The Daughter of the Castrated Man

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

This week, we return to a single cryptic verse in this week’s Parshah, Mikeitz. It is a verse that we have touched upon before, here, but I wanted to add a few textual elements to the mix.

The context is the following.

Joseph was sold by his brothers as a slave, and ultimately purchased in Egypt by Pharaoh’s chief butcher, Potiphar. Blessed with grace, success and an exceedingly handsome appearance, Joseph is soon appointed steward over his master’s house — at which point he captures the eye of Pharaoh’s beautiful wife. She tries desperately to seduce Joseph, but at a moment when she literally has Joseph in her grasp, he runs from her room, leaving his shirt in her hands.

Potiphar’s wife responds to this rejection by framing Joseph, accusing him of being not only the seducer, but a would-be rapist. When she reports these accusations to her husband, he is furious, and throws Joseph into his private prison — a prison which Pharaoh also uses to send criminals from amongst his own royal staff, which is how Pharaoh’s royal butler and baker end up in the same cell as Joseph. Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of the butler and baker, and three days later, the butler is restored to his position, and the baker is killed — exactly as Joseph had predicted.

Two years later, Pharaoh has two troubling dreams involving two sets of seven cows and ears of corn, and the butler recalls Joseph’s skill at dream-interpretation, and shares the incident with Pharaoh. Pharaoh calls for Joseph, and describes his dreams, and Joseph informs Pharaoh that a seven-year period of unusual plenty is approaching, which will be followed by seven years of intense famine. Joseph counsels Pharaoh to appoint someone understanding and wise, who will be able to store grain during the years of plenty, and then distribute it during the famine, so that Egypt and its people will be spared the devastation that the famine would otherwise have wrought. Joseph’s words ring true in Pharaoh’s ears, and he immediately appoints Joseph himself to be Pharaoh’s second-in-command, with absolute control over Egypt’s resources. Then the Torah states as follows:

“And Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath Pa’neach, and he gave him Osnat the daughter of Poti-phera, the kohen of On, for a wife, and Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt.⁠1

Who was Poti-phera?

Who was Osnat?

Why was Pharaoh involved in giving Joseph someone else’s daughter?

Some commentaries explain that Poti-phera was a respected man who had a very beautiful daughter. Pharaoh thought that Joseph’s position would be secured by his marriage to the beautiful and high-bred daughter of a trusted vassal, and so he sent for him, and instructed him to give his daughter to Joseph as a wife. ⁠2

Most commentaries, however, have a far different take. Poti-phera was actually Potiphar. The reason that his name was changed to Poti-phera, and how his position changed from Pharaoh’s chief butcher to the Kohen of On, is a story unto itself.

Potiphar bought Joseph out of sexual desire, because of his great beauty. As a consequence — whether punitive or preventative — Potiphar found himself castrated, without the use of his male organ.⁠3 When, precisely, this happened is unclear. Certainly his name was still Potiphar when he was Joseph’s master. The castration itself, however, must have happened prior to the incident between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, based upon the following anecdote.

“Now it came about when his master heard his wife’s report that she spoke to him, saying, ‘Your slave did such things to me,’ that his wrath burned.”⁠4 What is this redundancy? What is it that she said to him after he had already heard her report? And what did she mean by “such things”? Thus, the Midrash states that it was during intercourse that she described to Potiphar in detail the acts of intimacy that Joseph had performed with her. “He did things like this, and like this.” However, the commentaries conclude that Potiphar could not have been having actual intercourse with with his wife, because he had been, by that time, castrated. Thus, some conclude that he was engaged in no more than foreplay with his wife. ⁠5 Others conclude that he was only castrated in the sense that he no longer had the same level of sexual desire. ⁠6

The change in name had not been Potiphar’s idea. At some point, Potiphar’s impotence became public knowledge, and they began to mockingly refer to him as Poti-phera, which is a feminization of Potiphar. This resulted in Potiphar’s decision to leave public life, and to retire to a quiet life of worship and reflection, as was popular among the Egyptian high society in those times. The reference to “On” in this context may be either to the city of On, or to the name of the particular idol/deity that Potiphar decided to devote himself.

But if Poti-phera was Potiphar, that means that Osnat was Potiphar’s daughter. After all of the grief that he had received from Potiphar & Co., why on earth would Joseph marry Potiphar’s daughter?

Some commentaries suggest that this was a calculated move on both Pharaoh’s and Joseph’s part to dispel any last vestiges of rumors that Joseph was a mere slave, or that he had tried to rape Potiphar’s wife. After all, if he was or did such things, would Potiphar allow give his daughter to such a man in marriage? Thus, Joseph marrying there daughter of his former master firmly established his credentials as a free man, and innocent of the crime for which he had been incarcerated. ⁠7

According to another Midrash, however, more powerful forces conspired behind the scenes to unite Joseph and Osnat. As we have already discussed in several other columns, Osnat is said to have been the abandoned daughter of Dinah and Sh’chem. She was adopted by Potiphar and his wife, and the only possession she had that linked her to Jacob’s family was an amulet with an inscription identifying her as Jacob’s granddaughter. The story goes that, when Joseph traveled throughout Egypt in his royal chariot, all of the girls would run to catch a glimpse of this new, dashingly handsome prince. They would go so far as to climbing up and run along the walls, and they would try to throw some pice of clothing or jewelry at Joseph as he passed by, hoping to gain his attention. Osnat was one of these — but she didn’t have anything to throw other than her amulet. Joseph must have noticed something unique about this particular necklace, and when he inspected it, he found the inscription and knew that Divine Providence had led him to his wife.⁠8

There are some contextual questions about this account, such as: If Osnat was indeed Potiphar’s adopted daughter, didn’t Joseph see her quite a bit when he was steward of Potiphar’s home? Did he never notice the amulet? If Poti-phera was not the same person as Potiphar, this might avoid that particular issue; however, the Midrash also states that, when Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce Joseph, she did so because she was told by her astrologists that she was destined to raise Joseph’s children — but she mistakenly believed that these would be her children, as opposed to her adopted daughter’s.⁠9 This certainly makes it seem that the Midrash that tags Osnat as Jacob’s granddaughter dovetails with the Midrash that she was Potiphar’s step-daughter. Moreover, according to this Midrash, Osnat would have now been in her early twenties; would she have so easily parted with an amulet that she had kept on her person for the past 20 years? Or did she, too, sense that this was a fateful moment, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was worth parting with this one link to her origins? Also, the verse says that Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt after he married Osnat, suggesting that the match was made before his outing.

Regardless, it is clear that Joseph’s life was one overflowing with destiny and Divine Providence, as he went from the younger, hated brother, kidnapped and sold to a foreign land, to a disgraced and abused slave, to become the master of Egypt. There is perhaps no greater illustration of how profoundly and unexpectedly cold may turn into warmth, and darkness into light.

So, during these final days of Chanukah, as we thank G-d for miraculously delivering “the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure,” and for conjuring up a cruse of oil that illuminated our Temple for far longer than the laws of nature would allow, let us remember that there is no darkness that cannot be transformed into the brightest of light.

1 Genesis, 41:45.

2 See Sefer Seder Hadorot; Rashbam.

3 See Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13b.

4 Genesis, 39:19.

5 See Sifsei Chachomim.

6 See Gur Aryeh.

7 See Sifsei Chachomim; Da’at Z’keinim.

8 See Yalkut B’reishis, 34, 134; Da’at Z’keinim.

9 Genesis Rabbah, 85:2.