|For a print version, click here In the Torah portion of Vayeishiv we read about the kidnapping and selling of Joseph by his brothers. The Torah portion ends with the imprisonment of Joseph on account of libelous charges leveled against him by the wife of Potiphar whose sinful advances he had rejected.
Joseph was imprisoned in an underground dungeon. There was a window on the roof which gave (some) light and through which the prisoners would be lowered. (The word used for the prison is sohar which similar to tzohar – a window.) While in prison, Joseph was subject to continued advances by Potiphar’s wife. When he continued to reject these, she threatened to starve him, chain him, sell him to a foreign land, and/or blind him. When Joseph continued to reject her advances, she had him chained with an iron bar under his neck so that he would be forced to gaze at her. Joseph still did not look at her.
Notwithstanding his strenuous physical circumstances, Joseph managed to remain in good spirits and would seek to help his fellow-inmates. In addition, the Shechinah (Divine presence) rested on Joseph in such a way that he was seen by others in a positive light.
Joseph’s pain and anguish helped him and the Jewish people in significant ways for years to come.
- By being in jail, Joseph was able to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker. As a result of this, he became the viceroy of Egypt and was able to sustain his family, the entire land of Egypt and all the surrounding countries, including his father, siblings, and their families..
- While in jail with the butler and baker, Joseph learned from them the etiquette of the king’s court and other information that would be useful for him as the king’s viceroy for years to come. This butler and baker were not simply the Pharoah’s personal chefs and attendants. They were, in fact, ministers in charge of all the bakers and wine producers of the land and as such would collect the appropriate taxes from each group. They were thus privy to the inner workings of the government.
- The events that Joseph experienced were symbolic of those the Jewish people would have to go through in their future. His success despite his trying circumstances gave strength to the Jewish people to emulate his path and come out of exile spiritually strengthened and physically uplifted.
The specific comparison between Joseph’s imprisonment and the Jewish people’s exile is as follows:
- Just as Joseph was in the dungeon, so, too, the Jews were placed in an exile which is compared to a dungeon.
- Just as the Divine presence was with Joseph in the dungeon, so, too, the Shechinah is with us in the exile.
- Just as Joseph was placed in iron fetters, so, too, were many Jewish people placed in chains.
- Just as G-d Al-mighty extended His kindness to Joseph in prison, so, too, G-d extends His kindness to us in exile.
- Just as Joseph was viewed favorably by the chief warden, so, too, the Jewish people are (sometimes) granted mercy by their oppressors.
- Just as Joseph was suddenly freed from his imprisonment, so, too, the Jewish people will leave exile without warning and be redeemed.
- Just as Joseph was purified by his suffering, so, too, the Jewish people’s knowledge of G-d will increase in the Messianic era as a result of our tribulations in the exile.
Tzaddikim in Prison
Many of our righteous and saintly leaders spent time is prison due to charges trumped up against them or other spurious reasons. Several examples of these are:
- Abraham. The Midrash says that Abraham was locked up for many years in a dungeon when his parents were trying to hide him from Nimrod who sought to kill him.
- Moses. According to the Midrash, when Yitro (Moses’s future father-in-law) found out that Moses had run away from Pharaoh, he imprisoned him for ten years, thinking that he was a trouble-maker. It was his future wife, Tzipporah, who secretly fed him for all of those years.
- Jeremiah. Jeremiah, the prophet, was imprisoned by Tzidkiyahu, the last king of Judah, for the “crime” of prophesizing that Jerusalem was going to be conquered by the Babylonians. This imprisonment lasted for at least two and a half years. At one point during that time Jeremiah’s enemies placed him in a pit of mud in which he nearly drowned. He was saved from death by the king who arranged for him to be pulled out of the pit. Nevertheless, he remained in prison until after the city of Jerusalem was conquered. (It is possible that being in prison saved his life as it protected him for the danger of being in a war zone.)
- Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Romans for the “sin” of teaching Torah publicly. While imprisoned, he was meticulous to wash his hands before eating even when he had very little water. In addition, he would render Halachic rulings from his jail cell.
