Talmudic pages

Sotah 36

The seventy languages of the world.

The rabbis use the number 70 to express totality, for example:

There are 70 nations in the world. (Genesis 11 and Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 28:1)

There are 70 faces of Torah. (Numbers Rabbah 13:16)

We also know that the rabbinic high court, the Sanhedrin, had 70 members. And, on today’s daf, we learn that, according to the rabbis, there are 70 languages in the world. 

The Gemara has been exploring the Israelites’ miraculous experiences and their many activities on the day that they crossed the Jordan River and entered Canaan, after which they erected a monument designed to make the entire Torah publicly available to all:

They brought the stones and built the altar on Mount Ebal, and plastered it over with plaster, and wrote on the stones all of the words of the Torah in 70 languages, as it is stated: “And you shall write on the stones all of the words of this law clearly elucidated (i.e., for all humanity) …” (Deuteronomy 27:8)

Now the daf continues through its exposition of what happened after the Israelites entered the promised land, including the land apportionments and honors assigned to each tribe, especially the tribe of Joseph.

Recall that Joseph was the eldest son of the patriarch Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel and therefore Jacob’s favorite child. His brothers, intensely jealous of his special status, sold him into slavery in Egypt. Initially, his situation in Egypt went from bad to worse when he was sexually accosted by his master Potiphar’s wife. When he refused her advances, she retaliated by accusing him of assault and he was thrown in jail. Ultimately, though, Joseph leveraged his talent for dream interpretation to secure a position as Pharaoh’s advisor. From that post, he was able to orchestrate a national grain rationing program that ultimately saved Egypt and even his own brothers in the land of Israel from a devastating famine. 

Though Judah ultimately became the ascendant tribe, the Josephites are famous in rabbinic literature for imperviousness to the deleterious effects of the evil eye. Today’s daf gives several explanations for their special immunity, including Joseph’s sexual propriety.

“And it came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work” (Genesis 39:11). Rabbi Yohanan says: This teaches that both (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife) intended to sin. “When he went into the house to do his work,” — Rav and Shmuel disagree. One says: To do his work, literally. And one says: He entered in order to fulfill his (sexual) needs.

The debate among the rabbis as to whether Joseph initially intended to engage in sex with his master’s wife turns on how much innuendo one reads into the biblical verse “went into the house to do his work.” But whatever his initial intentions, we know Joseph didn’t consummate the relationship:

“And she caught him by his garment, saying: Lie with me” (Genesis 39:12). At that moment his father’s image came and appeared to him in the window, saying to him: Joseph, the names of your brothers are destined to be written on the stones of the ephod (special garment worn by the high priest), and you are among them.

Do you desire your name to be erased from among them, and to be called an associate of promiscuous women? As it is written: “But he who keeps company with harlots wastes his riches.” (Proverbs 29:3)

Joseph’s near consummation of an adulterous relationship is thwarted by the psychologically intriguing appearance of his father, Jacob. Daddy’s apparition in the liaison bed “kills” Joseph’s mood, and he remains chaste, though clearly this was difficult for him.

The Gemara, which has at this point wound through this and many other interesting teachings (for example, about hornets accompanying the Israelites into the promised land), returns to the theme of 70 languages. The rabbis explain that once Pharaoh elevated Joseph, some of the other royal advisors got jealous of the upstart and questioned Joseph’s qualifications. And so:

The angel Gabriel then came and taught Joseph the 70 languages, but he could not learn all of them. Gabriel then added one letter (heh) to Joseph’s name from the name of the Holy One, Blessed be God, and then he was able to learn the languages, as it is stated: “He appointed it in Joseph (YeHosef, rather than Yosef) for a testimony; when he went forth against the land of Egypt, the speech of one that I did not know I heard” (Psalms 81:6). And the next day, when Joseph appeared before Pharaoh, in every language that Pharaoh spoke with him, he answered him.

We first encountered Joseph as a classic role model of pious sexual continence. In this last passage on our daf, he is presented as a role model of worldliness and global engagement.  We might even think of him as a foundational model for the ideal of the Israelites’ worldliness and global engagement which are symbolized by their translation of the Torah into the world’s seventy languages. 

The sages weren’t always sanguine about dealing with the non-Jewish world, particularly the Roman and Persian-Sassanian empires under which the Jews often suffered terribly. Nonetheless, here they present us with a refreshing image of Joseph — their model of stubborn Jewish piety among the non-Jews — as our contemporary model of positive Jewish engagement with the languages and the peoples of the planet. Joseph is secure enough with being Jewish that he can comfortably embrace the world at large. This embrace is not a mere practicality of his statecraft, but a desideratum made possible by God’s own name. At its best, this is the ideal towards which all of us are asked to strive.

Read all of Sotah 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 4, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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