The word Tabah means to cook. In modern Hebrew, a Mitbah is a kitchen. In Arabic, Tabaha means "he cooked".

And yet, from what I can find, nearly all Biblical commentators, Jewish and gentile, by the way, assume that Potiphar, the Sar HaTabahim, was the king's chief executioner, a play on words from what is assumed to be the "literal" meaning, which is "chief butcher".

I cannot find a single source that explains this latter assumption, the one about the literal meaning, though there are many who make it, dating all the way back to the earliest Rabbinical commentators, including Onkelos.

If this assumption is correct - that is, if the "literal" meaning of the word is "butchery" - then, either Hebrew (and Arabic) made some leap from butchery to general food preparation, or the reverse (I guess). I know there must be something I'm missing here. What did the Sar HaTabahim actually do (alt., what does his title actually suggest)?

  • 2
  • @GershonGold, wow, I don't know how I missed that... KeTzon LaTevah. OK, so then ...????
    – Seth J
    Dec 8, 2014 at 19:01
  • The word in Lashon Kodesh for cooking is בישול. Modern day Hebrew has many examples of words that are not correct based on Lashon Kodesh. Dec 8, 2014 at 19:06
  • @danf, why the change?
    – Seth J
    Dec 8, 2014 at 21:03

3 Answers 3


DanF got it right. "Tabach" means "butcher." Modern Hebrew has confused that with cooking a bit, a kitchen is called a "mitbach", again, old-fashioned cooks had to slaughter their own stuff.

As for the Sar Hatabachim, Ramban says we don't know if his job was butchering animals, or if he was an executioner! (The latter would make sense as the guy has his own jail.)

Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, shlit'a, reads it as "executioner", and feels that's why it specifies that he was an "Egyptian man." The ruling class at the time were Hyskos (an ethnic minority), but they were smart and gave the dirty work of executions to an Egyptian, as Egyptians constituted the ethnic majority.


The Ibn Ezra chapter 37 verse 36 writes

שר הטבחים. תמצא זה הלשון על הרג ועל בישול. ודברי המתרגם נכונים.

We find the use of this word for killing and for cooking. And the words of the Targum are proper.

The fancy edition brings instances of these usages.

For the killing option he sends to Daniel 2 14 רב טבחיא די מלכא די נפק לקטלה לחכימי בבל.

For the cooking usage he mentions Shmuel 1, chapter 9 vs 24 וירם הטבח את השוק.

And Targum says רב קטוליא the chief executioner.

But it turns out they are both correct and literal translations. Ibn Ezra happened to side with the executioner option.


@Gershon Gold is correct that the term for cooking is בישול.

Refer to the Targum and Peirush Yonatan on Breishit 43:16, where Yosef uses the term טבוח טבח. There, Peirush Yonatan says that this refers to "slaughtering" or "butchering" a goat. So, your original assumption seems correct that the Sar Hatabahim was the chief butcher.

As to how the term "מטבח" came to mean "kitchen" in modern Hebrew, I am surmising that butchers then, perhaps prepared the meat themselves after slaughtering it, so they were in a sense, chefs, also. I agree with Gershon's statement that Modern Hebrew, frequently, does not reflect original Biblical Hebrew. מטבח See next answer for further explanations...

Compare, possibly a similar idea in Breishit 18:7 when Avraham feeds the angels. It says Avraham took a calf and gave it to the lad, and "He hurried to prepare it". While not explicit, I am inferring a bit from Rash"i that the lad was Ishma'el, and the "he" in the verse means Ishama'el. "Preparing it" means making it ready to be eaten, i.e. - both slaughtering and cooking. While the term טבח is not mentioned, here, I'm attempting to prove that those that did the slaughtering for the meal, also cooked it.

This doesn't imply, that there weren't plain butchers around who just slaughtered meat. But perhaps, Sar Hatabahim, could have been mainly the head of butchers, and by inference, since then, the butchers also cooked the food, he was the chief "chef" as well. Again, no verse proof, but my thinking through this process.

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