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From Parsha to Halakha: Vayeshev Destructive speech

Kislev 5784 | December 2023


“Yosef, seventeen years old, would tend the flocks with his brothers… and Yosef brought evil reports of them to their father…”[1]

Yosef would tell his father every time he saw his brothers doing something suspicious.[2] The midrash brings three tales he told – his brothers ate “eiver min ha-chai” (a limb from a live animal), disparaged the maidservants’ sons by calling them slaves, and “looked to” the women of Canaan, possibly engaging in prohibited sexual relations – and ends that he was punished for each one.[3]

Actions have consequences

Rav Eliyahu Mizrahi questions this midrash. Why was Yosef punished? Shouldn’t he tell his father about his brothers’ sins so Yaakov can admonish them and stop them from further sin?

Before we answer this question, we should discuss the underlying assumption that the Torah does not describe suffering without indicating the sin that brought it about. This assumption is prevalent throughout midrash and later biblical commentaries who fill in blanks to clearly connect actions with reward and punishment.[4]

We have little record of these scholars applying the same logic to tragedies that happened in their time. Even though we have faith that the “ways of the Eternal are righteous,” we also know they are often hidden or beyond our comprehension: “My mind is not your mind, and your ways not My ways, said the Eternal. As the heavens are far above the earth, so My ways are far above yours and My mind [distant] from yours.” [5]

So why offer such insights to events described in the Torah? Possibly because their insights are not based on their interpretations of these events, but on the prophetic descriptions of those events. “The hidden things are for the Eternal, our God, and the revealed for us and our children, always…”[6] Prophecy is revelation. The Tanakh does not seek to hide, but to reveal – to teach us about God’s ways so we can follow them.

The Torah is prophecy, revelation. Our scholars used many tools to uncover the truths revealed in the Divine Torah. One tool is the principle “in the place of judgment (verdict, punishment) there is evildoing,” or as we say today, “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”[7] This is not necessarily a universal belief, but it’s likely the rationale behind the commentaries we are about to see.

Yosef’s wrongdoing

The midrash tells us Yosef is punished – meaning he did wrong.

Gur Aryeh rejects the possibility his wrongdoing was testifying as a lone witness. The gemara in Pesachim states that God hates a person who testifies that another sinned when there is no corroborating witness- in most cases this testimony is useless and only serves to be motzi shem ra (lit. putting out a bad name, meaning defamation of character).

Yet there are times halakha permits testimony from one witness – for example if they are trying to prevent future transgressions.[8] Gur Aryeh explains that since Yosef is generally considered a righteous person we should judge him favorably and assume his intention was that Yaakov stop them from further wrongdoing – which is permitted. In general, when defamatory speech is true and is meant to be useful it is often permitted.[9]

Gur Aryeh concludes that since Yosef is allowed to tell his father of his brother’s wrongdoings if they were true, it must be that they weren’t. His assertion is bolstered by Mizrachi’s argument that the lack of unexplained suffering on his brothers’ part indicates their innocence. Evidently, Yosef misinterpreted what he saw and judged them unfavorably instead of being dan l’kaf zekhut (judging them favorably); Yosef’s unfavorable opinion stemmed from his own piety; he was machmir (strict) about certain laws and therefore thought his brothers were sinning even though they fulfilled the letter of the law.[10]

Mizrachi and Gur Aryeh bring extensive Talmudic discussions to understand the nuances of these alleged transgressions. One does not need to believe that the forefathers observed the entire Torah in the same way the rabbis of the Talmud did to appreciate their analyses. It’s possible these commentaries are being “mishta’ashe’a ba’Torah,” playing with the Torah, because they revel and delight in the Torah. Either way, these incredible claims also teach some very valid lessons. For example, someone who behaves differently than we do is not necessarily wrong.

The road to exile is paved with good intentions

The brothers were born into a house with tension – Leah versus Rachel becomes the children of Leah versus the children of Rachel. Yaakov wanted to settle in peace, but this was impossible without addressing the underlying tensions in his family:[11]

“Yosef, seventeen years old, would tend the flocks with his brothers… and Yosef brought evil reports of them to their father. And Yisrael loved Yosef above all his sons… and when his brothers saw that their father loved him above all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak shalom [a friendly word] to him…”[12]

The Torah teaches us that the first children of Adam couldn’t go one generation without a murderer and the Children of Israel did not go one generation without a civil war.  The Torah tells us what led to this breach – the “us versus them” tribalist mentality, favoritism, derogatory speech, an unspoken grudge that grew into hatred and a plan to spill blood, and ultimately led to a lengthy and painful exile.

