I'm having trouble understanding his brothers' plotting to kill Joseph (Genesis 37:18–22). Yes, they hated him, but how could they do such a terrible thing? I know S'forno / Rabbi S.R. Hirsch / Haamek Davar's explanation, that they saw him approaching, thought he was planning to get them cursed and (thus) dead, and acted in self-defense — but I find it very unsatisfying: all they saw was that he was approaching: is that really enough to get off on self-defense, even with a history? I also have heard a midrash that they convened a court on the spot and found him guilty and liable to the death penalty — but find that very unsatisfying, too: can they act as witnesses and judges on a case they're not disinterested in?

So I still lack an understanding of how they could do such a terrible thing, a lack that's unfilled by any of the other commentaries I've seen.

(I'm assuming, as do all the commentaries I've seen, that they were righteous individuals, as was Joseph.)

  • 2
    Let's say some commentators go with the peshat that they were driven by hate and jealousy, would that be an acceptable answer, or are you only looking for those who claim that they were without fault, or nearly without fault?
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 23, 2017 at 23:39
  • @mevaqesh, if commentators go with that (specifically on their murder plot), that's sufficient.
    – msh210
    Dec 24, 2017 at 4:13
  • Related I just posted a question why they took the dreams seriously: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/97621/…
    – Al Berko
    Dec 10, 2018 at 12:55

8 Answers 8


This bothered me too. I don't want to judge but I do want to understand what they were thinking. The answer I received from a teacher was that the shevatim saw Joseph's actions as egocentric in a similar vein to Esav's. They were afraid that he would ruin the spiritual mission of the family. In this context they had to act in some way. I am inspired to take time to make my decisions even when my motivation is correct. I also am comforted to know that Hashem made great good come from this which seemed bad.

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    – DonielF
    Dec 24, 2017 at 14:56
  • I liked your way of thinking - see my answer. This is not the Pshat, but don't be afraid. Why do you think would they compare Yosef to Eisau?
    – Al Berko
    Dec 25, 2017 at 18:12

Perhaps one can say as follows.

Avrohom had two sons. His blessing passed primarily to one. Same with Yitzchok.

Yaakov stole the blessing from Eisov. Wrong or right, he hung Eisov out to dry.

The brothers saw Yaakov treating Yoseif differently, making him a special tunic. They knew Yaakov had loved Rochel more than Leah and figured Yosef was Yaakov's vision for the future of his blessing. If this wasn't enough, Yosef was now announcing dreams he was having about them bowing down to him, in the presence of both them and their father.

In their minds they realize that Yoseif is being set up to be the next "father," like Yaakov and Yitzchok before him. And like Yaakov and Yizchok's brothers, they realize that they are about to be cut out of klal Yisroel; just like Eisov and Yishmoel.

What had their father done in this situation? From their perspective -- he did what he had to do. So would they.

  • 1. What's the source of this speculation? 2. And then what? Does killing Yosef promote them into the next "Father"?
    – Al Berko
    Dec 1, 2018 at 18:02
  • 1. No source. 2. It removes the domination of one over the rest and leaves only equal brothers.
    – Dov F
    Dec 2, 2018 at 19:56
  • Where's the Divinity? What's the holy point of that? Pure revenge? self-defense? How does it bring the Geulah?
    – Al Berko
    Dec 2, 2018 at 20:23
  • Protection of klal yisroel.
    – Dov F
    Dec 7, 2018 at 18:51
  • Short comments don't help to clarify your point. You said "only equal brothers", but they were never truly equal - Reuven was the firstborn and slept with..., Levi was Levy, Yehuda was a designated king, Binyomin was from Rochel and others were from servants (Bilha and Zilpah) they weren't equal, so how Yossef was so unequal to deserve being killed?
    – Al Berko
    Dec 8, 2018 at 16:20

Yosef dreamed of dominion over his brothers. They, obviously, did not want to be subjected to his dominion. What is the only fail-safe way to assure that Yosef does not achieve his dreams? Killing him.

