Gen 41:45 says:

And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On. [...]

Rashi, citing Sotah 13b, says that Poti-phera is Potiphar. But this verse tells us that Poti-phera was a priest, while in 39:1 Potiphar was the captain of the guard.

If Potiphar and Poti-phera were the same person, then either (a) the same man was both captain of the guard for Paro and a priest, or (b) he was one and then became the other later. Was either of these plausible in Egypt at that time? Or are these two different, similarly-named people, despite Rashi's comment?

I noticed that the Chabad site that has Rashi online says Poti-phera was governor of On, not priest. I don't understand how they get that when the word is כֹּהֵן, but perhaps whatever they base that on is relevant to answering this question.

  • Well, Yitro is described as Kohein Midyan, but Midyan sounds like a place not a god. (It still could mean 'the god of Midyan' or something.)
    – Double AA
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 2:04
  • 1
    I have the impression that Yitro was a priest of some god of Midyan, yes. I don't know what On is (god or location). Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 2:11

4 Answers 4


See Onkelos who translates the word kohen as rabba. Thus, governor, as you write.

וִיהַב לֵיהּ יָת אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע רַבָּא דְּאוֹן

Jastrow gives the meaning of kohen as officer, especially priest.

See also II Shmuel 20:23: וְגַם, עִירָא הַיָּאִרִי, הָיָה כֹהֵן, לְדָוִד. and Ira also the Jairite was chief minister unto David.

Even so, the equation of Potiphar and Poti-fera is midrashic, and an instance of the midrashic closed-canon approach, also known as the Law of Conservation of Biblical Personalities.

  • 1
    +1 I had been thinking of the same Law :) Any idea as to the provenance of its name?
    – Double AA
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 2:12
  • @DoubleAA: From here - ottmall.com/mj_ht_arch/v46/mj_v46i55.html - : The "Rule of conservation of biblical personalities" as formulated by R' Seth Faber...
    – Menachem
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 22:02
  • +1 great law. Any insights as to why the midrashim do this would be appreciated.
    – user6591
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 13:27
  • @user6591 judaism.stackexchange.com/q/33532/170
    – msh210
    Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 5:26

The sefer אוצר השמות חלק ח here in his discussion of the name Potiphera says that there is a dispute amongst the Rabbis whether Potiphar and Potiphera are the same person or not.

According to the opinion that they are the same person, he explains that there is no contradiction between the two titles that the Torah gives him, because it was normal in previous times that a senior priest would be present at the judgement of one who was sentenced to death.

And the reason why he was first described as being the chief executioner was because in connection with his purchase of Yosef the Torah emphasizes his judicial position in order to understand the events that follow - his putting Yosef in prison. But in connection with Yosef marrying his daughter the Torah emphasizes his being the priest of On, to teach that Pharaoh elevated Yosef so much that he was able to marry a daughter of one of the priests of Egypt, someone who very great in wealth and honor.

An additional explanation that he brings is that since it is difficult to believe that Yosef would marry into a family where the father was a priest of idol worship, Chazal interpreted the word כהן as a description of greatness, and he brings several posukim in the Tanach where this word means that. Hence, Potiphera the Great One of On does not contradict his being called the chief executioner, and the reason for describing him differently from one place to another is similar to what was explained in the previous paragraph.


Potiphar was the "sar tabachim" (B'reshit/Genesis 37:36), usually translated in English as "captain of the guard". Sar means chief or prince. Tabach means executioner or guard, or a cook who cuts up meat: a butcher. As one of the roles for priests was to sacrifice animals and cut up the meat, it is not unimaginable that tabach might have been another word to refer to a priest (normally "Kohen", of course). Potiphar was a "saris" (eunuch), which seems more likely to me to describe a priest than a guard. Hence I suggest a more accurate reading was that Potiphar was chief of all the priests of Egypt, as On the sun god was a major Egyptian deity. This would make it likely that Potiphar and Potiphera could be the same person; and that therefore Yosef/Joseph and Asenath could had been well acquainted before being married.

As Potiphar was a eunuch, and was unable to have children, this may perhaps support the view that Potiphera had adopted a daughter born to Dinah and Shechem in Cana'an, who had previously come to Egypt, and named her Asenath. If this view is correct, Adonai would thus have brought both Yosef and Asenath from Cana'an to the very same household in Egypt, to ultimately become the ancestors of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh!

  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for this interesting perspective! I haven't heard the idea of Dina and Shechem having come to Egypt before; is that in our tradition somewhere (where?) or is that your own idea? Thanks, and I look forward to seeing you around the site. Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 12:55
  • Thanks. No it's not my idea. Apparently Rabbi Eliezar wrote that Dinah and Shechems's daughter was Asenath. Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 17:18

I heard is a lecture that Poti-phera was originally called Potifer. However, after having violated Leviticus 18:22 , he was refereed to as Poti-phera and the "ra" at the end referees to "Pere Adam" (Wild animal / Vile Haye).

I am not too certain about the source however, for a more detailed explanation feel free to watch the lecture by Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi.

  • 1
    The word is פרא אדם with an Aleph, not an Ayin. פוטי-פרע has an Ayin.
    – Double AA
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 21:29
  • Did Mizrahi give the explanation? If so that would constitute a source; albeit, a weak one.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 23:09
  • John, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for this interesting answer! If you haven’t done so already, you should take a look at the tour. Please consider registering your account, to enable more site features, including voting. I hope you'll look around and find other Q&A of interest and stay learning with us.
    – mbloch
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 4:25
  • I am not too certain as to how Rabbi Mizrachi came to this conclusion, however, I am not the brightest of students. If any of you are interested in understanding the Rabbi, the lecture is available on YouTube under the title "The Horrible Sin of Homosexuality - Why it Exists and What To Do About It". Hope this helps :)
    – John
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 19:31

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