There are many things I don't understand about Joseph's food policy in Parashat Vayigash

  1. Why did the Egyptians have to buy food during the famine, given that they had been taxed during the 7 years of plenty with the express purpose of storing grain for the famine years?

  2. Why did Joseph force them to sell their money, their animals, and finally themselves as slaves when they were starving?

  3. Why did he disperse them through Egypt (that kind of policy is why the Assyrians were so hated)?

This policy seems very cruel to the people of Egypt, and very much out of character for Joseph haTzadik.

  • For point 1, note Rashi to 41:55, that their stored grain had rotted away.
    – Meir
    Dec 28, 2020 at 17:57
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    I can see how to you this policy seems very cruel to the people of Egypt. Can you expand on how it is out of character for Joseph haTzadik?
    – Tamir Evan
    May 28, 2021 at 3:12
  • Because he's a Tzadik? I generally believe that if a Tzadik had food to keep people alive he would not demand that they become slaves to receive that food. Perhaps there was a reason in these particular circumstances, but it's not at all pashut so I'm asking. May 28, 2021 at 7:51
  • @DanielKagan Yosef's status as "tzaddik" is generally understood as exclusively due to his resistance to the seductions of Eishes Potifar. You might also, for example, question why a tzaddik is treating his brothers the way that Yosef did.
    – Yehuda
    May 28, 2021 at 17:16
  • I don't think Yosef made them slaves, I don't think that's what the commentaries say on 47:25. Yosef wanted to avoid that (see Rashi, and Siftei Chachamim on that Rashi there for example). I saw the reason for this in the Stone Chumash, as well as the answer to your question and I can't remember, but bli neder I'll look it up again and try to answer next time I am near one!
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jan 17, 2023 at 22:13

2 Answers 2


Vayigash 47:21

And he transferred the populace to the cities, from [one] end of the boundary of Egypt to its [other] end.


And he transferred the populace: Joseph [transferred them] from city to city so that they would remember that they have no more share in the land, and he settled those of one city in another (Targum Onkelos). Scripture did not have to write this except to let you know Joseph’s praise, that he intended to remove the stigma from his brothers, so that they (the Egyptians) would not call them exiles. [From Gen. Rabbah 89:9, Chul. 60b]

from [one] end of the boundary of Egypt, etc.: So he did with all the cities in the kingdom of Egypt, from one end of its boundary to the other end of its boundary.

Rav Hirsch points out that in order to ensure that this was done so that the people of Egypt would not resent the new imigrants (Yosef's fsamily) who were settling in their midst. It also ensured that their loyalty was to Par'o who "gave" them their new land and now owned the entire country. They also regarded the land that they were settled on as Pharaoh's unlike the land that that had lest which they would have considered their own and would have resented what was taken for taxes.

Note also that when the government takes money or possessions as tax, the tax income is regarded as belonging to the government and not the people. Thus, when given to the people, they must purchase it from Par'o.

לערים not in, or to, cities but "citywise", the inhabitants of one whole city all together to another city. The whole land had become state property, and to make this newly acquired right completely actual, every owner had to leave property that had hitherto been his own and movedto another district, so that a general evacuation took place. But Joseph's wisdom tempered the edict by arranging that the residents who had always lived together remained together and found themselves still together with their friends but only in a new environment. So that the old social and communal conditions remained the same, and there was no complete upheaval by the change. Our sages point out that the beneficial result that this transposition of all the inhabitants must have had for the new arrivals, the family of Jacob, to whom no Egyptian could look down with disdain an newcomers. For no Egyptian was an "old inhabitant" on his native hearth. The whole measure, moreover, was no invention of Joseph's. The people themselves had proposed it, v. 19, and indeed, at the same time actual bondage. Joseph rejected the proposed thralldom and only adopted the state purchase of the landed property out of which finally a land-tax resulted.

