What do the meforshim say on why Yosef didn't tell Yaakov he was still alive? Do any critique him?


Yosef's father also rebuked him for the dreams, and Yosef had no idea that אביו שמר את הדבר. When Yosef's brothers sold him, he thought his father was in on it also. Thus, he had no reason to think that contacting his father was worthwhile.

When Yosef heard his brothers speak about how much it pained his father that he was gone, Yosef realized he was wrong in thinking his father was in on it.

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    Wow! Interesting answer. – Alex Dec 10 '10 at 19:57
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    A footnote at hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=15861&st=&pgnum=138 led me to hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=40733&pgnum=168. Looks like המאסף (earlier in the volume he identifies himself as Shmuel Feigenson, nicknamed שפ"ן הסופר, one of the scholars on the staff of the Vilna Romm press) had this same idea too. (In the footnote in Likkutei Sichos, though, they object that Yaakov told Yosef to go check on his brothers, and then things developed from there; Yosef would have realized that if Yaakov was really in on it, he wouldn't have needed such a subterfuge.) – Alex Dec 12 '10 at 2:19
  • @Alex: Can you elaborate on the objection of Likutei Sichos on this explanation. The explanation is rejected by quoting Bereshit 37:14 - chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8232#v3714 . You interpret that to mean that if Yaakov was really in on it, he wouldn't have needed the subterfuge. -- Why not just say that this was the method Yaakov decided to use to have his son sold as a slave (in Yosef's mind)? – Menachem Jul 22 '11 at 21:05
  • @Alex: Also, if Bereshit 37:14 proves to us that Yaakov was not in to the subterfuge, wouldn't 37:15-17 be a better proof that Yaakov was blameless? When Yosef arrives there, he sees his brothers aren't there. Yosef should have figured out that if his father had set him up, his brothers would have made sure to be at the place they'd pre-arranged to be with their father. The fact that they weren't there, shows that his father was blameless. – Menachem Jul 22 '11 at 21:08
  • @Menachem: short of asking the editor who wrote that note, I don't know. I'd guess that to your first point, Yosef might have realized that there's no need for a subterfuge - Yaakov could just straight-out announce that Yosef is to be sold as a slave for his temerity; besides, there'd be no need for Yaakov to make his other sons complicit too. And to your second, maybe that's just it: Shechem is a large city, where anything they do to him would be well known pretty soon; Dosan is a provincial town where they could easily throw him in a pit and leave him to die without anyone being the wiser. – Alex Jul 22 '11 at 21:32

Good question about critique. I know of one Holocaust survivor who asks this question every year, and is never satisfied with the answers provided (echoing his own life's experience trying to connect with his family after the war).

Some (I believe Netziv) indicate that Yosef saw his dreams as a prophecy he was ordered to fulfill, and thus was obligated to see to it that all his brothers plus father bowed to him. At least that's how I've heard it, though it is a difficult thought to swallow. If I understand correctly, Netziv even says that Yosef rode out to meet his father with the chariot and dress to make his father think it was Pharaoh himself, causing his father to bow. Again, make of that what you will ...

(Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom suggests that the stars dream actually had nothing to do with Yosef himself; it's that the cosmic destiny of the Jewish people would depend on the leadership of his great-great-...-grandson Joshua, who would lead the people into Israel.)

There are midrashim that speak of the brothers (having a quorum of ten) forming a cherem (solemn ban and excommunciation) on anyone revealing that Yosef was alive, which bound Yosef too until he got their say-so to repeal it. You can read that as you like; I think a minimalist reading would be that "the family dynamic was such that revealing it was effectively verboten" or something like that.

The simplest answer (I think it's cited in Rabbi Artscroll, I don't know who said it first) can be summed up by something my father said:

You can reunite a dysfunctional family, but they'll still be dysfunctional.

Yosef didn't want to be with his family if there was still the resentment and other messy dynamics. The only way he could see if he could really live with his brothers again was to see how they'd treat the new favorite child, Benyamin. He made it so easy for them to walk away from Benyamin (who'd been given all these extra favors, just as he had), yet they stood their ground and stuck up for him.

