There are opinions among Hazal that Yosef nearly sinned with Potiphar’s wife before ultimately resisting the temptation:
אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא א”ר שמעון חסידא יוסף שקידש שם שמים בסתר הוסיפו עליו אות אחת משמו של הקב”ה …
Rav Ḥana bar Bizna says that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida says: Joseph, who sanctified the name of Heaven in private, had one letter of the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the letter heh, added to his name. …יוסף מאי היא דכתיב (בראשית לט, יא) ויהי כהיום הזה ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו א”ר יוחנן מלמד ששניהם לדבר עבירה נתכוונו
The Gemara explains: What is the situation where Joseph sanctified G-d’s name in private? As it is written: “And it came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work” (Genesis 39:11). Rabbi Yoḥanan says: This teaches that both Joseph and Potiphar’s wife stayed in the house, as they intended to perform a matter of sin.ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו רב ושמואל חד אמר לעשות מלאכתו ממש וחד אמר לעשות צרכיו נכנס
With regard to the phrase “when he went into the house to do his work,” Rav and Shmuel engage in a dispute with regard to its meaning. One says: It means that he went into the house to do his work, literally. And one says: He entered the house in order to fulfill his sexual needs with her.1
Rav Levi ibn Habib (Maharalbah) and Rav Zvi Hirsch Hajes explain that Hazal were not denigrating Yosef by acknowledging the strength of his temptation, but on the contrary, praising him for having ultimately triumphed over it:
עוד אני אומר שדרשה כזאת איננה כנגד מעלת הצדיק כיון שהוא דבר במחשבה ולא יצא לפועל אף על פי שתהיה לאיזו סבה שתהיה. ויש לנו דמחשבה רעה אינו הקדוש ברוך הוא מצרפה למעשה בישראל זולתי בעבודה זרה. ולכן אין זה חסרון בצדיק. דכל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול ממנו. אדרבה הוא לו מעלה כיון שלבסוף ניצול מהעבירה. ואין כוונת הפסוק להודיענו מחשבת אלו הצדיקים. אבל הכונה להודיענו שנצולו ושהקב”ה הרחיק מהם העבירה ההיא.2
והנה הרב הרלב”ח כתב … וכן ביוסף כבר היתה מחשבתו לרעה, ובא לעשות מלאכתו ממש3 ובכל זאת כבש את יצרו, ולא חטא וזה מעלה יותר עצומה, דאם לא התעורר אצלו היצר מפני שינוי מצבם, ועבד שפל אינו נותן עיניו באשת אדוניו, אזי לא היתה פעולתו של יוסף ראוי להתפארות כל כך, אבל עתה דכבר התגבר עליו היצר, ובכל זאת היה אדון ושליט על מעשיו, וזה דבר גדול אשר בחרו חז”ל לשבח מעשה יוסף הצדיק, כי כבר היה הכל מוכן לרעה, וכמה גדול כחו על ידי יגיעותיו אשר טרח לכבוש את יצרו, דהרי כבר היה כאן מחשבה רעה, רק אצל ישראל אין מצטרפין מחשבה רעה למעשה, … והיא ספור נפלא להגדיל מעלתן של צדיקים, כי לא יאונה להם כל עון, …4
In a famous and provocative passage in his autobiography, Rav Yaakov Emden relates that he personally experienced “a miracle similar to that of Joseph the righteous and (even) slightly more so”:
A miracle also occurred to me, especially relevant to matters spiritual. (It was) a miracle similar to that of Joseph the righteous and (even) slightly more so. I was a young man, tender in years, in the full strength of my passion. I had been separated from my wife for a long time and greatly desired a woman. A very pretty unmarried young girl who was my cousin happened to meet me there and was alone with me. She brazenly demonstrated great love to me, came close to me and almost kissed me. Even when I was lying in my bed, she came to cover me well on the couch, in a close loving manner. Truthfully, had I hearkened to the advice of my instinct