Rav Hirsch points out Vayigash 47:26

וַיָּ֣שֶׂם אֹתָ֣הּ יוֹסֵ֡ף לְחֹק֩ עַד־הַיּ֨וֹם הַזֶּ֜ה עַל־אַדְמַ֥ת מִצְרַ֛יִם לְפַרְעֹ֖ה לַחֹ֑מֶשׁ רַ֞ק אַדְמַ֤ת הַכֹּֽהֲנִים֙ לְבַדָּ֔ם לֹ֥א הָֽיְתָ֖ה לְפַרְעֹֽה:

Rav Hirsch explains:

The ground belonged to Par'o for the fifth, i.e. was his property as surety for the payment of a fifth of the produce. If anybody failed to pay the fifth the crown was entitled to take the whole. Actually all Egyptians as far as land went were only אריסים, tenant-farmersto whom only 1/2, 1/3, or 1/4 of the produce was due. But that infact, was not to be the case, they are to keep four fifths for themselves and only have to pay one fifth to the ground landlord. But the principle was to remain in force that not חמש לפרעה, not that one fifth belonged to Pharaoh, but לפרעה לחומש the who;e was to belong to Pharaoh to guarantee the fifth. The whole relationship excluded the imposition of serfdom.

  • This answer addresses Yosef's tactical motivations, but the thrust of the question seems to be much more about moral/ethical justification.
    – Isaac Moses
    Dec 28, 2020 at 17:27
  • @IsaacMoses The part from "The whole measure" seems to well address point 2, at least.
    – Meir
    Dec 28, 2020 at 17:56
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    @IsaacMoses point 1 is addressed by the statement that the tax means that Par'o owned what Yosef took so it is not a matter of giving back. Point 3 is addressed by the answer that this made them grateful to Par'o for giving them the land. They would have considered the land theirs if they had not moved. Dec 28, 2020 at 18:37
  • It is hard to believe that the total uprooting of the population -similar to what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambogian in the 70's- was carried out only to avoid Jacob's family to receive offensive remarks ?
    – Pioni5777
    Dec 28, 2020 at 21:21
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    @Pioni5777 The Khmer Rouge killed at least 1 million and broke up extended families. Joseph didn't do anything remotely resembling the first, and (as in this answer) arranged things specifically to avoid the second.
    – Meir
    Dec 28, 2020 at 23:00

The answers are all in the Stone Edition of Chumash (Schottenstein), iirc pp. 266-267. I don't have one but there is one in shul and I looked it up again for you. I will try my best to remember the sources, but the gist I should remember.

Firstly, it states there that Joseph's job was to consolidate as much power for Pharoah as possible, i.e. that was his job and his charge (there was a quote mentioned where Joseph is saying something akin to "I would give this away to you, but I am not given permission [by Pharoah] to do that, you must buy it". He did a stellar job. He appears to have done so without forcing anyone to do anything. He originally bought all the grain required for the upcoming 7 years, and then sold it back. There's no indication of what we would call, nowadays, "scalping", meaning now that he had all the grain he would sell it at crazy prices. He seems to have just bought low (when there was a lot of supply) and sold high (when there was a lot of demand). When people couldn't afford it, he offered to sell it in exchange for other things, and that's how he got all the land.

The Stone Edition quotes Rabbi Munk as stating that there have been many famines in ancient Egypt, and generally resulting in mass death, with the land being dubbed a "land of corpses". Joseph's wisdom saved the country.

It also states that he did not enslave anyone. He deliberately didn't want to, even though they offered. IIRC the quoted sources for this are HaEmek Davar and Malbim. I can't remember the reasoning, sorry!

It also states that when it came to the population moving, for ethical reasons, he deliberately moved "communities" (the Stone Edition claims this is obvious from the pasuk itself and doesn't quote a source). Unlike the historic population relocation terror tactic used by countless conquerors (iirc started with Assyrian king Tiglaph Pilesar I?), Joseph avoided splitting up families and communities to avoid the "terror" aspect. The reason he did move everyone was because they had sold their land, and he didn't want them to retain attachment to it. It didn't explain the significance of this but I will imagine it is to prevent future rebellions. I believe this was sourced in Rashi, and many other commentaries.

Edit: I just saw this was mentioned in sabbahillel's answer by Rav Hirsch.

If anyone does have the Stone Edition, feel free to edit my post and sharpen it up.

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