Why was Joseph allowed to imprison Shimon? That seems to transgress theft (both the Ten Commandments and/or the Noahide laws)?

  • 1
    Why just ask about Shimon? He first imprisoned all of them for three days. Ostensibly it would have been on the grounds of דינא דמלכותא/national security, since they were suspected spies; in reality it was for the purpose of getting them to do teshuvah and to fulfill the prophecies from his dreams, so it would have been a הוראת שעה.
    – Meir
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 20:04
  • @Meir Does this really count as a הוראת שעה? No, the answer is that a king can do whatever he wants, and Paroh gave him unlimited power except for whatever he vetoes.
    – DonielF
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 23:40
  • 1
    @DonielF Well, yeah, but that still wouldn't allow him to violate the Sheva Mitzvos. After all, that unlimited grant of power conceivably could also include permission to take someone else's wife and to kill her husband, something we know a previous Pharaoh had no problem with...
    – Meir
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 23:59
  • Why would Joseph imprisoning Shimon be considered theft?
    – Tamir Evan
    Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 18:22
  • The question seems to be - on what basis was Yosef allowed to play a game with the brothers. But the brothers themselves admitted they were wrong (וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו)?
    – The GRAPKE
    Commented Oct 1, 2020 at 6:29

5 Answers 5


Disclaimer: as I said many times before, ruling pre-Matan Tora people with post Matan Tora rules is wrong.

That being said, what Yossef did wasn't transgress theft

רמב"ם הלכות גנבה פרק ט הלכה ב

אין הגנב חייב עד...וישתמש בו וימכרנו לאחרים ...

Rambam Rules of theft 9:2

The kiddnapper is not considered kidnapper until... He [the kidnapper] will enslave him [the kiddnapped], and will sell him...

Shimon wasn't enslaved nor sold.

  • that's only for capital punishment, he still transgresses theft. sefaria.org/sheets/2599?lang=bi
    – Fei23
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 17:09
  • @Fei23 I don't say that Yossef was nice, but the brothers weren't nice to him either. Yossef wanted them to understand that it's the outcome of what they did to him. I can't see in the sources you poited that Yossef did something that is Aisur Tora Commented Apr 27, 2020 at 10:35
  • the first source brought shows that it's forbidden to kidnap someone (though to be given the death penalty one does need to actually sell them).
    – Fei23
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 15:34
  • Mishneh Torah, Theft 9:1-2 Halacha 1 Whoever kidnaps another person transgresses a negative commandment, as Exodus 20:13 states: "Do not steal." This verse is stated in the Ten Commandments and serves as a warning against kidnapping.
    – Fei23
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 15:34
  • @Fei23 Did you noticed that you quoted the same source I did, saying it's not Kidnapping until enslavement and selling? Anyway, IMHO, it's a weak question, and as much it's a question, I gave an answer. Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 18:13

This falls into the category of pikuach nefesh and dina demalchuta. Certainly any Beit Din lacking the power of prophecy would agree with Joseph that 10 sons of a foreign prince like Jacob, coming in by separate entrances (according to Breshit Rabbah) are suspicious enough to justify detention. Shimon and Levi were known to have destroyed Shechem by themselves, which would be ample reason to separate them (as Tanchuma says).

If we assume the Beit Din knew that they were Joseph's brothers, it still makes no difference. According to all evidence known at the time, Joseph's brothers hated him and wanted to kill him. Joseph was the Prime Minister who saved Egypt and the whole world from famine, and any threat to him was a matter of national security for Egypt. Joseph could not expel them (it might lead to Jacob's death) and could not detain them (they were a threat). So he detained the most dangerous one and sent the rest home with food.

