Joseph’s “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”

Misconception: As in the title of the famous Broadway musical, Yaakov Avinu gave Yosef an “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Fact: That is one possible interpretation of what Yaakov gave Yosef, but there are other, equally likely, possibilities.

Background: Following his twenty-year exile in the home of his uncle/father-in-law Lavan, Yaakov moved back to the Land of Israel with his twelve sons: “And Israel [Yaakov] loved Yosef more than his other sons because he was the child of his old age1 and he made for him a ketonet passim” (Bereishit 37:3).

Yaakov gave his favorite son a special garment that is described by the Torah as a ketonet passim. The translation of passim is shrouded in mystery, and even the word ketonet has various interpretations. It was obviously a distinctive garment. After selling Yosef, his brothers dipped the garment in goat’s blood and then sent it to their father. Upon seeing it, Yaakov immediately declared that it was Yosef’s and that Yosef had been torn apart by an evil beast (Bereishit 37:31-33). This seems to run counter to the halachah that one cannot be declared dead based on clothing, because the item may have been borrowed (Mishnah, Yevamot 16:3; Yevamot 120a-b; Shulchan AruchEH 17:24), lost, or sold (Chelkak Mechokek 17:42). The Be’er Heitev (EH 17:71) quotes the sixteenth-century Shu”t Ra’anach (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Chaim, the Chacham Bashi) that if an individual is the only one in the region who wears that garment, then it can serve as an identifying sign. The Be’er Heitev (EH 17:71) also quotes the view that tzitzit or other articles of clothing that are not usually loaned are exceptions to the rule and can serve as valid pieces of evidence. Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Teitelbaum of Sighet (d. 1926; Shu”t Atzei ChaimEH 11) uses the latter exception to explain why Yaakov relied on the ketonet passimto declare Yosef dead. Similarly, Shu”t Chemdat Shlomo (EH 31:14) says that the coat still belonged to Yaakov, so Yosef was not permitted to loan it. But either exception to the Mishnaic rule points to the ketonet passim as being unique.

ketonet passim is mentioned in one other place in Tanach: II Shmuel 13:18-19, where it is worn by Tamar, the daughter of King David. It is described as a garment worn by a king’s daughters2 who are betulot. Thus, this special clothing symbolized royalty. Chazal also saw it as signifying the status of a Kohen, whose role prior to the giving of the Torah was filled by the firstborn. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 97:6) states that Yaakov told Yosef (Bereishit 48:22) that he assigned him as the firstborn and gave him the special garments that God made for Adam, which had been passed to Nimrod, Avraham, Yitzchak, Eisav and Yaakov. Ramban (Shemot 28:2) understood that a ketonet passim is a priestly garment and the Kli Yakar (Bereishit 37:3) viewed the giving of this garment as a way of designating Yosef as the firstborn.3

None of this explains what the ketonet passim was made of or looked like, about which there is much discussion. A speaker of Modern Hebrew who reads “ketonet passim” would translate ketonet as a type of robe or gown and passimas “striped.” In Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, the singular “pas” certainly meant a stripe, bar or line, but its meaning in Biblical Hebrew is ambiguous.

Rashi understands “passim” as referring to the material from which the coat was made, describing the fabric as “kli milat”; based on other statements of Rashi (Shabbat 54a, s.v. l’milat; Yechezkel 27:18, s.v. v’tzemer tzachar; and Chullin50b, s.v. makom she’ein), “milat” is understood as clean, white wool (Maharsha, Megillah 16b, s.v. milat; Rashash, Bava Metzia 78b, s.v. batlei). Others translate pas or passim as a silk garment (Rav Saadia Gaon; Ibn Ezra to Esther 1:6 in conjunction with Megillah 12a; Rabbi Yosef Chaim miBaghdad [the Ben Ish Chai], Od Yosef Chai, 25a). Thus, one possibility is that the ketonet passim was special because of its fibers, either fine wool or silk. Such material might have been reserved for clothing worn by upper-class citizens on special occasions.

Another possibility is that the adjective “passim” is describing the garment’s particular style. The singular “pas” appears in Aramaic in Daniel 5:5 (pas y’da) describing the hand King Belshazzar saw writing on the wall. In that context, pas is understood to mean the palm of the hand. Based on this, some interpret ketonet passim as a long-sleeved garment (i.e., reaching the palm) or one reaching to the ankle4 (Bereishit Rabbah 84:8;Da’at Zekeinim miBa’alei HaTosafot). Following this, the Koren Tanakh (Jerusalem, 1986) translates ketonet passim as a “coat with long sleeves.”6 Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann favored this translation of “reaching the palms” or “reaching the ankles.” He notes that in the Mishnah (Challah 1:8) “pisat hayad” means the palm and “pisat haregel” means the bottom of the foot, so ketonet passim refers to a garment that reached the pas hayad and the pas haregel. This has support in the use of “pisat” in Tehillim 72:16 to mean “a measure.” Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (vol. II, 2:1) and the Book of Jubilees (chap. 34) omitted mention of this special paternal gift to Yosef, but when describing the garment worn by Tamar, Josephus says (Antiquities of the Jews vol. VII, 8:1): “for the virgins of old time wore such loose coats tied at the hands, and let down to the ankles.”