I once heard a family therapist note that there's an explosive confrontation between Yosef and his brothers (see especially Targum Yonasan on the opening verse of VaYigash), but then afterwards they can live in proximity. Yaakov and Esav have a courteous, maybe even warm, meeting, but then they go their separate ways.

  • my answer is similiar. Yosef is called "Yosef haTzadik" because he did not take revenge on his brothers. However, Yosef did not know he would not take revenge until after the Yehuda speech at which point he realized he had no desire for revenge. Telling Yakov where he was and then taking revenge on the brothers would not be much of a kivud av. – inSeattle Dec 10 '10 at 23:09

I read in Sefer Minhat Yehuda by HaMekubal HaEloki Rabbi Yehuda Fetaya, and he says that one shouldn't ask why he didn't send a letter to his father telling him the situation.

INTRO: First of all, I think he is going on the premise that he can't just get up and leave- was sold.

ANSWER: He thought his father had died from the pain of losing him. And this is proven from the many places where it says "is your father alive (43:7)" and it says later "is my father still alive 45:3" because he actaully thought that his father was dead. And you may ask, then why not just send a letter and if there is a chance that his father is still alive he'll get it? The answer was, he had actually thought that he was dead, and he know his parents were dead, and his brothers hated him (so why send it to them?).

  • Pretty good! But you could also say that since Yosef was asking if his father was alive, he thought that his father might well be alive. (Otherwise, why ask.) And if so, then your proof text is weak or no support for the Exegesis. – Larry K Jan 1 '12 at 20:51
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    @LarryK I don't agree... LEHAVDIL ELEF HAVDALOT Let's say you were a really big sports fan and you had no way of knowing if your favorite team had won (you didn't think they were going to), then some people that were at the game come- would you ask them if you're team won knowing they didn't have such a chance? – Hacham Gabriel Jan 1 '12 at 21:52

There was a ban on informing Yaakov.

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    A ban by who, and why? – yydl Dec 12 '10 at 23:16
  • Look st Rashi on the Parsha – user1040 Nov 28 '11 at 13:19

Rabeinu Avraham Ben HaRambam, in explaining why Reuvein didn't tell Yaakov (since Reuvein wasn't in on the sale), suggest in one answer that Reuvein didn't tell for the same reason that Yosef didn't - he wanted to see how Divine Providence would play out.

This is particularly applicable to Yosef, who has just seen his one attempt at hishtadlus (telling the Butler to remember him (Bereishis 40:14)) result in two further years of captivity (Rashi to Bereishis 40:23) - perhaps from here on out, he'll just see what Hashem has in mind.


  1. According to the Maharal in Netzach Yisroel (35), Yosef being in Mitzraim is a precursor to the concept of the ten lost tribes. The Maharal explains that when there is a Gezeira to be hidden you can't outsmart it. Mitzraim is not that far from Eretz Yisroel that they should naturally remain unaware on the newly appointed foreigner.

    We can take this in two directions. First, that Yosef did indeed try to send a discreet message to his father (he had no reason to let his brothers know) but the message never got there. It just never worked out.

    Second, that he reasoned that being that he was paraded all around Mitzraim and it was the biggest story of the day, his father must have found out. Perhaps the lack of reaction made him think Yaakov wasn't alive anymore.

  2. Another answer might be, we see that Serach Bas Asher had to let Yaakov know in a careful manner. Yosef had no way to do this from afar, and letting the brothers know was not an option.

  3. Also, bear in mind that Yosef was only able to do anything after being in captivity for 12 years. His first moment of freedom came along with the knowledge of the pending famine. At this point the meaning of his dream became clear to him. He knew that the way he will reunite will be after his brothers come to get food from him, and after completely submitting to him. Any other way would not work. We see indeed that this is their first moment of regret. They exclaimed that they should have had pity when he cried, but Reuven tells them — what they hadn't contemplated until then — that the deed itself was wrong.

