Here, the Torah gives a reason to explain why Jacob (here called by his other name, Yisrael) loved Joseph more than any of his other sons. The reason is that Joseph is a ben zekunim. What does this mean? We will consider the opinions of some of the major commentators.
Initially, it would appear that it means a son of Jacob’s old age, from the word zakain meaning an elder. However, one of the most ancient and authoritative translations of the Torah, Targum Onkelos rejects this suggestion. He translates ben zekunim as ‘son of wisdom’. This idea is also reflected in the Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) which states in the name of Rabbi Yossi Hageliei that the word zakain is actually an acronym for ‘zeh kana chochma’ – this one has acquired wisdom. Perhaps since an elder is often more likely to be wise, the word zakein can have two meanings. Maybe it was Joseph’s wisdom which endeared him to Jacob and may also be reflected in the dreams which Joseph alone dreamt.
How do the medieval rabbinic scholars (“the Rishonim”), whose commentaries are crucial in understanding and analysing the Biblical text, approach this question?
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (aka Ibn Ezra) demurs. He states that the phrase ben zekunim should be taken in its context which is that Joseph was born when Jacob was 91 years old (this was considered old even in the long life spans of the characters in Bereishit) so Joseph is a son of Jacob’s old age. This may be the reason that Joseph was particularly dear to Jacob. However, what about Benjamin who was born after Joseph?
Rashbam, developing the Ibn Ezra’s theme, explains that Benjamin was born a considerable time after Joseph. Therefore Jacob already had plenty of time to love Joseph as a son of old age.
Rashi combines elements of both Onkelos and the Ibn Ezra.
Ramban takes a different approach. If ben zekunim means a child of old age, Ramban questions why Joseph would be any more special than Yissachar or Zevulun, two of Jacob’s other sons, who were only a year or two older than Joseph.
Ramban instead posits that it was customary for a father to appoint one of his younger sons to be his attendant. Joseph was chosen and was thus a son of Jacob’s old age in that he was the son who served Jacob. This is why Joseph was the only son not to go out with the flocks, for example. But if this is so, why did Jacob send Joseph to Shechem to find his brothers, seemingly a dangerous journey? Why does Rashi intimate that Reuven served as his father’s attendant (see 37:29)…?
Paranthetically, the Talmud (Shabbat 10b) writes that we should learn from the story of Joseph not to favour one child above others.
Choose a Rabbi from this menu of local communities...