- The Maharam. The leader of German Jewry in the thirteenth century, Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg was imprisoned by King Rudolph of Austria because he tried to flee from Germany together with many Jews of his community to escape the oppression they were facing. Although the Jewish community was ready to pay exorbitant sums to redeem Rabbi Meir, he forbade them to do so, citing the Talmudic ruling that it is prohibited to redeem a captive for more than his value so as not to encourage the capturing of more Jews. He remained in prison for seven years before passing away. King Rudolph refused to allow his body to be buried until a wealthy man paid a huge ransom, seven years after his passing.
- While in jail, the Maharam wrote numerous Halachic responsa and other Torah writings. He also transmitted many Halachic rulings to his student Rabeinu Shimshon ben Tzadok. His student transcribed these, and they were published under the name Tashbetz.
- Here are several quotes from the Maharam’s Halachic responsa in which he describes his situation:
- “The one who sits in darkness and obscurity… the pauper who is deprived of all goodness, a doorstep that is trodden on….” “And in my imprisonment, I have not forgotten my Creator. Rather I have clung to His Torah and His reverence.”
- In the end of his commentary on the fourth chapter of Ohalot which is called “The Tower that Flies in the Air,” the Maharam writes that he started the commentary in his home but he finished it in “a tower hovering in the air” (a reference to the tower in which he was imprisoned).
- The Alter Rebbe. Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the eighteenth-century founder of the Chabad movement and author of the Tanya, was imprisoned by the Czarist government in Russia for several libelous claims made against him. He spent 53 days in prison, during which period he was interrogated numerous times. The date of his release, 19 Kislev, is celebrated by Chassidim to this day. His great-great grandson, the Rebbe Rashab (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) commented that, although it is difficult to say this, the Alter Rebbe’s experience in jail was similar to an olive that is crushed. Just as the olive’s oil only comes out after being crushed, so too the Alter Rebbe’s deepest teachings only came out after his difficult prison experiences.
- The Ruzhiner Rebbe. Reb Yisroel Friedman (1796 – 1850), great grandson of the Maggid of Mezritch and founder of many Chassidic dynasties, was falsely accused of murder and imprisoned by Czar Nicholas of Russia for two years. He then escaped across the border into Austria and established his Chassidic court in the town of Sadigur where he remained for the rest of his life.
- Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Previous Rebbe, was imprisoned and exiled in communist Russia in 1927 for the “sins” of establishing and funding a network of Torah schools and strengthening Judaism throughout Communist Russia. His death sentence was eventually commuted to three years of exile in the Crimea. After strong international pressure, and with great Divine compassion, he was allowed to return home after spending just over a week in exile. A short time later he had no choice but to leave Russia. He first lived in Latvia, then Poland and then escaped to the United States at the beginning of the Second World War.
- While in jail, the Rebbe experienced very harsh conditions. He was thrown down a flight stairs, placed in solitary confinement (with only rats to keep him company) and was not provided with kosher food for many days. (Needless to say, he did not eat the non-kosher food.) He felt that his experiences in prison gave him great spiritual elevation and a deeper appreciation for G-dliness. In this respect he once commented, “If someone would give me a million dollars to go back to jail for even an hour, I wouldn’t take it. But if someone would offer me a million dollars to take away the experience of even one of the hours I spent in jail, I would also refuse that offer.” See here for more information on Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s experiences.
- Rabbi Levy Yitzchak Schneersohn. Rabbi Levy Yitzchak Schneersohn, the chief rabbi of the city of Yekatrinaslav (later called Dnieperpetrovsk, Ukraine,) and father of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, was imprisoned and exiled in Soviet Russia, in the 1930’s and 40’s, for his “crimes” in strengthening the observance of Judaism in Communist Russia. The pain and deprivation he experienced in prison and in the five years of exile led to his passing at the age of 66. His wife, Rebbetzin Chana Schneersohn, who accompanied him to exile, described their situation in her memoirs. These can be read here
- Here is an article with an interesting story of Reb Levy Yitzchak in exile.