The events briefly described in these verses mirror a curious juxtaposition of mitzvot in Vayikra:

“Do not perpetrate a miscarriage of justice – do not favor the poor or honor the great; judge your fellow righteously. Do not go about a (rakhil) talebearer among your people, do not stand [idly] by the blood of your fellow, I am the Eternal. Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart, you should admonish your fellow, but do not incur upon them guilt. Do not take revenge and do not hold a grudge against your people, you shall love another as yourself, I am the Eternal.”[13]

The conversation between these mitzvot and the story of Yosef and his brothers is continued in the rabbinic discourse surrounding this section.


The verses begin with a prohibition – not to show favoritism in judgment, and a commandment – to judge righteously. Halakhic sources explain that this positive mitzvah to judge all fairly means we must treat everyone as equal in the eyes of the law, give everyone time to state their case, and carefully weigh all accounts. We may not favor one over another, speak kindly to some people and harshly to others; rather we are obligated to judge others favorably and interpret their actions in the best possible light.[14]

What would have happened to Yaakov’s sons if their relationships weren’t colored by favoritism? If they had judged each other favorably and treated each other how they wished to be treated? How would the story of the Jewish people change “in those days and at this time” if we didn’t dismiss others based on our preconceived notions, if we endeavored to put aside our differences to hear each other out and find some merit in each person?

Speech, bloodshed, and hatred

The Torah commands us not to go about as a rakhil – an unusual word that is interpreted as both a talebearer and a merchant. This is interpreted as prohibitions against motzi shem ra – defamation of character or spreading stories like a peddler bringing things from one house to another.[15] Rambam rules that this includes true stories and states such negative speech “destroys the world.”

Why is this followed by the prohibition “do not stand [idly] by the blood of your fellow?”

The gemara in Bava Metzia connects the beginning and end of the verse and teaches that when someone speaks badly about another in public and embarrasses them – “makes their face pale” – it’s as if they shed their blood.[16] The gemara in Sanhedrin seems to divorce this verse from its context and learns we may not stand idly by “if you see your fellow drowning in the river or a wild animal dragging them off, or bandits coming upon them you’re obligated to save them.”[17] Rambam adds dangerous speech to the list – someone who hears a group complaining about another or plotting against them is obligated to try and assuage their hatred or warn the intended victim.[18]

Massekhet Derekh Eretz Rabba connects “do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” with the following mitzvah, “do not hate your kin in your heart,” noting its similarity to the verse “If a man hates another and lies in wait for him and strikes him dead…”[19] Hatred can lead to bloodshed – hate gives motive, all that’s missing is opportunity.[20] This danger is also apparent in the story of Yaakov’s sons who almost seize such an opportunity.

Perhaps we can offer our own midrash connecting all three interpretations of the prohibition against standing idly by as another’s blood is shed. Defamatory speech can lead to bloodshed, but so too can our inaction. Silence is often interpreted as acceptance; we are obligated to admonish and speak out against the vitriol. The power of hate speech is evident all around us – within Israel and around the world, among Jews and Gentiles – stories of the other’s evil fester into hatred and violence.

In the age of social media these problems are magnified, but our eternal Torah was aware of the dangers long before. As humans we tend to favor certain people, be they – relatives, the rich, the oppressed… The Torah tells us to be aware of our prejudices and try to overcome them to properly weigh the validity of every argument. We must not blindly accept one person’s claims because we agree with them in other matters, and we must not dismiss valid points another raises because we disagree with their interpretations or conclusions. We are commanded to judge others favorably, at least when those others are our brothers and sisters.[21] We should not make the same mistake Yosef did and assume that people who behave differently than we do are automatically wrong.

Think before you speak

As we saw above, in certain circumstances we are permitted to speak badly about another. For example, Chafetz Chaim allows warning others away from a person we believe will harm them, but only if five conditions are met.[22]

One may tell others about another’s wrongdoing if they have carefully analyzed the situation and concluded it is definitely bad, they do not embellish on the facts or speak hyperbolically, their only intention is to benefit the one they’re warning and they are not motivated by hatred, there is no other way to prevent this damage, and the defamatory speech will only benefit the one being warned and will not bring about actual harm to the subject. He adds that one must also believe that the person being warned will change their mind.

