In Parashat Vayeishev, the story is recounted about how the children of Jacob conspired to kill Joseph. The explanation is that they judged him to be guilty of several violations and deserving of death. Reuven then convinced them not to kill him but just throw him in a pit and then eventually sell him off into slavery.

While death is in fact a punishment mentioned in the Torah, slavery isn't. Also how can you just sell someone else into slavery, without their consent?

What was the brother's justification for this?

  • The explanation is that they judged him to be guilty of several violations and deserving of death. whose explanation is it? Are you only asking according to this opinion and not others? Please clarify.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 8, 2017 at 3:26
  • While death is in fact a punishment mentioned in the Torah, slavery isn't. again are you assuming they were following Torah law? If so why? There is lolam bahem taavodu, and vihi knaan eved lamo, although those aren't traditional punishments.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 8, 2017 at 3:28
  • @mevaqesh I'm just recalling what I learned a long time ago. I thought thaw explanation was the wide consensus Dec 8, 2017 at 3:36
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    I think the various commentaries claim that they considered Yosef a "rodef" - someone whom they thought was trying to kill them. I don't recall how or why the brothers thought that. But, halachically, one is allowed to kill a rodef. It was Yehuda that suggested they sell him, instead because they wanted to gain some "profit" from doing so. What you may want to ask is halachically, can one forgo the option of killing a rodef and get rid of him by some other means such as injury or forced sale as a slave?
    – DanF
    Dec 8, 2017 at 3:37
  • One problem with all these sorts of midrashim, is that the basic plot isn't explained. Let's say they "paskened" he was chayav mitta, why does yehuda say mah betsa ki naharog et ahinu? Why do the brothers later say they are being punished for their treatment of yosef? If they were just "following halakha", why did they deny it to yaakov, they should have been proud? Why did they lie to yaakov? What halakha was that? Why was reuven so dismayed?* Answering these requires building midrashim on top of the midrashim, adding hiddush on top of hiddush; contrary to occams razor.@danf
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 8, 2017 at 3:38

2 Answers 2


Think about the past few generations in the family: Ishmael misbehaves so he gets kicked out of Judaism; Esau misbehaves so he gets kicked out; and now Joseph is telling dad all sorts of stories about how they're misbehaving. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno points out at this point, the brothers believe Joseph is going to get them cursed, kicked out of Judaism, have dad pray for them to die, or the like -- he is actively threatening their bodies, souls, or both.

Judah's response is that even when someone is coming after you with a knife, you don't use lethal self-defense unless it's necessary. (Or per the Talmud's expression, "could you save the would-be victim by just taking out one limb of the attacker?") Once there are traders nearby, he sees a perfectly good less-than-lethal solution: sell Joseph off to some faraway land, at which point you've neutralized the threat.

Sforno's approach is that this was all handled the same way that a civilian would in assessing an active threat to his/her life; that way, we don't get into complicated questions about the official legal punishment for something done in the past.

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    This answer is great, but would be greater if you could source where Sforno says these things.
    – ezra
    Dec 8, 2017 at 15:57
  • Ishmael was not expelled from Judaism. This could not have happened as Judaism (the covenant brokered by Moses) did not exist yet. Ishmael was expelled from the Abrahamic promise which is why Ishmael needed to set up his tribes outside of the promised land.
    – user19234
    Dec 7, 2021 at 11:26
  • The trouble with this explanation is that if the brothers were concerned about Jacob mistreating them, they should have confronted Jacob, not Joseph. If the Jacob threat is so serious, why not kill Jacob or sell him into slavery? The fact that they took out their anxiety on their younger brother suggests that they were motivated more by irrational hate than by self-preservation.
    – user19234
    Dec 7, 2021 at 11:30

Preface: There's a story about a man that was stuck in a deep pit. How did he get out, you ask? Easy, he went home and brought a ladder!

We need to keep this story in mind when we read commentaries or try to explain different Torah stories ourselves - we expect it to be consistent. Unfortunately, we don't have a tradition of the necessity of consistency, so commentators use an arbitrary number of Talmud rulings to bring an excuse. So I came up with two explanations that are consistent with what we know from the Jewish Halakha:

Option A: There's no justification - they sinned.

  • You are absolutely right, there's no justification. The only option of selling a Jew is by overriding the "Le Tignov" option (of the 10 commandments), which is a capital sin by itself. The death of the Ten Martyrs is closely linked to repaying their misdeed, proving this theory. But the Halachah only allows selling a Jew to another Jew, not to a non-Jew.

Option B: Before Matan Torah, they could do whatever they pleased.

  • This option is also vital, as their Halakhic status is not clearly decided upon (Gemorah in ?). We know that they were not exactly gentiles, and not exactly Jews, so they could use any Halakhic system of their own (theoretically).
  • It does not say they did not know "Torah" but they could override it in any way possible, because of their spiritual level, like marrying two sisters (Yaakov), marrying a Canaanite (Judah), judge their relatives (Judah with Tamar or Brothers), having an "affair with a married gentile woman" (Yosef) etc.

Option C: The whole story is metaphoric.

  • I know for many of us this is not an option, that's why I said "two". But for some interpreters (Abraham Ben HaRambam? source needed) it is. Many books of "Kabbalic" approach from Ariz"l to Baash"t and further explain the story from Sefirot/Bechinot point of view.

I would also like to broaden the question, taking into consideration their background (we know very little of):

  • How did Yaakov educate his children?
  • Yaakov knew first-handed how the brothers' hatred feels like, what did he learn from it and what did he pass to the Tribes?
  • He prophesied there should be 12 tribes of Israel. How is this possible by killing one?
  • What did their Zeide (Izhok) think about the whole story?
  • Yosef befriended his "half-slave" brothers. How come they did not stand up for him?
  • (My favored) Besides the Halahka, which is questionable, how come nobody simply doubted and consulted either Hashem or Yaakov or Yizhok or "Shem vaEver's shul"?
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    Rabbenu Avraham ben HaRambam never said that. || Many books of "Kabbalic" approach from Ariz"l to Baash"t and further explain the story from Sefirot/Bechinot point of view. Do any of them say that that besides for the allusions, the story didn't physically also take place?
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 10, 2017 at 0:56
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    It does not say they did not know "Torah" but they could override it in any way possible, What does not say "..."? Are you referencing something? What?
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 10, 2017 at 4:52
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    marrying a Canaanite (Judah) She likely wasn't a Canaanite, see https://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/80614/8775, judge their relatives (Judah with Tamar or Brothers) Do you mean that Judah judged Tamar? Whose brothers judged whom? What are you talking about?, having an "affair with a married gentile woman" (Yosef) What?? In reality Yosef declared that that would be a sin, and never had an affair with her!
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 10, 2017 at 4:56
  • Me and you, just like Yoseef and the Brothers. I understand your POV but you can't understand mine. 1. I pointed you omitted R' Yehuda's opinion that they were real Cannanites. 2. Yes, as commentators present it Yehuda (or together with Yakov and Itzhok) judged Tamar, who else? 3. Most Parshanim present Brothers' decision as a judgement, Yosef being on the trial 4. Yossef planned to be with Eshet Putifar (לעשות צרכיו נכנס), only Yaakov's vision prevented him from doing it, according to (its in the Gemoro, Rav vs Shemuel) Satisfied? Now explain this!
    – Al Berko
    Dec 10, 2017 at 13:49
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    Satisfied? Now explain this Explain what? As is frequently the case, I have no idea what you are trying to say.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 10, 2017 at 15:36

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