she would not have denied my desire at all. Several times it (indeed) almost happened, as a fire (consumes) the chaff. Frequently there was no one in the house with me but her. They (i.e. the members of her family) were also not accustomed to come for they stayed in the store on the marketplace, occupied with their livelihood all day. Had G-d not given me great strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power (Gen. 49:3), to overcome my fiery instinct which once almost forced me to do its bidding, (and) were it not for the grace of G-d which was great upon me, (I would have been unable) to withstand this very powerful temptation, greater than all temptations. I was a man at the prime of my strength and passion. There was a very pleasant beautiful woman before me who demonstrated for me all manner of love and closeness many times. She was related to me, unmarried, a tender child and recently widowed. She may have been ritually pure or would have ritually purified herself had I requested it. If I had wanted to fulfill my passionate desire for her, I was absolutely certain that she would not reveal my secret. I controlled my instinct, conquered my passion and determined to kill it. My heart was hollow and I did not … Blessed be the L-rd who gives strength to the weary for I was saved from this flaming fire.5
It is difficult to understand R. Emden’s apparent utter flouting of the laws of יחוד – which exist precisely to forestall the sin that he acknowledges “almost happened”. Indeed, Yosef as well seems to have engaged in יחוד, a problem raised by Rav Moshe Sofer (Hasam Sofer), who suggests that it was indeed this infraction that led Potiphar to believe his wife’s calumniation of the man whom he had erstwhile believed to be of impeccable character:
תמיה רבה על אותו הצדיק איך נכנס ביחוד עם אשה בשעה שאין אנשי הבית שם וכמדומה לי שאלולי כן לא האמין פוטיפר לאשתו על יוסף המוחזק בעיניו לצדיק, אלא שראה מבגדו שבידה שעל כל פנים נתיחד עמה שלא כדת, ועל כן האמין עליו גם הכל, ומכל מקום צ”ע עליו.6
I discussed these sources in a talk I gave several days ago on repentance and the struggle against temptation, and previously in my parashah lectures for this past פרשת וישב, on the topic of יחוד. The cognate column:
In parashas Vayeishev, the Torah relates: “Then there was an opportune day when he [Joseph] entered the house to do his work – no man of the household staff being there in the house – that she [Potiphar’s wife] caught hold of him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” Some of our Sages maintain that Joseph actually came dangerously close to sinning, and only vanquished his evil inclination at the very last moment. (Sotah 36b, Bereishis Rabah 87:7) The Biblical text seems to emphasize that the confrontation was triggered by the fact that they were completely alone, and the halachah indeed prohibits such seclusion (yichud), for precisely this reason. The Chasam Sofer actually raises the question of how the righteous Joseph could have violated the prohibition of yichud, and he goes so far as to suggest that this apparent infraction was what allowed Potiphar to believe his wife’s accusation of Joseph, whose reputation had been heretofore impeccable. Potiphar saw that Joseph had at the very least improperly secluded himself with his wife, and he therefore believed the full accusation against him. (Drashos Chasam Sofer, Chanukah 564. His justification of Joseph’s conduct is beyond the scope of this column.)