I think this is the simplest reading of the text. In 37:19 they say

הנה בעל החלמות הלזה בא

Behold this dreamer is coming

Then they suggest killing him and they say

ונראה מה יהיו חלמותיו

And we will see what will become of his dreams

I think this is best represented by Ralbag's commentary.

והסכימו ביניהם שיהרגוהו וישליכוהו באחד הבורות ויאמר ליעקב שחיה רעה אכלתהו ואז יראו מה יהיו חלומותיו ר"ל שאז יתברר להם שלא יתקיימו חלומותיו

And they agreed among themselves that they would kill him and cast him into one of the pits and tell Yaakov that an evil animal devoured him, and then they would see what would become of his dreams. Meaning to say, that then it would be certain to them that his dreams would not be fulfilled.

In fact later in Parshas Mikeitz (התועלת השמיני, The Eighth Lesson) Ralbag mentions that the lesson of this incident is that man should not attempt to thwart the Divine plan. The plan was for Yosef to rule over them, and not only did selling him not thwart this plan, it was the very catalyst that brought the plan to fruition. He compares this to the legend of the founding of Rome, wherein the father of Remus and Romulus dreamed of being overthrown by his children. He banished them to be left to die in the forest, but not only did this not thwart the plan, it enabled it because the children were raised in the forest by a wolf and eventually overthrew their father and founded Rome.

The point here is that the only true way to thwart such a plan is to kill the person involved in it. For as long as the person walks the Earth the plan can still be fulfilled. Thus, the brothers had no choice but to kill Yosef; anything less would not guarantee saving them from his dreams of dominion over them. Indeed once they were convinced by Reuven and Yehuda to not actually kill him but to try to thwart his plan in another way, we see that they did not succeed.

(Ralbag might argue that even killing Yosef would not thwart the Divine plan, either because God could prevent them from killing Yosef, or because He could somehow fulfill it after Yosef is dead.)

From the short account of the attempted killing and then sale of Yosef in Genesis Chapter 37 verses 18-36 there is no textual evidence of nefarious intent or hatred towards Yosef. They were simply doing what they had to do to prevent him from achieving his dreams of dominion over them.

  • In verses 18-36, there is no mention of hatred. But, as the Torah states in verses 4, 5 and 8, it is very clear that they hated Yosef. I highly doubt that hatred was not any factor in selling Yosef. To me, if anything, the hatred is probably what allowed them to ignore Yosef's pleas of mercy while he was in the pit. One could ask how the brothers could harbor such continual hatred to this extent.
    – DanF
    Dec 25, 2017 at 1:46
  • @DanF The question was about the plot to kill Yosef. Verses 4, 5, and 8 contain no such plot, and are thus not the subject of the question. Had the question been "How could the brothers have hated Yosef?" my answer would not suffice. And we don't necessarily know how much time elapsed between verses 4, 5, and 8 and verses 18-36. The point of my answer is that there is no indication in the text that at the time of the plot there was any bad motivation for what they were doing.
    – Alex
    Dec 25, 2017 at 1:54
  • How does preventing Yosef’s dominion over them warrant killing? The question assumes the brothers were righteous in their intent.
    – Lee
    Jan 15 at 8:23

Or Hachayim (37:20) explains: They adjudged Joseph as a witness who lied in order to yield them capital punishment. While they technically could not prosecute him as such in court, that's okay, as their planned murder of him would get them off on a technicality (which he details); what remains is whether that murder was justifiable in the eyes of Heaven, which it was, as a gentile can be adjudged even by relatives and such a witness is to be killed.

  • Please elaborate on "witness who lied in order to yield them capital punishment".
    – Al Berko
    Dec 1, 2018 at 18:04

Zohar (1:184a) explains that because the brothers were completely righteous, Jacob did not believe they would harm Joseph, and indeed, he was correct. Despite their hatred, they would not have sold Joseph; rather, it was God who prodded the brothers to sell him, so as to begin the fulfillment of his covenant with Abraham.