  4. Lastly, the Medrash tells us that even in Mitzraim, Yosef hardly visited his father, for fear of him asking for the whole story. This would shed light on this question as well. He figured that Yaakov would curse his brothers when he finds out, and figured it is better to remain where he is than cut off a branch of Israel.


The Bechor Shor (36:26, 42:7) writes that when the brothers decided to sell Yosef instead of killing him, they did so on condition that he swear to them that he never reveal to their father how he landed up into slavery, and so Yosef didn't say anything because he was bound by this promise.

Yosef thought that his brothers would also never tell their father that he is alive even if he revealed himself to them right away as viceroy of Egypt, and so he had to come up with an elaborate plan to force the brothers into telling Yaakov that Yosef became ruler of Egypt.

See here regarding Yosef's motives and plan more generally


LeAniyut Daati, Yosef thought Yaakov knew he was alive because after Yosef was sold he realized his brothers were Sadikim. Thus, if they were Sadikim how could they lie to their father? Thus, Yosef would never suspect them of lying, also never suspect them of not telling him, while letting him suffer. If these were Sadikim, where is the respect of the father?

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    In general, I don't like this kind of reasoning. Just because someone is a tzadik, does not mean he does not do anything wrong. In fact, I don't think we find any great personality in Tanach who we don't find that s/he did something wrong or was punished for something. In this case specifically, the p'sukim are so clearly showing that the brothers were wrong in their actions that many go out of their way to find how they were punished for it. Also, if we say that they they actually told their father what happened, the whole story doesn't make sense anymore. – jake Dec 16 '11 at 17:30
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    Why would Yosef think his brothers were tzaddikim? – Monica Cellio Dec 16 '11 at 17:55
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    @monica Because when he told Yaakov that they were eating Ever Min HaHai, it wasn't true they really made that animal with Sefer Yesira, and therefore it wasn't a real animal. Then I believe that Yaakov told Yosef that they made it with Sefer Yesira and it was okay. – Hacham Gabriel Dec 16 '11 at 20:12
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    @jake people do things wrong, but not that many times. We know Hazal say that the brothers were Sadikim, they couldn't do that many averot. – Hacham Gabriel Dec 16 '11 at 20:13
  • Yes, the brothers were tzadikim. They did t'shuva for what they did, they were perhaps even punished to some degree, and they asked for Yosef's forgiveness. Whether or not they ate eiver min hachai or dabbled in kabbalistic spontaneous generation, they still sold Yosef, might have even killed him if not for Reuven, and pretended he was dead by showing their father his bloody coat. And not only did Yaakov believe it, he didn't even believe them at first when they told him decades later that Yosef was still alive; they had to convince him. Clearly they did wrong. – jake Dec 17 '11 at 23:01

First, we don't know. The reason is not given in the Tanach. So there's conjecture from the commentators and midrashim, both older and current.

An idea I learned from R. Ari Berman was the same one as @Chanoch brings, that Yosef thought his father was in on the plot that led to Yosef being sold. Note that it is not clear that the brothers sold him. They may have only put him in the pit.

I believe that R. Berman said that he had heard the idea from someone and had further developed it himself.

There are four "proofs" for this idea:

  1. As @Chanoch says in his answer, Yosef's brothers and father rebuked him for the dreams.

  2. This idea also supports Yosef's machinations to get Benyamin to Egypt--Yosef was trying to "rescue" Benyamin from the rest of the family. -- Yosef didn't know Benyamin's situation when the brothers first came to buy food. He feared for Benyamin's health and welfare.

  3. The one we started with, it is not recorded that Yosef ever contacts his father during Yosef's years in Egypt.

  4. It is an additional explanation of why Benyamin is given extra food, money and clothes by Yosef--he feared that perhaps Benyamin had not been treated well by the other members of the family.

Again, we don't know the real reason why Yosef didn't contact his father. The goal of Exegesis is to find good ideas which fit the p'shat (literal text). While no one can say that this idea is "right," it is also true that no one can say that it is "wrong."

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