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Sotah 36b writes that an apparition of Yaakov visited Yosef when he was about to sin with Potiphar's wife.

(בראשית לט, יב) ותתפשהו בבגדו לאמר וגו' באותה שעה באתה דיוקנו של אביו ונראתה לו בחלון אמר לו יוסף עתידין אחיך שיכתבו על אבני אפוד ואתה ביניהם רצונך שימחה שמך מביניהם ותקרא רועה זונות דכתיב (משלי כט, ג) ורועה זונות יאבד הון

The verse states: “And she caught him by his garment, saying: Lie with me” (Genesis 39:12). At that moment his father’s image [deyokeno] came and appeared to him in the window. The image said to him: Joseph, the names of your brothers are destined to be written on the stones of the ephod, and you are to be included among them. Do you desire your name to be erased from among them, and to be called an associate [ro’eh] of promiscuous women? As it is written: “But he who keeps company with harlots wastes his riches” (Proverbs 29:3), as he loses his honor, which is more valuable than wealth.

Tosfos there (quoting Rebbi Moshe Hadarshan) is pretty clear that this was not merely something he envisioned but there seemed to have been some sort of realness to it:

באותה שעה באתה דיוקנו של אביו - כתב רבינו משה הדרשן ואין איש מאנשי הבית [שם בבית דמשמע דוקא מאנשי הבית] לא היה שם מכלל דאיש אחר שלא מאנשי הבית כלומר חלוק ומופלג מתורת אנשי הבית היה שם וזהו דמות דיוקנו של אביו ותימה קצת מנלן דנראית לו בחלון ושמא מדכתיב בבית דמשמע בבית לא:

What exactly was this apparition? It couldn't have had too much to do with Yaakov himself as Yaakov didn't even know that Yosef was alive. It also doesn't appear to have been imaginary as the Gemara refers to it as being in the window and Tosfos refers to it as another person in the house. So what was it?

  • The Peri Haarets writes in name of the Maggid Mimezritsh that when seeing the wife of Potifar he portrait of Yaacov appeared. He links the beauty and Midat Hatiferet. The association between a physical beauty and a spiritual beauty is the process. Yaacov has a true kind of beauty. The remembering comes from a free association in thinking – kouty Jan 15 at 5:58
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On a pshat level, I heard Rabbi Yisrael Gettinger suggest a simple reading -- he passed his reflection in the mirror or water, and his first thought was -- oh look, it's dad -- then did a double-take.

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OPTION 1

The Yalkut Shimoni, Remez 146 demonstrates that this image was more than just an image, it was Divinely induced, as Hashem Himself, as it were, came in the guise of Yaakov avinu.

The Midrash there writes:

כיון שבא ליזקק לה בא הקב"ה בדמות אביו ונתקררה אמתו שנאמר ותשב באיתן קשתו אמרה לו מה לך אמר לה אבא אני רואה. אמרה ליה והיכן הוא ואין איש מאנשי הבית. א"ל את בת חמורים אשר בשר חמורים בשרם וחמור אינו רואה אבל אנא מן הרואים שנאמר וירא את המקום מרחוק.

When he came to be with her, Hashem came in the form/image of his father and his passion was cooled, as it says, "Yet his bow stayed taut". She said to him, "What is with you?" (i.e. what is the matter?). He said to her, "I see my father." She said to him, "How so, there is no man in the house (here)." He said to her, "You are (lit.) the daughter of donkeys. i.e. you descend from donkeys, and a donkey does not see, but I descend from seers, as it says "And he saw the place from a distance."

So it was more than just an image projected, Hashem Himself appeared in the form of Yaakov, and the wife of Potiphar was not able to see it as she was not of prophetic blood. And this would fit with your assertion that, "It couldn't have had too much to do with Yaakov himself as Yaakov didn't even know that Yosef was alive".

EDIT - OPTION 2

Alternatively, a completely different approach is brought by Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson in his Divrei Shaul - Chiddushei Aggados (bottom left paragraph) on the Gemara in Sotah 36b as mentioned above. He notes there that this image of Yaakov was invoked from within. The idea being that Yosef himself, as a means to combat the temptation, brought the image of his saintly father to the forefront of his mind - i.e. it was a mental picture that he projected in his head in a bid to conquer his yetzer.

It concludes over there:

דהיינו שיוסף בצדקו העלה על לבו כמו שרואה דיוקנו של אביו

This means that Yosef in his righteousness, brought to his heart, as he saw fit, the image of his father.

So perhaps we can say as far as your point about Tosafos and the implication that the image had 'a sense of realness to it', that such was Yosef's self-control, that he was mentally able to exert an image that was real enough to compel him to not give into temptation.1


1 Indeed, the power of visualisation is used a lot in hypnotherapy, whereby a person can make an image so real in their mind that it can allow for real and lasting change.

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Sotah is using the allegorical nomenclature of the midrash in your quotation. It is discussing a kind of mystical, meditative practice. In this case, his image or icon (דיוקנו) is referring to the letters of Yaacov Avinu's name, meaning: י״עקב. That the letter Yud connects to heel עקב.

The word in a window בחלון is understood as in a dream בחלום (that Yosef was an Interpreter of Dreams like is found in Bereshit 40:8) which is a type of Divine inspiration concerning the future that comes through intellectual, meditative reflection.

The Yud connecting with the heel has the implication that there are consequences that result in taking a chosen path or action. This is in the context of Bereshit 37:2, that תֹּלְד֣וֹת יַעֲקֹ֗ב יוֹסֵ֞ף, the consequence of Yaacov is Yosef. That the name Yosef has both a connotation of increase (in the sense of children and also converts) and also gathering or collecting (in the sense of redemption).

In this case, it was revealed to Yosef that the names of the tribes would be engraved upon the stones of the Ephod (one of the garments of the Kohen Gadol) and that his was to be included among them.

But that if he chose to accede to the request of Potiphar's wife, as was the practice of all the other servants in her household (like is emphasized by Rabbeinu Moshe HaDarshan), Yosef's name would be erased from the stones of the Ephod and he would be called a Shepherd of Whores רועה זונות (which has a connotation of someone who pursues material gain only), instead of a Shepherd of Israel רועה ישראל. And that in keeping with Mishlei 29:3, this would result in the destruction of his wealth, meaning his children.

This is to contrast that up until that time (and as a consequence of his descent into Mitzrayim to prepare the place for the future exile and ultimate redemption of his brothers), he was a Shepherd of the flock of Yaacov/Yisrael like is found in Bereshit 37:2 which says:

אֵ֣לֶּה ׀ תֹּלְד֣וֹת יַעֲקֹ֗ב יוֹסֵ֞ף בֶּן־שְׁבַֽע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה שָׁנָה֙ הָיָ֨ה רֹעֶ֤ה אֶת־אֶחָיו֙ בַּצֹּ֔אן

That Yosef shepherded his brothers amongst the flock.

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