Long sleeves and long tunics were a sign of one who did not have to work, while laborers wore shorter garments (Eshed Hanechalim to Bereishit Rabbah). A person of high status or royalty demonstrated his position by wearing longer tunics and long sleeves. The implications of Yaakov’s gifting such a garment to Yosef would not be lost on the other brothers.

A third possibility is that “passim” means a unique pattern. Ibn Ezra (Bereishit 37:3), Ramban (Shemot 28:2), and Metzudat Tzion (II Shmuel 13:18) understand that the garment was “m’rukemet”—embroidered with designs, checkered or plaid. Targum Neofiti and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan say the garment had designs or pictures on it.

Professor Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai (1886-1973), first president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, had a different take on the meaning of “passim.7 He did not believe that it was the plural of “pas” but rather that it was derived from “pasam,” an Assyrian word for wrapping, and in particular wrapping around the head. Hence he believes the ketonetpassim was a garment with a hood.

The earliest mention of the ketonet passim being a variegated garment dates back to the third-century bce Greek Septuagint, which translates it as χιτῶνα ποικίλον (poikilos)—a cloak of various colors. (In II Samuel it translates the same word differently: karpótos.) Following the Septuagint, the fourth-century Latin Vulgate translates ketonet passim as “tunicam polymitam”—a tunic woven with many threads, usually taken to mean different colored threads. The early seventeenth-century English King James Bible calls it a “coat of many colours.” Possibly based on this, the once standard Jewish English translation, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Tanakh, calls it “a coat of many colors.” Some traditional commentaries adopted this interpretation. The influential eleventh-century Hebrew grammarian Jonah ibn Janach (Sefer HaShorashim, entry “pas” [p. 405]) assumes “passim” is the plural of “pas,” and based on Daniel and the Targum to Kings, “pas” is a handbreadth; thus, the ketonet passim was a silk garment in which each handspan was a different color. Radak (1160-1235; Provence), based on Daniel, derives that the garment was made of stripes of various colors. Ralbag (II Samuel 13:18) says that each handspan of the garment was a different color, and it included many colors.

Parallels from other cultures may shed light on the topic. Speiser (Anchor Bible, Genesis, p. 289-290) notes that in Cuneiform inventories there is a garment known as kitu (or kutinnupisannu, a ceremonial robe that was draped about statues of goddesses and had various gold ornaments sewn onto it. Pisannu is an Akkadian word denoting applique ornaments on costly vests and bodices. Olam HaTanach ([1993] p. 208) notes that the word “ketonet” appears many times in Tanach and is a word with many parallels in other languages, such as the Akkadian words kitu (linen), kitinnu(fabric, cloth) and katanu (clothing from linen or wool). In explaining the ketonet worn by the Kohanim, Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews vol. III, 7:2) writes, “it is called chethone, and denotes linen, for we call linen by the name of chethone.” He may be describing the sleeveless ancient Greek garment known as a chiton, which was worn by men and women (a sleeved version was worn by priests).

The gift from Yaakov to Yosef clearly demonstrated favoritism and Chazal (Bereishit Rabbah 84:8; Shabbat 10b) were critical of Yaakov for that. They said that one should not favor one child over another, for it was because of the coat Yaakov gave Yosef that the Israelites ended up enslaved in Egypt.8 Rambam (Hilchot Nachalot 6:13) codifies that parents are not to show favoritism and cites the Yosef story. The Gemara (Megillah 16a-b) questions how Yosef later showed favoritism to Binyamin by giving each brother one change of clothing while giving Binyamin five changes of clothing (Bereishit 45:22). The Gra (cited in Torah Temimah, Bereishit 45:7) explains the Gemara’s answer as meaning that Binyamin’s five were equal in value to the single garment that each of the other brothers received. (The Torah Temimah also cleverly explains why Yosef’s giving Binyamin 300 coins was not an example of favoritism.)

As this special tunic seems to be responsible for setting the exile in motion, it is appropriate that it should appear at the Pesach Seder.9 At the very beginning of the Seder, a vegetable, post-Talmudically called “karpas,” is taken and dipped in salt water or charoset. While on a simple level karpas is an appetizer (Pesachim 107b, Shabbat 140b), others see a deeper significance to it. Rabbeinu Manoach (thirteenth-fourteenth century, Provence; commentary to Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 8:2) is the first to make the link, and states that the karpas is reminiscent of the ketonet passim that Yaakov gave Yosef that spurred the chain of events leading to the Egyptian exile. In Esther 1:6, cited by Rashi to Bereishit 37:3, karpas is used as a word for a garment, meaning “white linen cloth.”10 The Orchot Chaim (Provence, fourteenth century; part 1: seder leil Pesach: 25) cites an opinion that karpas is short for ketonet passim, the proximal cause of our ancestors’ descent to Egypt. Pe’er Aharon (cited in HaSeder Ha’aruch 2, 121:3) says that “kar” is from the word for “sale” (Chaf-Resh as a part of Mem-Chaf-Resh in “mecher—a sale”) and “pas” alludes to the ketonet passim, reminding us of the sale of Yosef. The Ben Ish Chai (year 1: Tzav: 32) notes that the dipping of the karpas is reminiscent of dipping the ketonet passim in blood, and he also makes the linguistic association of kar and pas as above.