There are many complicated laws that govern what kind of speech is permitted and what is prohibited. But there are certain things that are never allowed, whose dangers we see all around us: words motivated by hate, speech that will not change anyone’s mind or actions, prejudicial embellishments, adding our judgments and opinions to the facts…

Words to build bridges, not bombshells

Even when such speech is permitted it is limited – there’s no reason to speak badly of someone if there’s no clear benefit, no reason to preach to the powerless, shout into an echo chamber, or scream at someone who’s unwilling to listen. Such words have use, they only spread hatred and destruction.

The first exile of the Children of Israel was the result of favoritism, infighting, defamatory speech, and hatred. Though it’s hard to say for certain, it often seems that the greatest tragedies of our people are preceded by similar divisive behaviors. In contrast our celebrations of redemption – Pesach, Purim, Chanukah, Yom Ha’Atzmaut – begin with a gathering of Jewish people who overlook their differences to work together for a common goal.

May we learn from our predecessors to stand together against true evil despite our differences, to bring about Divine salvation in our time as in those days. B’Yachad ni’natzea’ch! Together we will prevail.

[1] Bereishit 37:2

[2] Rashi based on Bereishit Rabba 84:7

[3] Bereishit Rabba 84:7 and Rashi Bereishit 37:2. The midrash states that Yosef suffered midda k’neged midda (measure for measure) for all of these – they killed a goat and ate it while he was suffering, he was sold into slavery, and Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him to commit adultery. It’s possible that the midrash deduced what the accusations were from Yosef’s suffering, as midrash often tries to show a direct relation between acts and consequences.

We could add that the accusation of “eiver min ha-chai” is treating a live animal as if it is already dead, eating while it is suffering. This is how Yosef’s brothers treated him – they threw him in a pit, as if he was already dead, and then sat down to eat. They then used its blood – a part of it – to make Yaakov think Yosef was dead when he was still alive.

[4] Also, when people do good they look for reward and when people sin they look for punishment.

[5] Hosea; Yishayahu 55:8-9.

One need only look to the end of Bereishit to see how even those granted greater understanding in some areas may not see God’s plan clearly. In one of the Torah’s great ironies, years after his enslavement Yosef tells the brothers he has found meaning in his suffering: “You had evil in mind for me, but God had in mind good.” (Bereishit 50:19) Yosef thought the famine was inevitable and his sale was a way to save his family; he didn’t realize that both were part of a much bigger Divine plan – to bring about the exile and enslavement.

We can learn from Yosef that there is value to people finding meaning in their own suffering; we also learn it’s foolish to conclusively determine we know God’s intentions. God’s plan is far beyond our comprehension.

[6] Devarim 29:28.

[7] Kohelet 3:16. See the latter part of Vayikra Rabba 4:1. Ramban states this principle in his commentary on Bereishit 12:10-11

[8] Rema Choshen Mishpat 28:1

[9] Mishneh Torah Hilkhot De’ot 6:10; Chafetz Chayim Hilkhot Lashon HaRa, Be’er Mayim Chayim 8:25 and Chafetz Chaim Hilkhot Rekhilut Klal 9.

[10] Mizrahi and Gur Aryeh verse 2. They slaughtered an animal and ate from it while it was still spasming, which is permitted. They didn’t call their brothers slaves, they said their mothers used to be slaves. And they would have business dealings with Canaanite women, but didn’t do anything untoward.

[11] See Rashi 37:1.

[12] Bereishit 37:1-4

[13] Vayikra 19:15-18

[14] TB Shavuot 30b; Sefer HaMitzvot Mitzvot Aseh 177, 275; Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Sanhedrin 20:4; 21:1; Shulkhan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 17.

[15] TB Ketubot 46a; TY Pe’ah 1:1

[16] TB Bava Metzia 58:2

[17] TB Sanhedrin 73a

[18] Hilkhot Rotzeach 1:14

[19] Devraim 19:11

[20] 11:12

[21] Halakhically, we are only commanded to judge our “fellows in Torah and mitzvot” favorably, and not as “resha’im.” As we’ve discussed elsewhere, a “rasha” is not necessarily someone who isn’t mitzvah observant, it is much more nuanced and would not apply to many Jews today who don’t observe halakha.

[22] Chafetz Chaim Part 2, Hilkhot Issurei Rechilut, 9:1-2

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.