A strange story circulated about one part of this week’s parashah, the story of Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife.

According to the Torah, the wife of Potiphar (she is otherwise nameless), is obsessed with Joseph, the handsome young slave whom her husband has recently bought. She keeps trying to seduce Joseph, but he keeps refusing. In the Torah’s version, this obsession is an entirely private matter, between her and him alone. By contrast, a number of midrashic commentaries recount that at one point she actually invited her friends to her quarters to confess her infatuation. She even tried to prove to them that they would be no less obsessed if he were a slave in their household:

Said the Rabbis of blessed memory: On one occasion the Egyptian women gathered and went to behold Joseph’s beauty. What did Potiphar’s wife do? She took citrons [etrogim] and gave them to each of them and gave each a knife and then called to Joseph and stood him before them. When they beheld how handsome Joseph was, they cut their hands [with the knives]. She said to them: If you do thus after just one moment, I, who see him all the time, am I not all the more so [justified in being smitten]? (Midrash Tanhuma)

אמרו רז”ל פעם אחת נתקבצו המצריות ובאו לראות יופיו של יוסף, מה עשתה אשת פוטיפר נטלה אתרוגים ונתנה לכל א’ וא’ מהן ונתנה סכין לכל א’ וא’ וקראה ליוסף והעמידתו לפניהן, כיון שהיו מסתכלו’ ביופיו של יוסף היו חותכות את ידיהן, אמרה להן ומה אתן בשעה אחת כך, אני שבכל שעה רואה אותו עאכ”ו?

A slightly different version of this story appears in Midrash ha-Gadol, a midrashic compilation of Yemenite origin, in the medieval Sefer ha-Yashar, in Yalqut Shim’oni (citing from the now-lost Midrash Abkir) and in other Jewish sources. In fact, this same tale made its way into the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam:

Then said the ladies in the city: The wife of the nobleman [Potiphar] is trying to seduce her own slave! He must indeed have smitten her with love. How foolish her conduct seems to us! When she heard their gossiping, she sent to them and prepared for them a feast, and gave each of them a knife, and she said [to Joseph]: Now go in front of them. And when they saw him they praised him, and they cut their hands. They said: God protect us! This is no mortal, this is naught but a noble angel! She said: Yes, this is the one about whom you did blame me. And I did indeed try to seduce him away, but he remained guiltless. But now, if he does not do my bidding, he will be put in prison and he will be among the base ones. (Sura XII, 30-32)

Like most midrashic elaborations, this story must originally have originally been designed to elaborate on something in the biblical text, some phrase or verse. But which one? As mentioned, there is no hint in the Torah of Potiphar’s wife ever confessing her infatuation with Joseph to her friends.

It turns out that this story is an elaboration of an ancient explanation of the precise wording of Genesis 39:14. That verse recounts that, when Potiphar’s wife saw that Joseph had left his garment in her hands and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household, “Behold! This Hebrew man has come to us to take liberties with us. He came to me to lie with me, but I cried out with a loud voice.”

The question this verse raised was, first of all: to whom was she speaking? The narrative had said earlier that on that particular day, except for Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, “no member of the household was there inside the house” (Gen 39:11). So if she and Joseph were alone, to whom could she cry out to “with a loud voice”? Stranger still, why did she use the plural, saying that Joseph “has come to us to take liberties with us?” The “royal we” is extremely rare in biblical Hebrew. Shouldn’t she just have said that Joseph “came to me to take liberties with me?”

From this ancient interpreters concluded that when Joseph fled her company, she at first did nothing. It was only after the other women of the house had come back from wherever they were (presumably at some sort of festival or public celebration) that she summoned them to her chambers and calmly told them what had happened: she had seized Joseph’s garment and said, “Lie with me,” but he had fled the house, leaving his garment behind. Now she was in trouble. “If I tell my husband that Joseph started up with me,” she tells her friends, “he won’t believe me. So you must help me and tell your husbands that he tried to do the same thing with you.” That’s why she says us instead of me.

The version of this motif in rabbinic texts like Midrash Tanhuma is relatively late, but its roots can be traced back to a very ancient source, the writings of Philo of Alexandria (early first century C.E.). In his retelling of the biblical story, Potiphar’s wife reports the event to her husband in these terms:

“You have brought to us,” she said, “a Hebrew boy as a house-servant, who not only led you astray when you casually and without inquiry set him over your household, but now has had the audacity to dishonor my body. For not satisfied to have availed himself merely of the women among his fellow slaves, he has become utterly lustful and has sought to lay his hands upon me,”

This account contains the same basic interpretation of the mysterious plurals in Gen 39:14, “Behold! This Hebrew man has come to us to take liberties with us.” In Philo’s recounting, Potiphar’s wife uses the plural because she is referring not only to herself, but to “the women among his fellow slaves.” Out of this general idea developed the overall motif of the “Assembly of Ladies,” whereby Potiphar’s wife invites the women of the house in order to back up her story. (I wrote about this in greater details in chapter 2 of my book In Potiphar’s House.)

Here are two themes that I hope to return to in subsequent weeks. Most of what we call midrash is ancient biblical interpretation: the details that midrash seeks to add to the biblical account are usually designed to answer some question arising out of the biblical text itself—an unusual word or phrase, or an unexplained action or idea. The second point is that one can often find an early version of a piece of rabbinic midrash in the Dead Sea Scrolls or in ancient works like the Book of Jubilees or the writings of Philo.

Comments and reactions welcome.

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One final matter: why would Potiphar’s wife have served her friends citrons (etrogim)? Don’t they usually taste as bitter as lemons? While that seems to be true of modern varieties, some rabbinic sources imply that the fruit was at one point considered quite tasty. Perhaps this particular variety of citron simply went out of existence. Is there a botanist who knows?

Speaking of which: Once, during Sukkot, I had to leave home in Israel to go to the U.S. It seemed foolish to buy a whole new lulav and etrog in the U.S., so I packed the ones I had bought in Israel and brought them with me on the plane. When I arrived at JFK, I had to fill out one of those forms declaring that I was importing “agricultural products” from abroad. The inspector looked at the lulav and said, “This one’s okay; it’s dead. But what’s that fruit?” I told him it was a citron. He looked it up in a big book behind the counter, but no luck—it wasn’t listed. “I’m afraid I’ll have to confiscate it,” he said.

“Can I speak with your supervisor?” I asked.

When the supervisor arrived, the clerk showed him the fruit: “It’s called a citron, but it isn’t listed in the book.”
“That’s not a citron,” the supervisor said. “That’s an esrog,” and he let me (and the etrog) go through.

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