information in the Torah?

In attempting to answer these questions, the idea of changing or receiving a new name should be analyzed on a more profound level. There are many examples of name changes in both Tanach and Halacha. Several of the patriarchs and matriarchs were given new names by Hashem including; Avraham, Sarah, and Yaakov. Further, the Rambam points out in Hilchos Teshuva 2:4, that included in the path of repentance is the changing of one’s name. The concept of a new name therefore appears to imply the creation of a new image. The person given the name should either change their perception and image of themselves, or others should look at the individual with a different view. In Yosef’s situation, the people of Egypt possessed a new image of Yosef, separate from his former identity as a youthful, foreign, imprisoned slave. All of these characteristics possessed by Yosef should have prevented the people from accepting and genuinely respecting Yosef as a leader. However, the Torah is telling us that Yosef was able to overcome his former status through his own wisdom and with the help of Hashem, and emerged an honored leader of Egypt. In line with this premise, Rabbi Yehuda’s explanation of “Av – Rech” implies that Yosef’s youth which may have once impeded the Egyptians’ regard for him, was now overshadowed by his superior wisdom in the eyes of the people. Rabbi Yose is pointing out that the people were dependent on him, the complete opposite of a slave who is dependent on his master. Thus, their perception of him as slave had completely morphed into the opposite image, their new master. Nevertheless, according to both opinions, the Torah is accentuating the miraculous rise of Yosef to power and how his image must have fully transformed in the eyes of the people in order to become a successful leader.

Paroh’s naming of Yosef as “Tzafnas Paneach” also reflects Paroh’s new identification of Yosef. The Ibn Ezra (Breishis 41:45) explains that this name was an Egyptian name, but he is unaware of its meaning. According to his opinion, why then did the Torah teach us this fact? Perhaps the Ibn Ezra is illustrating that Paroh now viewed Yosef as an Egyptian. His image as a foreigner may have acted as a hindrance in Paroh’s relationship and appointment of Yosef, but he now related to Yosef as an Egyptian, like himself.

Many practical lessons can be derived from the Torah’s foray into the significance of Yosef’s image. The Rambam in the fifth chapter of Hilchos Deos dedicates many halachos to describing how the actions of a scholar must differ from everyone else in order to preserve their image and also further their perfection. For example, a scholar may not walk out with a stain of his shirt, and should wear nice clothing as well. These obligations are premised on the scholar being a reflection of the Torah in his own eyes, and the nation’s eyes. A scholar should consistently assess his image in order to promote the Torah to the best of his ability. So too, Yosef understood the importance of his persona in achieving his position as viceroy of Egypt in order to further the plan set out for him by Hashem.

Although concern for image is a priority when trying to emulate the Torah and its values, it can become destructive when too much emphasis is given and image becomes a value in itself. With regard to Yosef, his position and respect was a crucial factor in fulfilling the prophesized fate of klal yisroel. Therefore, it is imperative to appreciate his meteoric rise and metamorphisis in both the Paroh’s eyes, and the eyes of the Egyptians.