The Posuk says (Genesis 41:3):

וְהִנֵּה שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת אֲחֵרוֹת עֹלוֹת אַחֲרֵיהֶן מִן הַיְאֹר רָעוֹת מַרְאֶה וְדַקּוֹת בָּשָׂר וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה אֵצֶל הַפָּרוֹת עַל שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר

Translated as:

And behold, seven other cows were coming up after them from the Nile, of ugly appearance and lean of flesh, and they stood beside the cows on the Nile bank.

The question: With all the hints to food and hunger — fat verses skinny cows, stalks of wheat, the Nile (the Egyptians' source of food) — how is it that all the magicians did not come up with a hunger-related reading of the dream?

5 Answers 5


The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l explains (in Likkutei Sichos 15:339ff; English adaptation at Chabad.org) that there was one detail in the dreams that threw off the magicians.

The Torah describes the first seven cows coming out of the river, and then the second seven cows, "and they stood next to the cows at the riverbank." Now, times of plenty and of famine come sequentially; there's no time when both are present. So this forced them into alternative explanations, such as "you will father seven daughters" - from one of your wives - "and [at the same time] bury seven others" born from a different wife.

Yosef's insight, then, was that indeed the two could coexist. If the surplus from the good years is stored away for the famine, as he suggested (thus also incidentally answering the question of how he dared to advise Pharaoh when he hadn't been called to do so), then throughout the first seven years, the upcoming famine will be very much present in everyone's minds. Conversely, during the seven years of famine, the years of plenty will still be present - in the form of the grain that they produced.

(It's interesting, though, that in Pharaoh's retelling of the dream to Yosef, he just says that the skinny cows "came up after them" (41:19), without mentioning that crucial detail that all fourteen of them stood together for a while. If he also omitted this detail when talking to the magicians, then that still begs for the explanation of why they needed to account for it, and why Pharaoh didn't find their answers convincing.)

  • Issac i would like you to note this answer and try to leave the questions alone Dec 21, 2011 at 22:03
  • @simchashatorah You asked two apparently-unrelated questions as one question. Per meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/336/2, I reduced it down to one. I couldn't read your mind to see that you already knew an answer that links both questions. Any information you have that can justify the question should go into the question, per meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/140/2 and meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/307/2.
    – Isaac Moses
    Dec 22, 2011 at 21:50
  • unrelated they where both about the drea content of the dream Dec 22, 2011 at 22:41
  • @simchashatorah One was about the significance of a specific, non-hunger-related, element of the dreams. The other was about the magicians' inability to recognize multiple other elements as referring to hunger. The only thing they have in common is that they're both about elements of these dreams. You could ask 100 questions that have that characteristic, but it wouldn't make sense to package them all together and expect answers that address them together.
    – Isaac Moses
    Dec 22, 2011 at 22:49

Many mefarshim say that the Egyptian chachamim messed up because they did not understand that they were the same dream.

For example, see Seforno (41:8) who indicates that were trying to relate the dreams to one another through cause (the cow dream) and potential effect (the grain dream). The basic dream was planting (though plowing) + water (the yeor) = food (the grain). As a guess, the interpretation could have been: good prep equals good food, bad prep equals bad food, so make.


One simple answer from Targum Yonasan ben Uziel - Hashem did not want them to.

  • Targum Yonasan b. Uziel
    – YDK
    Dec 21, 2011 at 17:40

The Nile was not the source of Egyptian's food, it was the main method of getting water to their crops. The Nile was many many things. (Life, a deity, a reflection of the milky way in the stars etc..)

There is also a question of if the Cows were actually eaten as food or not. (There is a large lack of cow bones in Egypt archeology)

In the end, I think you have many symbols, not all of which point towards food, and many of which can mean different things.

The, Cows and the Nile could have been referring to fertility. The bales of wheat could have been referring to commerce and not food itself.

Lastly, since the Egyptian did get their water source from the Nile, the concept of a drought, and thus a famine (from a lack of rain) is truly foreign to them. They don't rely on rain for their crops. There is even a Midrash which talks about Israel being more holy because we require Gds direct blessing of rain vs Egypt which had no need to pray for such a basic thing.

  • 3
    +1, and interesting point about the cows not necessarily signifying food to the Egyptian mindset. (This is one of the great things about this site, seeing answers like this, that are quite unexpected but logical!) Although I think some mefarshim explain that the symbolism was that cows were used for plowing, so the skinny cows were meant represent "years when there is no plowing or harvest" as in Yosef's later description.
    – Alex
    Dec 21, 2011 at 20:55

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (in his commentary to 41:17ff) explains that Par'o retold the dreams incorrectly, so the magicians couldn't interpret them right. I don't have a copy here, though, from which to provide details.


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