Since the prohibition of yichud is motivated by a concern for improper interaction between the secluded individuals, there are a variety of leniencies in circumstances where they are unlikely to act improperly, particularly where they are afraid of being interrupted and discovered. A comprehensive discussion of these exceptions and their precise scope and details is beyond the scope of this column, but a couple of basic examples follow:
- A married woman whose husband is in the same city as her is beyond suspicion, since she is presumptively afraid of her husband. Many authorities understand this to mean that she is afraid of his discovery of her infidelity. (Shulchan Aruch EH 22:8; Pischei Teshuvah ibid. s.k. 7; Shut. Igros Moshe EH 4:65:7; Shut. Tzitz Eliezer 6:40:4-6)
- Yichud does not apply in a house whose door is open to a public domain. (SA ibid. 9, PT ibid. 8, TE ibid. 11-12, IM ibid. 2,4-5,9)
In my talk on resisting temptation, I also discussed the tale of the portrait of Moshe Rabbeinu (which I have previously discussed in a lecture for פרשת בהעלותך, on the character of the master of all prophets):
[A] delightful account that I once saw in writing. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the nations heard, they trembled, etc. (Exodus 15:14). They were particularly curious about Moses, the man through whom all these marvelous deeds had transpired. So much so, that an Arabian king sent a gifted artist to the Israelite encampment with orders to paint a portrait of the Israelite leader, and to return with it to Arabia. The artist went, painted the portrait, and brought it to the king. The king then sent to his physiognomists, and ordered them to prepare an analysis of Moses’ character, virtues, and strengths based upon his facial features as reflected in the portrait. The physiognomists complied with the king’s order and reported as follows: “If we are to render judgment solely on the basis of the facial features in the portrait, we must report, O King, that, – despite his distinguished reputation – he is entirely wicked, arrogant, greedy, capricious, indeed suffused with every known vice. Upon hearing the analysis, the king was livid. “You are sporting with me,” he cried out. “From every corner of the globe I have heard just the opposite regarding this great man.” The physiognomists and the artist were seized with fright; they responded to the king pusillanimously, each accusing the other of incompetence. The artist claimed that the portrait was executed with precision; it was the physiognomists who had erred in their interpretation of the portrait. The physiognomists, in turn, blamed the artist, claiming that the portrait of Moses was obviously inaccurate. The king, determined to resolve the matter, set out in his chariot on a state visit – accompanied by his troops – to the Israelite camp. Upon sighting Moses, the man of G-d, from the distance, he took out the portrait, gazed at it and Moses, and knew at once that the artist’s depiction had been executed with precision. The king was astounded. He entered the tent of Moses, bowed down before him, and related the entire story to him. He concluded his remarks as follows: “Before I gazed upon your face, O man of G-d, I suspected that the artist had been incompetent, for my physiognomists are without peer. Now that I have established that the portrait is accurate, I can only conclude that the physiognomists are at fault; they have deceived me. Their wisdom comes to naught. I have been supporting them even as they misled me with their nonsense.”
Moses, the man of G-d, replied: “Not so. Indeed, the artist and the physiognomists are exceedingly competent and wise. Know that if I were naturally virtuous, I would be no more deserving of praise than is a block of wood. For it too has no human faults. I am not ashamed to admit, however, that I am naturally inclined to all the vices listed by the physiognomists, and then some. With great effort and determination, I overcame my inclinations until their very opposites became second nature to me. This is how I earned the glory that I now enjoy in heaven above and on earth below.”7
- סוטה לו:
- שו”ת מהרלב”ח סימן קכ”ו ד”ה עוד אני אומר
- רש”י בסוטה פירש ד “מלאכ[תו] ממש” היינו מלאכתו, ולא תשמיש. אולם בבראשית רבה אמר ר”ש בר נחמן “לעשות מלאכתו ודאי”, ומבואר שכוונתו לתשמיש.
- מבוא התלמוד, פרק כ’ ד”ה והנה הרב רלב”ח
- Megilas Sefer, translation of R. Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, cited by Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach as a Writer of Romance?, A Non-Jewish Song Made Holy, Love (and More) Before and After Marriage, and Memoirs that Maybe Tell Too Much, the Seforim blog, Fri., May 27, 2016. The original Hebrew text (along with a censored version) are available there as well, as well as here.
- דרשות חת”ם סופר [כרך א’] חנוכה תקס”ד. ועיין שם מה שתירץ, ועיין שו”ת ציץ אליעזר חלק ח’ סימן י”ד אות ז’ וחלק י”ב סימן ס”ז אות ב’. ובעצם קושית החת”ם סופר, עיין ר’ מנשה ישראל רייזמן, שיעורים בפרשת השבוע, יום ו’ פרשת וישב כ’ כסלו תשע”ה, עמודים יב-יג.
- תפארת ישראל סוף מסכת קידושין, תורגם ב Shnayer Z. Leiman, R. Israel Lipschutz: The Portrait of Moses, in Tradition, 24(4), Summer 1989.