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Bereishit 37:3 says that the reason Yosef was Yaakov's favorite is "because he was a son of his old age". But while Yosef is a son of Yaakov's old age, so is his younger brother Binyamin. Further, Binyamin is the last child of Yaakov's favorite wife, who died giving birth to him -- so her last act in this world, in a sense, was giving Yaakov his twelfth son. It therefore puzzles me that Binyamin, the baby of the family and one with seemingly-special attachment to Rachel, isn't Yaakov's favorite. Why is that?

Rashi's comment on this verse is:

a son of his old age: Heb. - בֶן זְקֻנִים, for he was born to him in his old age (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 38). Onkelos rendered: for he was a wise son to him. Whatever he had learned from Shem and Eber he gave over to him. Another explanation: for his (Joseph’s) features (זִיו אִיקוֹנִין) resembled his own (those of Jacob). [From Gen. Rabbah 84:8]

Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer as cited by Rashi doesn't address my question, as already explained. Onkelos (as explained by Rashi) gives reasons for Yosef to be favored, but they don't seem to be tied to the p'shat (child of Yaakov's old age). Ditto the explanation from B'reishit Rabbah.

It could be that Yaakov doesn't favor Binyamin because he'll always be a reminder of his mother's death, but I haven't found anything that actually says that yet (so it's just an idea). Are there other interpretations that address this question?

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The Ramban is bothered by this as well, and makes the question stronger - the shevatim were not born that far apart from each other and really all of them could be a son of old age.

Rather he explains it as a son who serves the father in his old age, not who was born in the father's old age. The other brothers were off shepherding (and Binyomin was presumably too young) so Yosef was the one who was constantly around looking after his fathers needs, and this increased contact created the special bond between them.

  • How much younger was Binyomin than Yosef? – Shmuel Brin Dec 9 '14 at 23:20
  • @Shmuel six years. So at the time of the sale Yosef was seventeen and Binyamin was eleven. – user6591 Dec 10 '14 at 0:20
  • @user6591 I thought eight... – Ypnypn Dec 10 '14 at 2:56
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    @Ypnypn the mifarshim on Rashi seem to have a window of six to eight they come up with. Because there was two years Yaakov spent on the road and pregnancy time so there's room to wiggle. – user6591 Dec 10 '14 at 3:01
  • @ShmuelBrin, Bereishis 30:25 - Yakov makes the deal for 6 additional years at Yosef's birth. So he leaves 6 years later, plus travel time, plus some imprecision (these times aren't to the day), so Binyomin is for sure under bar mitzvah, probably in the area of 10 years old, and of course this relationship developed, so it would have started before then when Binyomin was even younger. – Yishai Dec 10 '14 at 3:06
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Your idea that Yaakov does not favor Binyamin as highly because he is a reminder of Rachel's death is suggested by the Chizkuni:

ואם תאמר הרי בנימין בן זקונים יותר, אלא אין אהבת בנימין קשורה בלבו של יעקב כאהבתו של יוסף, לפי שכשילדתו אמו מתה

Other commentators address this question as well:

R' Yosef Bechor Shor and Ralbag opine that Yosef is called בן זקונים because he is Yaakov's long-awaited son from his most beloved wife, Rachel, with whom Yaakov had no children until his old age.

כשנאמר שיוסף היה ליעקב במדרגת בן זקונים שבא אחר היאוש, ולזה תקשר יותר אהבת האב בו; וכן היה עניין יוסף, כי הוא היה ליעקב מרחל - שהיתה היותר אהובה אצלו - אחר היאוש, ולזה היתה נקשרת אהבתו בו

(רלב"ג)

Radak suggests that בן זקונים הוא לו refers to Yosef having the wisdom characteristic of elders.

כי היה מוצאו חכם בכל דבריו, כמו אם היה זקן

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    Rish, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for this very informative answer! Please consider registering your account, which will give you access to more of the site's features. – Isaac Moses Dec 10 '14 at 3:16
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The Sifsei Chachamim asks this question and answers that all the sons until Yosef were born within six years, whereas Binyamin wasn't born till many years later. As such, in the family dynamics, Yosef was the Ben Zkunim and was called this even after Binyamin was born, out of habit.

