Yehuda's Oration

Exegetical Approaches

Appeal for Mercy

Yehuda sees little choice other than to beg Yosef to take pity on Yaakov.

Did Yehuda think Binyamin was guilty? Ralbag and Shadal assert that even though Yehuda knew full well that Yosef had framed Binyamin, for tactical reasons he chose not to deny the guilt, but rather to appeal to Yosef's mercy.1 However, Shadal also cites Rosenmueller's alternative that Yehuda believed that Binyamin had stolen the goblet.
"וַיִּגַּשׁ... יְדַבֶּר נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי" – Abarbanel suggests that Yehuda wanted to privately offer his deal to replace Binyamin, as it would not be adhering to the letter of the law.2
"וְאַל יִחַר אַפְּךָ" – R. Avraham b. HaRambam explains that even though Yehuda was only offering words of supplication, he was still concerned that these would arouse the ire of a capricious ruler.
Extraneous details – Both Ramban and Abarbanel question Yehuda's lengthy reiteration of previous events and conclude that Yehuda did so to appeal to Yosef's mercy.
  • Ramban asserts that Yehuda needed to begin with Yosef's questioning about their family3 to show Yosef that they had been forced to admit the existence of their brother. Had they been quiet, none of the present troubles would have happened.
  • Abarbanel, in contrast, suggests that the brothers begin by rhetorically questioning, "Did you ask us if we had a brother or father?" to show how they, on their own, offered this information and, from the very beginning, pointed out their father's unwillingness to part with Binyamin. Yosef, should thus understand that this is not a new ruse created to save Binyamin, but the truth.
"וְאָשִׂימָה עֵינִי עָלָיו"
  • Most of these commentators understand the phrase to refer to Yosef's promise to watch over Binyamin and care for him.4 Even though the text does not put these words in Yosef's mouth, he had actually said them. R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon points out that it would be foolhardy for the brothers to lie to Yosef's face about such a thing.
  • Shadal, in contrast, asserts that the phrase simply means that Yosef said that he wanted to see Binyamin. The advantage of this approach is that the text does have Yosef requesting to see Binyamin while it never mentions Yosef saying he will protect him.
Subtle differences – Ralbag asserts that many of the differences stem from Yehuda's desire to speak to Yosef with respect. Ramban, Abarbanel, and Shadal add that Yehuda did not want to remind Yosef of the accusation of spying or the imprisonment of Shimon and thus omitted details or recast certain statements so as to avoid this. Ramban also explains some of the seeming additions of Yehuda as the way of the text to be more concise in one place and lengthier in another.5
Yehuda's character – According to this approach, Yehuda truly wants to prevent causing further pain to his father and is willing to sacrifice himself so that his father can unite with his favored son, Binyamin. In these actions Yehuda portrays how much he has changed from the day he sold Yosef.
Why did Yosef reveal himself? According to Abarbanel, Yehuda's words proved that he had both repented and been properly punished for his deeds, making reconciliation possible.6 According to Shadal, though, the speech spoke to Yosef's heart. He was moved to reveal himself either by a desire to see his ailing father, or due to the change in Yehuda.
"הוֹצִיאוּ כָל אִישׁ מֵעָלָי" – According to Ramban and Shadal, Yosef did not want to publicly reveal himself so as not to denigrate and embarrass the brothers when he mentioned the sale. In contrast, Ralbag asserts that it is not proper for a ruler to show emotions and cry in front of his people as that will lessen his authority in their eyes.
Lead words "עַבְדְּךָ" and "אֲדֹנִי" – Yehuda's repeated use of "עַבְדְּךָ" (your servant) to refer to himself, his father, and his brothers,7 and "אֲדֹנִי" to refer to Yosef,8 highlight that he is begging Yosef for mercy.
Crux of the position – Yehuda has only a single objective which is to get Yosef to take pity on Yaakov and therefore accept Yehuda's offer to become his servant in place of Binyamin.

Tacit Reproach

Yehuda subtly hints that Yosef framed them, while outwardly maintaining respect for the person who holds their lives in the balance.