Source: https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/790953/jewish/Kehot-Chumash.htm


Based on Let My Nation Descend (p. 33) by R' Yosef Deutsch, the brothers sentenced Yosef to capital punishment because:

  1. Yosef was considered a mored b'malchus - rebelling against the accepted king of Klal Yisroel: Yehuda.

  2. Yosef was considered a rodef who was trying to "push out" the other 11 shevatim, just as Yitzchak took over from Yishmael and Yaakov took over from Esav.

  3. They felt Yosef was considering himself a deity to whom even the sun and moon bow down to.

  4. Yosef was considered a an false witness attempting to sentence them with capital punishment saying they were bnei noach eating ever min hachai, which warrants the death penalty, rather than bnei yisroel.


Joseph's brothers explicitly regret their horrible treatment of Joseph (Gen 42.21) and when they begged his forgiveness after Jacob's death they offered no excuse for their atrocious behavior (Gen 50). The plain sense is that they acted on pure hatred and jealousy and there was no justification for their plans to murder their brother or for their later plan to sell him. As disturbing as this is, this is another example of the Bible's brutal honesty about the moral lapses of its heroes.


If I remember right, we are forbidden to judge our Tzadikim, especially our forefathers, negatively. I'm seriously stumbled or embarrassed to see those commentators seemingly transgressing our Halakhah, even if they meant something different, people like you might understand their P'shat and think they were wicked Hv"H.

In my understanding, based on the teachings of R' Raphael Moshe Luria ZTZ"L, a twentieth century hassidic rabbi, they had totally different approaches to the way of the continuation of the Jewish Nation in general, and the right way of going through the Egyptian exile (I won't elaborate here). How different?

Do you remember how the Misnagdim saw the first Hassidim some 250 years ago? Exactly, up to this point; his views were so "unorthodox" relative to the Brother's approach, they thought he was outrageous and heretic. How heretic? Enough to judge him to "death". Fair enough. Notice, they did not even consult their father Yaakov nor their grandfather Itzchok (a completely different question why)!

Just as with the Hassidut, only time showed who was right and legitimate. Again, notice that unfortunately, the Brothers did not openly accepted their fault and made Teshuva, therefore the Aseret Harugey Malchut.

  • The halakha you promote in the first paragraph doesn't exist. Even if it did, who would it apply to? Esav? Ishmael? Anyone who lived a long time ago who we might be descended from?
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 24, 2017 at 14:04
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    The crux of this unclear answer seems to be that they sentenced him to death for heresy. Ignoring the question of where a death penalty is imposed for heresy, and ignoring the fact that the Torah states that they were jealous about a coat, which this answer ignores, the op seems to have specifically precluded this possibility, since as he notes "I also have heard a midrash that they convened a court on the spot and found him guilty and liable to the death penalty — but find that very unsatisfying, too: can they act as witnesses and judges on a case they're not disinterested in?"
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 24, 2017 at 14:13
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    "Just as with the Hassidut, only time showed who was right and legitimate" how has time shown that hassidim were right and legitimate?? While they toned down some of their antinomianism, a lack of the typical Jewish respect for halakha remains. This is just one of the famous problems with early hassidut that remain, at least in part.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 24, 2017 at 14:17
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    "notice that unfortunately, the Brothers did not openly accepted their fault" what fault? I thought they considered him a heretic, which is now a capital offence. What was their fault? Are honest judges who do their best on a case to be faulted?
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 24, 2017 at 14:19
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    Furthermore, the brothers do admit guilt; in Breishit 42:21! furthermore, besides for containing erroneous information, and apparently specifically not being what the OP was looking for, this doesn't even seem internally consistent. You start by stating a (circularly defined) prohibition on criticising the brothers, but you conclude that they were at fault to such a degree that great rabbis were murdered as punishment.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 24, 2017 at 14:26

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