The Torah prohibits divination as stated in:

Leviticus 19:26:

לֹ֥א תֹאכְל֖וּ עַל־הַדָּ֑ם לֹ֥א תְנַחֲשׁ֖וּ וְלֹ֥א תְעוֹנֵֽנוּ׃

Do not eat with the blood; Do not practice divination or soothsaying.

If we assume that our forefathers practiced all the Torah mitzvot, then how was Yosef allowed to practice divination, as it says:

Genesis 44:5 (My English translation):

הֲל֣וֹא זֶ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁתֶּ֤ה אֲדֹנִי֙ בּ֔וֹ וְה֕וּא נַחֵ֥שׁ יְנַחֵ֖שׁ בּ֑וֹ הֲרֵעֹתֶ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עֲשִׂיתֶֽם׃

Is this not with which my lord drinks, and he divines with? You have done wrongly.’

Context of above verse: Yosef's brothers leave to return home from Egypt. Prior to their leaving, Yosef asks one his servants to place his silver cup in Binyamin's sack. Just after they left, Yosef commands the servant to chase after them and state the verse above.

  • It has always struck me that this comment would be included in the Torah. Are there any sources for blessings over a kos being perceived as "divination" by Egyptian outsiders?
    – user3342
    Dec 3, 2015 at 1:52

5 Answers 5


The Midrash tells how Yosef used the knowledge he had of his brothers to fool them into thinking he was an expert diviner. He would look into his cup as if he was divining and tell them personal facts that there was no way an Egyptian would know. Of course he knew them because he knew his brothers, but they didn't know that.

See here


As Rav Hirsch comments, "Did you not know that a man like me is superstitious?"

That is Yosef was still pretending to be an Egyptian with all the superstitions that the Egyptians had. As Rav Hirsch says

Not, of course, that all superstitious people can find a nice example in Yoseph, but Yoseph was addressing them in his role as an Egyption lord, an Egyptian magnate, not as a son of the House of Abraham. The higher, the greater a man has become, the more marvellous his fortune has been, the more superstitious he becomes, the more he believes in ניחוש - one has only to think of Napolean- he is surprised at his good luck.


A number of commentaries explain the general idea that Yosef, himself, did not practice divination. Among them,

Rashbam on Genesis 44:5:1:

והוא נחש ינחש בו - יש לומר שהיה מראה עצמו לעיניהם כיודע עניינים על ידי קסם ונחש. ויש מפרשים: חכם כמותי ינחש על ידי הכוס מי גנבו ממני, לפי שכתוב לפנינו כי נחש ינחש איש אשר כמוני ואין כתוב שם ינחש בו.

(English from Sefaria - excerpt):

והוא נחש ינחש

Some commentators say that a wise man of Joseph’s caliber would consult the goblet as to who had stolen it, seeing that the Torah quotes Joseph as speaking about איש אשר כמוני, “a man of my type.” [he had, after all, proven that he could see hidden things, hence his name tzofnat paaneach, the one who reveals what is hidden. Ed.] It does not say in the text ינחש בו which would suggest that he consulted the goblet, but נחש ינחש, independent of the inherent power of the goblet to reveal things to its owner.


The Medrash tells us, and we see from the Psukim, that Egypt was a bastion of witchcraft. Therefore it would be self understood that someone of his stature would be divining, as he tells them when they came back(44:15). He was utilizing this understanding to play up its importance, and thus to magnify the accusation. There is no Pasuk actually describing him using the cup in this way.

Being that they didn't know who he was, and they took him for a natural Egyptian, there was no problem of והייתם נקיים either.

  • Editing in a source for your claim ("He was utilizing this understanding to play up its importance, and thus to magnify the accusation.") would improve your answer vastly.
    – msh210
    Dec 3, 2015 at 6:58

The brothers of Yosef had sold him into slavery because of their jealousy, and because Yosef had dreamt that his brothers, mother, and father would one day bow in respect to him.

Genesis 37:5-19
5 Then Yosef had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. . . .8 So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. . . 19 They said to one another, "Here comes the dreamer! 20 Now then, come let us kill him . . . ."

Years later in Egypt during the famine, Yosef was now testing his brothers to determine if they would, in turn, accuse Benyamin of the same "sin" of divination. The contents of the cup of divination, when drunk, would provide the stupor or hallucinatory effect for dreaming and seeing visions. (Centuries later the correlation of intoxication with wine and seeing visions appears in Isaiah 28:7.) Would the brothers hate innocent Benyamin "the dreamer" in the same way that they had hated Yosef "the dreamer"? The brothers once sold Yosef into slavery for silver; now Yosef was testing them with the same silver to determine if they would also betray their brother Benyamin. The Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna wrote the following in this regard:

. . . The fact that we are told it [the cup of divination] is made of silver is not meant solely to emphasize its preciousness; the offense would be grave enough no matter what the composition of the goblet might have been. The main point here is that Hebrew kesef, “silver, money,” is a key word, reiterated twenty times in the accounts of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt (chaps. 42–45). The brothers had sold Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver (Gen. 37:28); now he harasses and tests them with silver. (emphasis added)

The test backfired when Yosef discovered that his brothers had deep compassion for Benyamin, for whom they were willing to sacrifice themselves. In this regard, the brothers then considered that their current crisis was punishment for what they had done years earlier to Yosef, whom they had believed was long dead (Gen 44:20).

Yosef had also noted earlier that the brothers did not react in jealousy to Benyamin, when Yosef had served five extra portions of food to Benyamin at the same table with his brothers (Gen 43:34).

In light of these observations, the "cup of divination" was a ploy by Yosef, and therefore Yosef did not practice divination. In fact, his faithfulness during his 23 years of separation from his family of birth stemmed from his faith that his dreams had come direct from the Lord (who also provided to Yosef the dream interpretation for Pharaoh), and therefore were destined for complete fulfillment.

Sarna, Nahum M. (1989). Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 303.

  • Editing in sources for your claims would improve your answer vastly.
    – msh210
    Dec 3, 2015 at 6:57
  • @msh210 - Source added - thanks. The remaining comments and conclusions stem from my own inductive study.
    – Joseph
    Dec 3, 2015 at 14:50

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