Did the Skinny Cows Really Eat the Fat Ones?

Sometimes you find a pshat that turns everything you thought you knew about a story on it’s head.  Here, I refer to the strange dreams of Pharoah in this past week’s Parsha.  Pharoah tells Yosef that he dreams of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows, and then that he saw seven unhealthy stalks of grain eating seven healthy ones. I always assumed that the fact that cows don’t eat cows, and grain doesn’t eat at all, was not a problem.  After all, this was a dream.

However, several commentaries, both classic and modern, challenge this interpretation.  Rabbi Tamir Granot, for example, assumes the “eating” aspect of the dream was Pharoah’s invention, and Yosef’s greatness was that he saw through it (here).  More suprising, however, was the position of R. Saadiah Gaon.  In his commentary to Mishlei (1:1-7), he argues that the key to Yosef’s interpretation was to combine the dreams.  While that much is clear in the passuk, the implications are not.  R. Saadiah Gaon argues that it wasn’t just the the dream was a double dreams that indicated that God was ready to bring the dream’s message to fruition.  Rather, Yosef realized that Pharoah had never seen cows eating cows or grain eating grain – he had seen cows eating grain.  His brilliance was evident to Pharoah specifically because he saw through Pharoah’s own misunderstanding of what he saw.  This position would be taken by R. Moshe Zeidel again in the 20th century, without reference to R. Saadiah Gaon.    This position assumes that 1. The images in dreams should make sense and 2. It was specifically the ability to make the strange make sense, thus drawing out meaning that Pharoah saw in Yosef.  Both points are worth pondering in their context to the last few parshiyot.

[R. Zeidel also notes that the fact that the key to interpreting the dream was realizing that 2=1 is paralleled in the riddle of Shimshon, a discussion for another time.]

Here are the comments of R. Saadiah Gaon:

כמו שבאר יוסף חלום פרעה שבע פרות ושבע שבלים, לפי שהוא פרק את הסדר וסדרו סידור אחר, ואמר שבע פרות טובות תאכל שבע שבלים טובות, וזה מורה על דושן ושובע, ושבע פרות רעות תאכל שבע שבלים רעות וזה מורה על בצורת ורעב.

The link to R. Zeidel’s article: here.

A link to a shiur by R. Yitzchak Etshalom on the topic: here.



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