Parashat Vayeishev--B'reishit 37:1-40:23
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Questions for Young Children

Has anyone ever given you a special present?  How did it make you feel?  How do you think Yosef feels when he gets a special present from his dad?

Do you know what it means to feel jealous?  What do you think made Yosef's brothers jealous of him?

The parasha talks about four dreams--two of Yosef's, one of the cupbearer and another of the baker.  Can you think of a dream you had?  Do you like dreaming?

Questions for Older Children

There are a lot of instances where clothing is important to the story.  Can you think of all the instances? There are at least five in this parasha. Why do you think the writer focuses on clothing?

Why do you think the story of Tamar and Yehudah is in the middle of this parasha?

Yosef has a lot of ups and downs in the parasha.  What are the ups and downs you noticed?  How does Yosef react to the downs?  How would you react?

When does God first appear in the parasha?

Questions for Teens and Adults

You can convene a Beit Din, a court, if you'd like a change from question and answer format.  Here are a few topics:

  • Try the brothers for attempted fratricide and lying to their father.
  • Try Tamar for prostitution.
  • Try Potiphar for miscarriage of justice.
  • Try Potiphar's wife for bearing false witness.

You can set up a debate about God's role in the Yosef story.

You can analyze this story from a literary point of view. The parasha is carefully constructed and the language is deliberate.

  • Notice the use of clothing
  • Notice how many times deception is used to exact justice in the eye of the aggrieved party.
  • Notice the recurring themes--Yosef is in a pit at the beginning of the parasha and in a dungeon at the end.
  • Notice Yosef's speech.  When does he stop speaking in the parasha?  When does he begin again?  How does his language change from the beginning to the end of the parasha?


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  • With the ktonet passim (Yosef's coat) as your theme, you can arrange either a food or decorative centerpiece that resembles the coat.
  • There is mention of the vine and the clusters of grapes in the description of the cupbearer's dream.  A bowl of grapes showcases his happy dream.
  • Bring out the sheaves--you can stack the mandelbrot in the recipe vertically to resemble wheat sheaves and place them on the table if your guests can refrain from eating dessert too soon.
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Parashat Vayeishev opens with Ya’akov (Jacob) at home in Eretz Yisrael and swiftly moves to the theme of Yosef (Joseph) and his brothers. Ya’akov favors his son Yosef giving him a fashionable k’tonet passim (an ornamented tunic or coat of many colors)   The fact that Yosef was a known tattletale amongst his brothers along with their father's favoritism towards Yosef sets the stage for the jealousy that burns when Yosef recounts dreams of his greatness to his brothers. There is no subtlety here—the brothers do not need a dream interpreter to parse the meaning.

After twice hearing Yosef tell them he will rule over them, the brothers concoct a plan to get rid of Yosef although they stop short of killing him (a step forward from the Cain and Abel tale).
After a brief interlude with the story of Yehudah (Judah) and Tamar, we return to Yosef being thrown into the pit and then taken to Egypt. Yosef’s life is a series of chutes and ladders. He falls and he rises and repeats the process. At the end of the parasha, Yosef is stuck in the Egyptian royal prison and Ya’akov is bereft believing Yosef is dead.

Find the food connection...

...והִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה, וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי, וְגַם-נִצָּבָה 

In it [the dream] we were binding sheaves in the field, whe suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright...

--Genesis 37:7

...וּבַסַּל הָעֶלְיוֹן, מִכֹּל מַאֲכַל פַּרְעֹה--מַעֲשֵׂה אֹפֶה

In the uppermost basket were all kinds of food for Pharaoh that a baker prepares...

--Genesis 40:17

Baked goods with wheat flour!


The Side Dish

This parasha is loaded with food for thought.  I didn't get any farther than the first word of the parasha as I began to think about the Yosef cycle of stories.  Vayeishev Ya'akov--"Ya'akov dwelled in the land where his father had sojourned..."  I can imagine Ya'akov at the end of his twenty year servitude under Lavan, after parrying the challenge from his dangerous brother and a crippling attack from God's angel, surviving the humiliation of his daughter Dina and the frightening aftermath of his son's vengeance, and following Rahel's death on the road.  This was a man who needed to sit down and rest and catch his breath.  The opening verses tell us we're about to hear of the generations of Ya'akov but no geneaology follows.  Instead, we're launched into the Yosef story.  Ya'akov seems to have time to relax now that he's settled in the land of his ancestors.  He takes up tailoring and makes Yosef an ornamented tunic.  Ya'akov's struggle is not over and he bears some responsibility for setting up the sibling rivalry that will send him into deep mourning and thoughts of a different dwelling place--She'ol.

The second time we run into the root y-sh-v, is in 37:25--"Then they [the brothers] sat down (vayeishvu)  to a meal."  This follows their decision to throw Yosef into a pit.  The meal breaks the tension--Yosef is in the pit and now the brothers have to decide what to do with Yosef.  They interrupt their meal for a change in plans--a caravan happens to pass by and the brothers decide to make a profit from the sale of their brother rather than simply killing him.  That decision will unsettle the brothers both literally and figuratively.

