Was the prison into which Joseph was placed (Genesis 39:20) located in Potiphar's basement?

  • Why would you propose that? Apr 12, 2015 at 8:47
  • 1
    It's suggested by a non-Jewish source footnote 47 without evidence it seems to me. Apr 12, 2015 at 12:00
  • The same is suggested by the following two non-Jewish sources: Link 1, Link 2
    – Lee
    Apr 12, 2015 at 13:02
  • This appears to be derived from Genesis 39:1 and Genesis 40:3. 39:1 states that Potiphar is Sar HaTabahim. 40:3 states that the baker and cupbearer were placed in the house of Sar HaTabahim where Joseph was jailed. I still don't see any specific hint to Potiphar's basement.
    – Lee
    Apr 12, 2015 at 13:07
  • What's interesting is that we know from the archaeological record that Egypt was one of the few places in the ancient world that did actually have state-run prisons. One theory I've heard in academic circles is that 'Sohar' is a transliteration of the Egyptian word for "round", and that the prison was a round tower like building. There was also an Egyptian fortress where criminals were kept whose name was similar to Sohar, so some have theorized Joseph was kept there. Apr 14, 2015 at 15:00

1 Answer 1


It was like the Bastille or the Tower of London. That is, a prison for the nobility who could be restored to power or killed. Thus, it was not like the pit that Yirmiyahu was put in. Nor was it "Potiphar's basement" (which makes it sound as an ad-hoc lockup), it was an official location, since the "Chief Butler" and "Chief Cook" were put there. Yosef was actually more like a servant to the nobles who were placed there. The prisoners had to be treated well, since if they were restored to power, they would take revenge against the guards if they were mistreated.

In fact, as many meforshim state, Yosef was put there because Potifar knew that he was innocent and did not want to lose his service. However, he had to pretend to punish him in order to save face.

For example Rav Shamson Refael Hirsch on Vayeshev 39:20 says explicitly

... But Potiphar was the Governor of the State prison (see next Chapter verse 3).

This would presuppose that in his heart he was really convinced of Joseph's innocence, and only for the sake of his honor did he have to take the action that he did, ...

Ths is a prison to which both those condemned and those committed for trial were brought. The sequel, too, bears this out.

UPDATE Based on this logic it was probably a separate set of "official" government building. Note that given the prisoners who were placed there, it would be a more "luxurious" type of accommodation. A "basement" would have no windows and would need to be artificially lighted whenever it was being used. This would not have been available in Egypt of that time. A "basement" would only be used for storage (as with a root cellar for example).


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