“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
The biography of Joseph is a familiar kind of tale about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned in the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to grandiose heroism, like Tom Jones. But the fabric of the text, the original Hebrew, reveals a rich warp and woof of hidden cross-references so intense that it feels like a transcendentally talented artist of wordplay and allusion is at work – a super James Joyce or Adrienne Rich.
The Joseph story in brief
Jealous of the fact that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son (he gets a multi-colored coat) and, even worse, that he’s a vain, grandiose “dreamer,” his brothers throw him in a pit. They consider murdering him, but instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. After the brothers are rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, to imply that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the Jewish sign of bereavement forever after) and he cries.
Joseph’s Coat, by Diego Velázquez (1630)
Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites carry Joseph to Egypt and sell him. His new owner, Potiphar, recognizes that Joseph is gifted and elevates him to be his CEO. Unfortunately, Joseph catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She grabs at his coat and begs him for sex. He refuses. As revenge, she gets him thrown in jail, claiming he tried to rape her. He gets out by interpreting the dreams of his cellmates, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, in a prophetic manner.
This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, the screenwriters adapting the book would probably cut a couple of problematic parts and its apparently crazy digressions. One is a nonsensical one about Joseph wandering around lost in Shechem looking for his brothers, until a stranger gives him directions. Another is a more interesting and lurid sub-plot about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. It doesn’t seem to advance or even connect to the main narrative. But let’s look at it, because it cloaks a couple of interesting features.
Judah and Tamar in brief
Judah has three sons. The eldest marries a woman named Tamar but later dies. The second son, Onan, fulfills his legal obligation to marry his brother’s widow, but because he knows any children will not be counted as his, or because he doesn’t want Tamar to spoil her figure through pregnancy, he “spills his seed,” for which God kills him too. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the house until Shelah grows up and then leave when he is of age. Judah worries that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.
But by protecting his son, Judah deprives Tamar of her rightful betrothal to the last surviving brother-in-law (called a levirate marriage). Shelah is supposed to save her honor and guarantee her material support. To get their attention, and out of desperation, Tamar disguises herself as a harlot, snares Judah on a road trip, and gets pregnant by him. Judah doesn’t have cash on him for the transaction, so as an honorable man he leaves his signet ring and staff with her as collateral. Three months later, when her pregnancy is visible, Tamar is hauled before the court as a harlot. Judah, in one of the great literary ironies in the Torah, is the chief justice. He is about to sentence her to death by burning when she confronts him with his own signet and staff. Instead of running for cover in embarrassment, he admits his responsibility (would that all public figures and judges issue so full-throated a confession) and even praises Tamar for seeking justice.
This is also a nice story. It could make a cool movie on its own – maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a brisk, ironic ninety-minute rom com nonetheless. It even has a happy ending. But what’s it doing here?
The literary coherence of the story of Joseph in a single word
The traditional Jewish approach to explicating the Torah is to assume it is famously frugal, parsimonious: it has no extraneous details, no decorative redundancies, no coincidences, no accidental or frivolous puns. If things don’t make sense on first glance, that very incongruity signals a deeper intentiologic or message lurking beneath. So on closer inspection, the literary eye sees not only the jarring digression from Joseph to the story of Judah and Tamar but another remarkable oddity. Because there’s so little other color within this story, when props are brought on stage they get our attention. In fact, they seem like unavoidable metaphors or symbols of … something else.
The props in Joseph’s story are his coat and all the other articles of clothing. Joseph’s coat is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with him: his grandiosity, his preening, his many talents, his favored status which he lords over them in his prophetic dreams. (And yes, as if to prove the point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical and then movie, “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) The brothers bring the torn, bloody coat to Isaac.
The props that stand out in the digression about Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department. And then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us that Tamar “takes off her widow’s clothing” in order to don a prostitute’s costume and veil. She later puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.
When the Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story, the prop is again an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much that she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly that he leaves it in her hand. Then, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside as proof of her claims that Joseph tried to rape her.
Beged, the MacGuffin
Screenwriters call this type of object a “MacGuffin,”something with little clear intrinsic value that is used to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon,” the letters of transit in “Casablanca”, or the rug in “The Big Lebowski”). Now that we see it, we can re-read the whole story with new eyes.
