Sunday, March 6, 2011

Joseph and Zuleika

Jami (1414-1492) described the story in his poem Yusuf and Zuleika. The Medrash story about all Zuleika's friends cutting their fingers is retold as follows:

The poem now pursues the Scriptural account of the life of Joseph, or Yussuf, whose supernatural beauty is, however, described as being the especial gift of God, and recorded to have been so great that no woman could look on him without love. Zuleika, therefore, only shared the fate of all her sex. Some writers say the ladies who clamored so much against her for her passion were, when he first entered the chamber where they were all assembled, in the act of cutting pomegranates, some say oranges, and in their admiration and amazement cut their fingers instead of the fruit! Yussuf is considered the emblem of divine perfection, and Zuleika's love is the image of the love of the creature toward the Creator: some go so far as to say that we ought to follow her example, and should permit the beauty of God to transport us out of ourselves. The rapid change from prison to high estate of Yussuf they consider a type of the impatience of the soul to burst its fetters and join its Creator.
Yussuf was always surrounded with a celestial light, typical as well of the moral beauty and wisdom which adorned his mind. He is sold as a slave, and Zuleika becomes his purchaser, to the great rage and envy of all her rivals, amongst whom was included the Princess Nasigha, of the race of Aad. The beautiful Yussuf now enters her service, and, at his own desire, a flock of sheep are given to his special keeping, his admiring mistress wishing, by every indulgence, to attach him to her. The nurse of Zuleika is the confidante of the passion which she cannot control, and which, at length, in an imprudent moment, she discloses to its object himself. His father, Jacob, or the angel Gabriel in his likeness, appears, to warn him of his danger, and he flies, leaving his mistress in an agony of despair, rage, and grief. She thus exclaims: Is this a dream?—another dream,

Now continue with the poem,

Like that which stole my senses first,
Which sparkled o'er my life's dull stream,
By idle, erring fancy nursed?
Was it for this my life I spent
In murmurs deep, and discontent—
Slighted, for this, all homage due,
From gen'rous, faithful love withdrew?
For this, no joy, no pomp have prized;
For this, all honors have despised—
Left all my soul, to passion free,
To be thus hated—spurned-by thee?

The story of Yusuf and Zuleika ends when Zuleika, old and imprisoned, sees Yusuf in his kingly attire. She runs to him, and Yusuf, recognizing that she is the true love, marries her. Zuleika becomes young again through a miracle.

The Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot tells that the reincarnation of Joseph was Yehoshuah, and the reincation of Zuleika was Rahav, one of the four most beautiful women in history. Yehoshuah married Rahav, making the poet correct.


  1. I've seen Rumi, the Persian Sufi poet, refer to Mrs. Potifar by the name Zuleikha. However, to date I don't remember seeing this name for her in Jewish sources. Have you?

    This poem you quoted is very trademark Sufi in style. It's about abandoning the world for spiritual bliss - chasing G-d like a lover in hot pursuit. It's like a "korban olah" instead of a "korban shelamim". This is why when people who were not Jewish visited our Holy Temple they brought a "korban olah".

    It's worth noting that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan quotes Rabbi Avraham ben Rambam as teaching that the Sufism was really a tradition from our Biblical prophets. Apparently, it somehow branched off into the general population and adapted itself pretty nicely for their spiritual needs (better than Kabbalah that later branched off into the general population did). The late Sufi teacher, Idries Shah, taught that Sufism predated Islam, though it was later on co-opted by Islam. This accords with Rabbi Avraham ben Rambam.

  2. Interesting about Idries Shah. People asked me for the source, and there you are:

    Interesting that Rabbi Kranz said, "Like Choni, I want the source" :)

  3. Thank you for sharing the sources. They were very helpful.

    Idries Shah does not say exactly what Avaraham ben Rambam says. However, what he says that Sufism predates Islam points in that direction.

  4. This piece got me thinking about ...

    A) Whether Joseph and Zuliekha were indeed soulmates, but just weren't destined in that particular life for each other (for some reason)? I don't have the answer, but, it's an interesting consideration.

    B) Look at how G-d accepted her yearning for Joseph and gave her a second chance at it, except that this time (as Rachav) it depended on her earning the relationship by doing a risky act of kindness. Why did G-d pay such attention to a temptresses' romantic longings? Probably, because there was much more to the story than even she was aware of. Even though she felt Divinely guided, this does not mean that she necessarily fully understood what was behind the guidence.

  5. But of course they were soulmates, since eventually they became ones. Why did she long for him in the first place? Remember how Rashi says that she saw by inspiration that they were destined for each other? Only she made a mistake and it was her step daughter Osnat who married Joseph then. As it often happens, she understood, but not completely. Abraham did the same when he said "We will return" - with Isaac! Rashi: he prophesied but did not know what he prophesied.