The Gur Aryeh seems to be the source for this and explains further that when Yosef was born Yaakov already seemed old, and he thought he wouldn't have more children so Yosef was treated in this regard. Then, by the time Binyamin was born, the strong ties of this special love between Yaakov and Yosef were already in place. And he adds, being seven years younger than Yosef, he never was able to impress Yaakov with his wit, being only ten at the time of this narrative.

This same idea is found in the Mizrachi as well.

  • Thanks. Where do we learn that Binyamin was ten years younger than Yosef? – Monica Cellio Dec 10 '14 at 1:10
  • @Monica We don't! Sorry. Mixed up the numbers while typing. I fixed it. – user6591 Dec 10 '14 at 1:15
  • @Monica that is based on Yaakov Being by Lavan for 20 years. 14 for his wives and six more with the sheep. Reuvein was born within the year after the first seven. Yosef was born six years later. That means Yaakov left Lavan when Yosef was six. Giving travel time and the half a year Yaakov spent in Beis El, the mipharshim put binyamin at seven maybe eight years younger than Yosef. – user6591 Dec 10 '14 at 1:24
  • He didn't know that he's going to get 12 sons? – Shmuel Brin Dec 10 '14 at 1:42
  • @Shmuel I was wondering the same thing. But there are other implications that it wasn't a done deal. More like a contingency where he knew IF he had twelve sons, than he was good to go. That was part of his issue when Yosef went missing. He thought he lost the Mitaso Shleimah. Whatever the case, i only quoted the great rabbis. – user6591 Dec 10 '14 at 2:10
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The earliest sources I know of who ask this question, are the Pirkey D'Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 37 in ed. Higger) and the Tanhuma (ed. Buber Vayeshev 5).

Rashbam to Genesis (35:18) answers that Yosef spent years as "the baby" before Binyamin was born. By then, Ya'akov was already particularly attached to Yosef. Shadal also quotes this explanation in his commentary to Genesis (37:3). He quotes Ramban's explanation that Yosef was Ya'akov's dedicated assistant of the sort that the elderly often have, but rejects this explanation since Yosef was a shepherd, so doesn't seem to have always been around to help Ya'akov.

Alternatively, Hadar Z'kenim (a Tosafist compilation) to Genesis (37:3) suggests that he didn't love Binyanim as much, since he associated Binyamin with the death of Rachel (who died while giving birth to him).

Importantly, Binyamin is referred to as "yeled zekunim" in Genesis (44:20), as noted by Ibn Ezra to Genesis (37:3).

  • A compilation of material of the Tosafits on the Torah. Two similar collections exist: Da'at Zkenim, and Moshav Zkenim. – mevaqesh Dec 27 '17 at 21:55
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Why not try something different!
Yossef was the Bechor, the firstborn, and therefore, the "oldest" son. How?

On the wedding night, Yaakov's thoughts were all about Yossef coming from Rachel and being the Bechor. Rachel switched with Leah, and the physical firstborn (from the first drop - ראשית אוני) was Reuben (as we know, a child comes from a man's thoughts through the vessels and to his mom's body).

But Yossef was always Yaakov's the first thought and his spiritual firstborn. This is also the reason Yossef got twice as much tribes (Efrayim and Menashe) as other brothers - as the firstborn.

  • "On the wedding night, Yaakov's thoughts were all about Yossef coming from Rachel and being the Bechor." Why do you think that would possibly be the case? – mevaqesh Dec 25 '17 at 19:00
  • "as we know, a child comes from a man's thoughts through the vessels and to his mom's body" What?? Is this some outmoded superstitious belief? Modern science. Religion based on ancient science? Who is the 'we' who knows this, and how do you know that is the case? – mevaqesh Dec 25 '17 at 19:03
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    How does this fit with the Torah's stated reason; that he was the ben zekunim? – mevaqesh Dec 25 '17 at 19:04

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