Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Translations and commentaries have difficulty explaining exactly what Pharaoh did when he raised Yosef from imprisonment to prominence (Gen. 41:43):

He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, "Avrekh!" (NJPS)
What is this "avrekh" that they called before him? Or does it not even mean the term they used but rather something else? There are three general ways to render this phrase:

I. Great One

Onkelos splits the word in two, av meaning father and rakh meaning king. They therefore called Yosef a father or mentor to the king. This is also the interpretation given in Bava Basra (4a). Does rakh mean king? Rashi says that it does in Roman (presumably Latin), although some versions have it as Aramaic. Jastrow, in his Aramaic-English dictionary, translates reikha as nobleman and, among other sources, refers to Onkelos on this verse. Rashi (Shabbos 53a) also understand it this way.

Similarly, the ancient book of Jubilees (40:7) interprets avrekh as meaning "great one," although it seems to be based on the first three letters of the word (abir). One scholar connects it to an Eblaite word meaning superintendent and another connects it to an Akkadian word meaning steward (quoted in Victor Hamilton, International Commentary on the Old Testament, Genesis pp. 506-507). Rather than meaning the person in control, they interpret it as meaning the king's servant.

II. Bow Down

Aquilas and Jerome (quoted by Victor Hamilton) translate avrekh as meaning to bow, the herald was proclaiming that everyone should bow to Yosef. This presumably is basing the word on the root b-r-kh, meaning knee -- the herald was telling people to bow on their knees. This same interpretation can be found in a fascinating midrash (Sifrei, end of ch. 1, quoted in Rashi on this verse):
R. Yehuda expounded: Avrekh is Yosef who was old (av=father) in wisdom but young (rakh) in years. R. Yossi of Damascus said to him: Until when will you distort the Bible? Avrekh is from the language of birkayim (knees), that everyone came and went under his control.
R. Yossi, too, connects avrekh to knees. R. Menachem Ibn Saruk (Machberes Menachem sv. avrekh - link - PDF) also translates avrekh as meaning to bow, as do other grammarians such as R. Yonah Ibn Janach (Sefer Ha-Shorashim sv. b-r-kh), Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) and Radak (ad loc.). The King James Version translates the passagee as "And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee."

One scholar (quoted by Hamilton) believes that avrekh is an Egyptian word that means to bow. Shadal (ad loc.) also says that this is the Egyptian translation. Another scholar (also in Hamilton) suggests that it derives from an Egyptian word meaning to make way. The New International Version translates the passage as "He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and men shouted before him, 'Make way!'"

III. The Herald

Another possibility is that the word does not refer to the text of the proclamation before Yosef. Rather, it refers to the person doing the proclaiming. In other words, the verse says that a herald went before Yosef shouting out a proclamation. Josephus (Antiquities, quoted by R. Menachem Kasher, Torah Shelemah, Gen. ch. 41 n. 99) said that avrekh means in Coptic (late ancient Egyptian) a herald. The Samaritan Targum (also in R. Kasher) translates similarly.

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