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In Parashat Miketz, Yosef's brothers encounter him disguised as the viceroy of Egypt, and he accuses them of espionage, jails them for three days, and makes a demand that they know their father would never allow. In his presence, they discuss their suspicion that they are being Divinely punished for their mistreatment of Yosef years earlier. They have no reservations discussing this in front of Yosef because (Gen. 42:23):

וְהֵם לֹא יָדְעוּ כִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יוֹסֵף כִּי הַמֵּלִיץ בֵּינֹתָם

They did not know that Joseph understood, for the interpreter was between them.

In other words (according to Rashi's intuitive explanation), during their entire encounter with their disguised brother, they'd been speaking Hebrew to an interpreter, who was translating into Egyptian for Yosef. So, they assumed that Yosef didn't know Hebrew and that they could therefore speak freely in this language.

I've always wondered why they weren't concerned that the translator himself would report their conversation to Yosef. Does the verse really mean that the interpreter had been between them, and now he was on a pistachio break? Or, was there some sacrosanct code of interpreters that they would never report on overheard conversations? If Yosef had Hebrew interpreters at his command, shouldn't they have suspected that he'd have Hebrew-understanding spies listening to their conversations also?

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3 Answers 3

The Sifsei Chachamim on that Rashi explains that the interpreter had been there in previous conversations, but right now wasn't present. I think that's what Rashi meant -- the interpreter had been there for all conversations WITH YOSEF -- but as those conversations had ended, he wasn't there now.

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Isn't it strange that these visitors would be hanging out with the viceroy in his audience chamber, but not in conversation with him? –  Isaac Moses Dec 24 '09 at 15:52
    
@IsaacMoses Since Yosef had presented a "proposal" to them, they had to withdraw to consult among themselves as to how to answer. In that case, the interpreter would withdraw so they could be sure that noone understood them. Yosef, stayed on his throne, in earshot, but no-one else did. –  sabbahillel Dec 21 at 15:00

The sefer Binyan Ariel explains that since the gemara in Sotah implies that Pharaoh did know Hebrew (Loshon Hakodesh), it was not the language of the land of Canaan, and so they were safe in assuming that the interpreter also only understood the Canaan language (the language which they had been using to speak to Yosef) but not Hebrew. Therefore they were not careful when they were speaking Hebrew amongst themselves in front of the interpreter.

However, they should have been careful not to speak amongst themselves in Hebrew in front of Yosef because he was ruler, and they should have therefore assumed that he knew all the languages since it was normal for rulers to know all languages. But because they saw that “the interpreter was between them” it was clear that Yosef did not know every language, because if he did he would not have needed an interpreter but would instead have spoken directly to his visitors in whatever language they spoke. From this they deduced that if he was not expert in all other languages, he certainly didn't know Hebrew, and therefore they were not careful when speaking amongst themselves in an language which not everyone spoke.

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I think the brothers were lost unto themselves. They had no idea. No idea it was Yosef. No idea they were being understood. No idea they were on the verge of redemption. At such a point, maybe the interpreter was unnecessary because their words themselves were unnecessary. Yosef could judge by their actions and their hearts, not just their words.

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The only reason the interpreter was there was to make it look like Yosef didn't understand Hebrew. So, I'm not sure that Yosef's ability to read his brothers' hearts would impact his decision to keep the interpreter in the room. It seems pretty clear that Yosef was, in fact, hearing and understanding their conversation without their knowledge, not just their body language. –  Isaac Moses Dec 23 '09 at 6:43

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