  • I don't see how it can be assumed they're spies just because they entered into different gates (they had their own reason for that which was never inquired into). His accusation of them being spies was just part of his "plan", he didn't actually think they were spies or have good reason to believe that.
    – Fei23
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 15:38
  • Shechem's son literally raped and kidnapped their sister, and they didn't punish him, so it's a bit different than going to the one place that has food (albeit separately) and attempt to purchase some.
    – Fei23
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 15:39

Turn the question around: Why were the brothers allowed to steal Yosef, and even sell him as a slave? That's a full-fledged violation of the prohibition לא תגנוב in the Ten Commandments - which carries a death penalty. It is described exactly that way in the piyut we say about the Asarah Harugei Malchus, in the argument presented by the evil ruler.
The answer (of course) is that they were not allowed to do it. The entire rest of the story is how that gets fixed. Yosef was the victim, he was completely allowed to punish them, measure for measure. As his brother says to him, G-d has found out the sin of your servants - we will all be slaves to [you] our master.
Yosef is not doing more to them than they deserve, he is doing less. The brothers know that and acknowledge it as part of G-d's judgment, even if they don't (yet) understand why ("They trembled, one to another, saying, 'What is G-d doing with us?!'"). During the story, Yosef's love for them overcomes his strict judgment ("Yosef could not longer hold himself back"), and so does G-d's. His love for them overcomes his pain at what they did to him, bit by bit as the story progresses, and as he sees them growing in regret for what they had done ("they did not know that he could understand them... he turned away from them and cried...") Yosef arranges the story so that they rerun the same events and the same tests with Binyamin, this time successfully, and helps them to rebuild their relationship with him.
Maybe the best story in Tanach.

  • 1
    One cannot just kidnap someone because they kidnapped him. There is an entire process of testimony, judges, etc.
    – Fei23
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 15:35
  • he framed them for that crime where they pledged themselves as slaves to save Binyomin
    – Fei23
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 15:36
  • The brothers don't seem to agree with you, per my quotes. They felt that what was happening to them was completely in order.
    – MichoelR
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 17:46
  • As everywhere in this story, there are two different pictures: the one the brothers saw, and the one that was really going on. According to the first, Yehudah said, "We are slaves to my master, both us, and the one who was found with the cup in his hand." According to the second - the exact same result, for a completely different reason, as Yehudah also said right before that phrase, "G-d has found the sin of your servants..."
    – MichoelR
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 17:51
  • [Take a look at Makos 10b for an interesting parallel example: a man walks under a ladder, and someone else falls on him and kills him, and is sent into golus. "Elokim inah l'yado": Hashem caused it this time - because of something the person did another time.]
    – MichoelR
    Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 20:13

Yosef was a semi king in general at the time and was looking for fulfillment of his dream that he would be the king over brothers.

A king always has the right to act extra judiciously in times of need and even kill people if warranted.

The Rambam in Hilchos Melachim 3:10 says

כָּל הַהוֹרֵג נְפָשׁוֹת שֶׁלֹּא בִּרְאָיָה בְּרוּרָה. אוֹ בְּלֹא הַתְרָאָה. אֲפִלּוּ בְּעֵד אֶחָד. אוֹ שׂוֹנֵא שֶׁהָרַג בִּשְׁגָגָה. יֵשׁ לַמֶּלֶךְ רְשׁוּת לְהָרְגוֹ וּלְתַקֵּן הָעוֹלָם כְּפִי מַה שֶּׁהַשָּׁעָה צְרִיכָה.

A murderer against whom the evidence is not totally conclusive, or who was not warned before he killed his victim, or even if there is only one witness, or an enemy who killed by accident - the king has permission to execute them and to improve society according to the needs of the time

The Meforshim on the Rambam brings various sources for this but one thing is clear. In times of need (after careful thought) kings have the right to act extra judiciously for the betterment of the world.

That would have been the case by Yosef and his brothers and Shimon's imprisonment


The Ramban says that Yosef was allowed to be mitzaer his father by taking away binyamin from him, in order to fulfill his dreams. It seems from there that in order to fulfill ones prophecys hes allowed to violate the Torah. Since Yosef kidnapped Shimon in order for the brothers to come back with Binyamin, in order to fulfill his dreams, it was okay to violate the Torah.

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