A Yehi Ratzon prayer printed after Birkat Kohanim (The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (1986), p. 698-9)11 includes a request that God grant us love, favor, kindness and mercy, just as He granted Yosef at the time that Yaakov dressed him in the ketonet passim. This request is strange in light of the fact that the ketonet passim brought hatred and jealousy, not love and kindness. Several recent attempts have been made at explaining the prayer (e.g., Rabbi Chaim Alter Paneth [1913-1984] in Tapuchei Chaim [1990], p. 53; and Rabbi Dovid Kviat [1920-2009] in Sukkat David [1989], p. 143-4).

Was the ketonet passim an “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?” There are traditional interpretations that describe it as multi-colored, although that is not the prevalent opinion. But it was certainly not a “dreamcoat.” In both Biblical stories in which a ketonet passim appears, there is a violent sibling interaction that results in the special garment—and the sibling relationship—being torn apart.

piyut found in the Cairo Genizah dated to the sixth century was recited during Neilah on Yom Kippur, probably at the gates of the Temple Mount.12 In it, the Kohanim are described as “lovshei passim—wearers of passim.”13 May those garments of passim and their wearers be returned speedily to their rightful place.

1. There are various interpretations of the phrase “ben zekunim.” Onkelos and Radak say it is a wise son. Rav Saadia Gaon, Rashi and Ibn Ezra say Yosef was born when Yaakov was old. Rashi, quoting Bereishit Rabbah (84:8), elaborates on Onkelos by saying that Yaakov taught Yosef all that he learned from Shem. This same midrash cites another opinion, found in Rashi and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, that Yosef’s facial features resembled Yaakov’s. Ramban says that older people take one of their sons to assist them and refer to them as the “son of their old age,” and Yosef served that function for Yaakov. The Netziv adopts that understanding and explains that usually the elderly person selects someone with qualities similar to his own and that is why Yaakov chose Yosef.
2. Apparently it was a unisex garment.
3. Note the subtle irony in the verse saying that Yaakov loved Yosef because he was the youngest son, and then designating Yosef the spiritual firstborn. The Midrash Rabbah [Parashat Tzav] 10:6 and Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4 link the ketonet of Yosef to the ketonet of the Kohen, whose role was originally intended for the firstborn.
4. See “mei afsayim” in Yechezkel 47:3 describing floodwaters reaching the ankles.
5. This midrash offers five interpretations of “passim,” but only the first two relate to how it looked. The others are allegorical.
6. Rashi did not fully reject this interpretation. He suggests (Shabbat 10b, s.v. mishkal) that the special fibers were used not in the entire cloak, but specifically around the palms (wrists?). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch arrived at a similar conclusion from a different direction. He says that passim is not the plural of “pas,” but derived from “pasas” meaning “to end,” referring to specially embroidered trimmings on the edge of a garment, signifying the wearer’s status.
7. See Ben-Yehuda Dictionary, p. 5011.
8. The Chatam Sofer (commentary to Shabbat 10b) justifies Yaakov’s action by saying that Chazal’s warning only applies if the sons are equal, but if one is a greater talmid chacham, the father can certainly favor him. Alternatively, the Chatam Sofer (quoted in Iturei Torah, Bereishit 37:3) defends Yaakov based on the gemara in Shabbat 145b, which explains that the scholars in Babylonia dressed grandly, specifically because they were not bnei Torah. They relied on ostentation and style to compensate for their lack of Torah knowledge. Similarly, Yaakov gave Yosef a fancy coat so that the other brothers would interpret Yaakov’s pampering as a sign of Yosef’s inferiority and not be jealous. (If that was the plan, it backfired.)
9. See Gilad J. Gevaryahu and Michael Wise, “Why Does the Seder Begin with Karpas?,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 27:2 (1999): 104-110. The article cites a custom of dipping karpas in a red liquid in commemoration of the blood that Yosef’s tunic was dipped into.
10. See Heinrich W. Guggenheimer, The Scholar’s Haggadah, p. 228, that karpas in classical Persian is white linen cloth and in modern Farsi “karbas” means canvas.
11. This prayer is found in the Kitvei HaArizal. Nesi’at Kapa’im Kehilchata ([5763], p. 204) notes that it is not mentioned by the posekim. The Mishnah Berurah (130:5) does not mention the recitation of this prayer after Birkat Kohanim, and notes that the Gra did not say it.
12. See Menachem Zulai, Eretz Yisrael u’Piyuteha (5756), p. 564-567.
13. The ketonet of the ordinary Kohen was not multi-colored. It was a white, linen garment that did have sleeves, and the hem reached the ground.