As we unpack its imagery, the Torah story starts looking like a vaudeville trunk: open it, stand it on its side, and you get a whole wardrobe of costumes.
One of the Hebrew words for clothing is beged (ד-ג-ב, B-G-D). It rings like a bell through the story. Jacob tears his beged (Genesis 37:31–32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged to play the whore (38:14). She then puts it on again to testify against Judah. Potiphar’s wife tears Joseph’s beged off him in lust as he flees, then arrays it next to her bed, when she plays the injured party to prove Joseph’s guilt. In all, the word beged occurs six times just in this part of the chapter (39:12–18), and twelve times throughout the Torah reading of Vayeishev. As words go, it’s a real lexical MacGuffin.
Sure enough, lurking inside the word lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (as in ‘cloaked motives’, ‘deceit’). As the word rings through these verses, it explains why the interruption about Judah and Tamar, far from being a mere digression from the story of Joseph, may actually explain it.
Once we see it, the theme of treachery ripples out to embrace and tie together larger swaths of the chapter. Joseph’s brothers commit an act of terrible treachery when they first consider murdering Joseph and instead sell him into slavery. They then heartlessly deceive their father into thinking his favorite son is dead.
Judah cheats Tamar by shielding Shelah from marrying her. She repays Judah by deceiving him.
Potiphar’s wife is doubly treacherous too. She first begs Joseph to commit adultery and then lands him in jail on false charges.
We also can’t help but notice that the bedroom comedy between Potiphar and Joseph episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side, Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a lie. Yet it works to land Joseph in jail. The two stories are flip sides of an allegory of justice perverted. (Hold that thought. We will return to it later.)
Each occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is itself self-referential; it exemplifies the capacity of a word to veil, like words that cloak hidden meanings. It’s a pun on punning, a turn on turning a phrase, a trope on the tropics of textuality.
Once we tug at this literary thread, we unravel entanglements with other double and triple meanings that weave the text together. Here is a sentence describing the source of Tamar’s grievance:
“So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife.” (Genesis 38:14)
What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’. That would make a fine verse in a poem about appearances here.
The word billows out
With our eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billowing out to implicate other events – not just in this portion, but throughout Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another bit of cloth, article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious that she is trying to avert a repetition of the drama of contested twinship that lurks in their legacy from Jacob, their forefather. Jacob emerged from Rebekah grasping the heel of his twin, Esau, and we saw what mischief spun out from there. ( But fate in the Hebrew family is stronger. Just as Tamar ties the string to avoid getting entangled in God’s apparent script, the first twin is pulled back and the second twin emerges first, tangling things again. The Torah, to paraphrase Mark Twain about history, doesn’t quite repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
A tangled web of deception
The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes between Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of Jewish history as God chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for 20 years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dinah.
The word first occurs in the Torah in the earlier drama between Jacob and Esau. This event originates the calculus of deception that seems to be working itself out like an algebraic proof through the generations after these twins.
Jacob is able to fool Isaac into cheating Esau of his blessing because Rebekah, their mother, has dressed Jacob for the part. She cooks Esau’s best recipes for venison for Jacob to bring his father and then disguises Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes: begado (Genesis 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes to Isaac too late to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadav). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’,” they say.
In the end, although Jacob and Esau reconcile in an elaborate display of peacemaking, they are irreconcilable. They embrace, but must live far apart. This mutual exile leads to the first word of this portion of the Torah, Vayeishev – ‘and he settled’. The flavor of the original Hebrew implies that Joseph dwells in the land where his father had to live as a foreigner because he was avoiding Esau and all his descendants, the Edomites. Their elaborate, perverse, tribal genealogy is recounted just before this chapter begins.
The evolution of beged and elaborate design throughout the Torah
The cycles of deceit and family drama among Abraham’s seed don’t end until Moses takes the stage. It’s as if only receiving the Torah can heal the pathological family structure of the Hebrews. Whispering about this transformation in its own small way, the meaning of beged changes as we move from Genesis to Exodus. When beged appears dozens of times throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it is only to signify the holy garments of Aaron and his priestly descendants; the garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified; regal clothing signifying elevation, or garments with fringes on their corners (tzitzit) that Jews are commanded to wear in order to control lust. (Recall Judah. Now recall Joseph’s restraint with Potiphar’s wife.) The word mysteriously gets simplified, shedding its alternative, cloaked meanings.