Halachic Questions Relating to Imprisonment
Some say that an inmate in jail need not place a mezuzah on their jail cell as it is only a temporary dwelling place. Others say that an inmate is obliged to affix a mezuzah as “a forced dwelling place is considered a dwelling place.” In practice, if possible, one should affix it without a blessing.
- Bringing a Torah Scroll to Jail
If there is a minyan (ten men) of Jews in jail, a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) may be brought to them to enable them to read from the Torah. If there is less than a minyan in jail, it is not considered respectful to bring a Sefer Torah to them even if other Jews will join them for services in order to make the minyan. This can be permitted if a respectful place (i.e. an ark or a clean empty closet) is prepared for the Torah and it is left there for at least a day or two. If one of the inmates is an important person, this can be permitted even if these conditions are not fulfilled. In addition, one may transport a Torah scroll for the purposes of reading Parshat Zachor (the maftir read on the Shabbat before Purim which is a Torah obligation) even if these conditions are not met.
If an inmate cannot obtain kosher food, he should sustain himself on the food items that are likely to be kosher although they do not have supervision e.g. bread, fruits and vegetables. He should make every effort and encourage his family and community to make every effort to ensure that he be able to receive kosher food.
Although one may eat non-kosher food if their life is in danger, this only refers to a case where they may actually die as a result of not partaking of the food. In a case that one is able to live on bread and water, he may not eat actual non-kosher food. When in doubt, one should consult an expert rabbi.
May “those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, prisoners of affliction and iron” merit the fulfillment of the verse “He took them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and He broke open their bonds.” Together with all the Jewish people who should be freed from the bonds of exile speedily in our days!
 Ramban and Rabeinu Bachaye on Gen, 39, 20
 Midrash Tanchumah, Vayeishev, 9, Bereishit Rabbah, 87, 10
 See Gen. 40, 7 that despite his youth and low social status, Joseph offered his help to the two ministers of Pharaoh (see Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachayeh on the verse).
 Ibid, 39, 21 and Ohr HaChaim
 Gen. chapter 41, 47 and 50
 Meshech Chochmah, see also Seforno on Gen. 40, 1, 2, and 5
 For this reason when praying for redemption we say “ya’aleh veyavo” (may we be uplifted and reach) as one who is in a dungeon and must be elevated from it.
 See Megillah 29a and Deut. 30, 3
 See Ezra, 9, 9 (“For we are slaves, and in our servitude our G-d has not forsaken us, and He has extended loving-kindness upon us”), and Isaiah 54, 10 (“But My kindness shall not depart from you” says the L-rd, Who has compassion on you.”)
 See Psalms 106, 46 (“And He caused them to be pitied by all their captors.”)
 See Isaiah 49, 9 (“To say to the prisoners, ‘Go out!'”)
 See Psalms, 105, 19 (“Until His word came, the saying of the L-rd purified him.” See Radak on the verse)
 See Daniel, 12, 4 (“… close up the words and seal the book until the time of the end; many will run to and fro, and the knowledge will increase.”)
 See Me’am Loez on the end of Parshat No’ach
 Targum Yonatan on Gen. 20, 21 see Yalkut Me’am Loez on the verse
 See Jeremiah chapters 37 – 28
 See Yevamot 105b and 108b, see also Pesachim 112 a and b
 Teshuvot Maimaniyot, Hilchot Ishut, 30
 Responsa of Maharam, (Levov, 5620,) Siman 151
 Torat Shalom, page 26
 Y.D. 286, 1, Hagahot Rabbi Akivah and Pitchei Teshuvah.
 Mishnah Berurah, 135, 47
 See sources quoted in Piskei Teshuvah, 135, note 151
 Ibid, 46 (See there that it may be possible to be lenient regarding Parshat Parah as well.)
 See the chapter 8 of sefer (book) titled Nidchei Yisrael by the Chafetz Chayim. This book explains halachot (laws) relevant for Jewish soldiers in a non-Jewish army.
 Ibid, chapter 9 of the laws (dinim)
 Psalms 107, 10 and 14