I wonder if we Jews ever really settle down.  Ya'akov will be heading for Eretz Mitzrayim--the Land of Egypt.  He will have lived in Eretz Yisrael, Aram Naharayim, and Mitzrayim before his death. How many of us are sitting at the Shabbat table with guests who have never moved?  How many of us live in our homeland of Eretz Yisrael?  I am not the first to ponder this propensity of Jews to settle and then resettle,  Melvin Konner has written a cultural anthropolgy of the Jews which he titled Unsettled.  Konner's thesis is that there have been pressures throughout history that forced Jews to resettle, but throughout all our history we have maintained a common history and a community wherever we settle.  When we are unsettled, we have to temporarily sit down and take stock of our situation.  Like Ya'akov we have to be cognizant of our neighbors and their customs and keep ourselves focused on our own family's and community's well-being. 

The geneaologies that punctuate B'reishit including the one that follows the unfortunate tale of Judah and Tamar, constantly point us forward to our future. Things look grim at the end of the parasha, but the story will continue.  It continues with us.  So, sit down, enjoy your Shabbat dinner, and find your own messages in this very rich parasha.





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A Dash of MIdrash

The rabbis ask why the story of Tamar interrupts the Yosef narrative. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman draws an analogy between Tamar and Potiphar's unnamed wife:

"In order to make the story of Tamar proximate to the story of Pothiphar's wife; [to tell you that] just as that one (the incident of Tamar) was for the sake of Heaven, so too this one (the incident of Potiphar’s wife) was meant for the sake of Heaven."

--Bereshit Rabbah 85

Do you see the two incidents as analogous? Debra Orenstein, a contemporary rabbi, understands Tamar in a different way than Potiphar's wife although both further God's plan.  Tamar is in the right--she has been denied yibbum, the levirate marriage. She cannot appeal to a court or to Ya'akov so she takes matters into her own hands.  Rabbi Orenstein claims that "Tamar takes greater initiative in actualizing God's plan.  Even if oppressed, she is also a clever agent on her own--and God's--behalf." (Lifecycles, p, 27)

The verse that clues us that Tamar is fulfilling God's plan is in the geneaology 39:29.  Tamar bears Perez and from this line King David and ultimately the Mashiah will be born.

A Dash of Mystery

Who is the man in 37:15 that Yosef encounters randomly (?) in the field?  Ramban, like many other commentators claims the man was a messenger of God. The mystery man whom Yosef encounters while wandering in the fields seems non-plussed when Yosef asks him if he's seen his brothers.  The mystery man happens to have heard them talk about their destination pasture--Dothan. The entire sequence of the Yosef story is dependent on this mystery man.  If you believe the mystery man is God's messenger, why doesn't the narrator let us know as he did in previous tales of the avot?

A Dash of She'ol

When Ya'akov hears from his sons that Yosef has died, he tears his clothes (k'riah), puts on sackcloth, and mourns.  His response to all the comforters was "No, I will go down mourning to my son in She'ol." (37:35).  What's She'ol? In the Septuagint it was translated as Hades but it seems from the Torah, that She'ol is not as well developed a concept as the Greek notion of Hades. There's a lot of argument about the word among scholars but no agreement on the origin of the word. From Ya'akov's plaintive verse, it's clear that Ya'akov pictured She'ol as underground.  In searching for synonyms, the first word I encountered was bor, a pit.  It was mentioned earlier in the chapter when Yosef is thrown into the pit and the verse concludes-"there was no water in it." Yosef was thrown into a a facsimile of She'ol and at the end of the chapter Ya'akov cries out that he wants to go down and join him. The symmetry continues in the story as the root y-r-d (went down) from 37:35 is repeated as the brothers go down to Egypt and God tells Ya'akov not to fear going down to Egypt in Parashat Vayigash (Gen. 46:3-4).  Follow the word She'ol throughout the Tanakh and you'll see the word assumes a clearer meaning.(I Kings 2; Isaiah 5, 38; Psalms 18, 116, 139; Proverbs 5, 7, 27; Job 7, 14, 17, 24, 26; Jonah 2).






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Mandelbrot—Updated version: Chocolate Shot Biscotti
Pareve                                                                                                 rsz mandelbrot dessert copy


  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 4 oz. chocolate shot (jimmies, sprinkles)
  • 6 oz. slivered almonds, chopped.  Using toasted slivered almonds gives an even more intense flavor.
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • cinnamon and sugar


  1. Beat eggs, oil, and sugar until well mixed.
  2. Add flour, baking powder and salt and continue to beat with mixer until dough is smooth.
  3. Add chocolate shot, almonds, and vanilla.
  4. Chill dough at least 8 hours.
  5. Form into rolls (like play-doh snakes) and place on a cookie sheet leaving ample room between rolls. 3 rolls fit across a standard cookie sheet.
  6. Bake @ 350º for 30 minutes.
  7. Slice on the diagonal.
  8. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar mixture.
  9. Bake again @250º for 1 hour.

With a standard mixer, the recipe can be doubled and will still fit in the bowl.

Presentation:  To simulate sheaves of wheat standing, you can stand the mandelbrodt upright in a glass or short vase to serve as a centerpiece before you eat them for dessert.

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