The only place in Exodus where beged retains its sense of ‘treachery’, before it disappears forever, occurs soon after the events of Joseph. It is a law in Exodus 21:8 describing divorce:
“If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed: to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully [bevigdo] with her.”
We are subtly reminded of Vayeishev. A man cheats a woman under his control out of what’s owed her by marital rights, as Judah did Tamar. The verse also singles out an odd example of the many ways a husband might cheat a wife out of her due – by selling her to a foreign nation, – which happens to be exactly what Joseph’s brothers did to him.
A measure of holy justice and honesty
The word beged then does something even stranger. By the time we reach the fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely. There is just one remarkable exception:
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s garment as pledge [collateral].” (Deuteronomy 24:17)
The word calls out here nakedly, without adornment: beged. It has long ago shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted; elevated to a fundamental symbol of justice. The Torah warns judges: apply justice even-handedly, to the stranger and the orphan. Show mercy – don’t take collateral from the widow. “The widow’s raiment” calls back loudly and clearly to that other widow from four books ago: Tamar.
This one late recurrence of the word beged, by its singularity, seems to trumpet a moral evolution through the other four Books of Moses. We have left the first family treacheries behind us, way back there in the Book of Genesis. We have been instructed elaborately on the mechanics of holiness and purification, especially involving clothes, in three books that follow. And now, through a solitary instance in the final book, we understand the ultimate obligation is to activate those aspirations by connecting the divine to humanity through justice.
What author had this much wit?
What author had the wit to devise this complex and subtle web of signification, woven across so many chapters? How did that author layer so many puns, echoes, cross-references, intertextual reflections, and doubled meanings on one word? Or hide so many clues so deeply that they may never have had any hope of being discovered without a concordance and a computer?
When every fragment of a whole seems to contain all the information of that whole, we call it a hologram. How did the author show such great artistry, to grow and alter the meaning of the word itself, to lose its furtive duality, to evolve its significance in parallel with the much broader arc of the Children of Israel as they evolve from idolatrous Hebrew nomads to a holy nation? Who devised this hologram? Why does one word seem to multiply across Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but then seem to be forgotten in Deuteronomy except for one, exquisitely resonant occasion that ripples back and colors all its predecessors?
Are these all signs of inconsistency, proving the Torah was stitched together by many authors across centuries? If it was, who cloaked the secret for those centuries so it could be ultimately manifested?
Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety and coherence in the composition of the Torah that only a single transcendentally gifted Author could possibly have held it in Their mind?
 Rashi, among many other commentators, flags this intrusion, “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with the history of Joseph?” (Genesis Rabbah, 85:2).
 The sages *almost* make the connection that Joseph’s torn clothing makes between parts 1 and 2 of the Joseph story: “A savage beast devoured him. This is a reference to Potiphar’s wife, who would attempt to seduce him.” Midrash Rabbah 84:19.
 The technical word for this is “paronomasia.”
 Rashi on Torah.
 Midrash Rabbah Bereishit,
I am grateful, again, to my neighbors Michael Morazadeh, Jonathan Choslovsky, and Ron Kardos, members of my informal chavrusa, who challenged me to take a hard look at the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Torah was written by many authors across several centuries instead of by God and Moses). This blog and several before and after were inspired by their challenge. I am also grateful to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad Northern Peninsula for noting what some of the sages had to say about these matters.
The direct inspiration for this treatment of beged came during a celebration of the 19th of Kislev at Chabad of Palo Alto (where I was also accompanied by R. Spalter and Messrs. M, C, & K.). Rabbi Menacham Landa of the Novato Chabad was darshening about Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and it occurred to me that Joseph seemed to have a habit of losing his clothing in dramatic circumstances. Rabbi Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said, almost off the cuff, that the word beged had a weighty meaning worth looking into.