Parashat Vayeshev: The Transgression of the Sale of Joseph

There is one sin committed by the progenitors of the people of Israel for which no commemorative date has been set: the sale of Joseph.

Rabbi Shuki Reich

Rosh Kollel of the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary
Head of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum

If we re-examine Yom Kippur and its roots, we discover that it is the day designated for atoning for the sin of the golden calf. It was a terrible transgression, committed just after the Jewish people had received the Torah on Mount Sinai, and it undermined everything that the giving of the Torah stood for. In fact, the tablets of the law needed to be broken to atone for this sin. Yom Kippur expresses Hashem’s forgiveness and as such, it serves as a broad base for understanding the connection between G-d and His people, “for on this day He shall forgive you”.

In contrast, we can’t find any special date associated with the sale of Joseph, a sin committed by the nascent Jewish people. Moreover, over the generations, commentators have tried to get to the bottom of the dispute between Joseph and his brothers, but as they espouse their various approaches their treatment of this issue appears somewhat neutral and unaffected. Make no mistake about it: the sale of Joseph should not serve as inspiration for interpretations over the dispute between Joseph and his brothers on beliefs and opinions. It is a primordial sin, echoing our failure as we developed into a nation.

If we review the Hebrew calendar, which commemorates plenty of events, many of which were hardly dramatic, we won’t find any indication of when Joseph was sold. However, in chapter 34 of Sefer Hayuvalim (the Book of Jubilees), one of the manuscripts composed during the Second Temple period, which would eventually be incorporated into the Apocrypha, we find the story of the sale of Joseph, along with a date:

And the sons of Jacob slaughtered a kid, and dipped the coat of Joseph in the blood, and sent (it) to Jacob their father on the tenth of the seventh month… For this reason it is ordained for the children of Israel that they should afflict themselves on the tenth of the seventh month – on the day that the news which made him weep for Joseph came to Jacob his father – that they should make atonement for themselves with a young goat on the tenth of the seventh month, once a year, for their sins; for they had grieved the affection of their father regarding Joseph his son. And it has been ordained that on this day, they should grieve for their sins, and for all their transgressions and for all their errors, so that they might cleanse themselves on that day once a year.

Rabbeinu Bahye, in his commentary on Parashat Vayehi, adds the following:

At any rate, the Torah is not on record anywhere that Joseph did forgive his brothers. This was the reason why the sin committed against Joseph resulted in the ten martyrs being executed by torture at the hands of the Romans.

Might this be the explanation for “Ele Ezkera”, the lamentation recounting the deaths of the Ten Martyrs, which is read on Yom Kippur?

Thus, the origins of Yom Kippur date back to the sin of the golden calf; as such, absolution is granted, as it is said: “Sins between God and man are atoned for by Yom Kippur”. However, the Yom Kippur which originated in the terrible transgression of the sale of Joseph remains for generations: “until he (the sinner) appeases his fellow man.”

In today’s reality of free choice, we must each be sure that even when we feel that our thinking is “correct,” we don’t “sell out” our fellow man.

Shabbat Shalom 


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