Did Yehuda think Binyamin was guilty? This approach revolves around the assumption that Yehuda knew that Yosef had set up the entire theft to frame Binyamin.
"וַיִּגַּשׁ... יְדַבֶּר נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי" – The Ma'asei Hashem asserts that Yehuda wanted to speak privately to Yosef (lit. into his ear), as he was about to chastise him. Yehuda feared to reproach Yosef in public, lest Yosef react in anger when others learned of his deceit.9
"וְאַל יִחַר אַפְּךָ" – Yehuda opens with these words since he knows his rebuke will likely raise Yosef's ire.
Extraneous details – R"Y Bekhor Shor maintains that Yehuda carefully crafted his words to let Yosef know that he was aware that Yosef was framing them without ever explicitly accusing him. Thus, Yehuda points out that Yosef asked about their family10 to hint to Yosef that this was an unusual question which was not asked of everyone, but rather part of Yosef's plan to lure Binyamin to Egypt.11 Other comments were aimed at making Yosef feel guilty for contributing to a potentially early demise of his father.12
"וְאָשִׂימָה עֵינִי עָלָיו" – R"Y Bekhor Shor13 understands this to refer to Yosef's assurance that he would protect Binyamin when he came to Egypt.14 Yehuda reminds Yosef of this fact to reproach him for going back on his promise.
Subtle differences – As above, these differences might be explained by Yehuda's desire to maximize Yosef's guilty conscience without outright blaming him for his actions.
Yehuda's character – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Yehuda is motivated not by love for his brother or father but because he felt he had no other choice once he had promised to be Binyamin's guarantor.15
Why did Yosef reveal himself? R"Y Bekhor Shor asserts that Yosef felt he had no alternative, since he had no reply to Yehuda's charges and because he realized that he was guilty of causing his father undue suffering.
"הוֹצִיאוּ כָל אִישׁ מֵעָלָי" – R"Y Bekhor Shor posits that Yosef revealed himself in private to ensure that no one would hear of the sale, both not to humiliate the brothers16 and because he had been sworn to secrecy.
Lead words "עַבְדְּךָ" and "אֲדֹנִי" – According to this approach, Yehuda maintains a facade of politeness despite his underlying protest of Yosef's conduct.
Crux of the position – Yehuda's goal is to rebuke Yosef in such a way that he will feel guilty for framing Binyamin. This, he believes, is his only hope for getting Binyamin freed.

Threatening Posture

Yehuda and his brothers take an aggressive stance and threaten Yosef with punishment at the hands of God and man.

Did Yehuda think Binyamin was guilty? According to most of these sources,17 Yehuda believed in Binyamin's innocence and was aware of Yosef's role in planting the cup. This, in part, is what provokes Yehuda to threaten Yosef. In the Tanchuma, Yehuda goes so far as to tell Yosef to his face "דין שקר אתה דן אותנו".
"וַיִּגַּשׁ... יְדַבֶּר נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי" – This position maintains that the word "וַיִּגַּשׁ" connotes an aggressive approach.18 Yehuda does not come to meekly plea on behalf of Binyamin but to actively attack Yosef.
"וְאַל יִחַר אַפְּךָ" – Rashi maintains that these words prove that Yehuda spoke harshly to Yosef. Yehuda prefaces his speech with this comment because there will be ample reason for Yosef to be angry.19
"כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה" – This approach understands these words as a threat rather than an ingratiating of Yosef. Yehuda is telling Yosef that his fate will be similar to that of Paroh, as they are prepared to fight both.20 Rashi adds that Hashem will punish Yosef for the wrongful taking of Binyamin, just as He punished Paroh for taking Sarai.21
Extraneous details – This approach reads into the seemingly unnecessary details both implied and explicit blame of Yosef for having orchestrated the framing.
"וְאָשִׂימָה עֵינִי עָלָיו" – According to this approach, Yosef had said he would watch over Binyamin upon arrival. Yehuda now attacks him for going back on his word: "זו היא השמת עין נהפך הדבר שאמרת לסמיות עינים".‎22
The brothers' role – The text presents Yehuda as alone speaking to Yosef,23 but Bereshit Rabbah and Tanchuma have them play a much more active role; their swords are as ready as Yehuda's to attack. In fact, an allusion to Shimon and Levi's actions in Shekhem as youth, serves as a warning for what the brothers are capable of now as adults.24
A monologue? Although the Torah presents Yehuda's speech as a monologue, Bereshit Rabbah and Tanchuma portray it as a dialogue in which Yehuda and Yosef alternately accuse and threaten each other.
Motivation of the Midrash – As the Biblical text makes no mention of overt hostility or antagonistic verbal accusations, one wonders what is the origin of the Midrashic portrayal.
  • Ramban suggests that this Midrash does not mean that Yehuda literally spoke in this fashion,25 but rather that Yehuda only hinted at Yosef's involvement in framing the brothers.26
  • Nechama Leibowitz suggests that the Midrash is not really suggesting that Yehuda and Yosef argued back and forth,27 but is instead depicting an internal dialogue taking place in Yehuda's mind. Yehuda wants to accuse Yosef of deceit, but his conscience tells him that he is equally guilty.28 According to this reading, this internal "dialogue" is part of Yehuda's process of repentance.29
  • Alternatively, one might suggest that the Midrash views this encounter between Yehuda and Yosef as a foreshadowing (in the manner of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים) of the future interactions between their two tribes. Later in history, these two tribes will vie for kingship and leadership, and thus, here too, the Midrash has them competing.
Yehuda's character – Yehuda emerges as a strong and courageous leader, which matches the portrait of his tribe in the rest of Tanakh. There is much less emphasis on any process of repentance.
Why did Yosef reveal himself? According to Bereshit Rabbah 93:8, Yosef is worried that the brothers might in fact destroy Egypt, and thus reveals himself to prevent this from happening.30
Lead words "עַבְדְּךָ" and "אֲדֹנִי" – The proliferation of these words throughout Yehuda's speech lend it a tone of submissiveness and respect. This does not fit with the picture of Yehuda's aggressive character presented by this approach.31