Two sons were born to Joseph before the years of famine arrived, born to him by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph named the first-born son Manasseh [mem-nun-shin-heh], “For God has made me forget [ki-nashani] all the troubles I endured in my father’s house.” And he named the second one Ephraim [aleph-peh-reish-yod-mem], “For God has made me fruitful [ki-hifrani] in the land of my affliction.”
–Genesis/Breishit 41:50–52, Plaut/Stein translation** (emphasis included)
The commentators agree that Joseph could not have been so crass as to be thankful that he had forgotten his grieving father. To the contrary, the very fact that he gave this name showed that he remembered Jacob…
— Stone commentary**
The names of Joseph’s sons reflect their father’s circumstances and embody his longing to forget this past (Manasseh) and his hope of success (Ephraim). In contrast to Jacob’s sons, whose names bear the hopes and circumstances of their mothers Leah and Rachel (29:31 – 30:24; 35:18) , these sons’ names say nothing about Asenath’s aspirations.
— The Torah: A Women’s Commentary**
The naming pun is on the verbal stem n-sh-h. The virtually universal construal of this term here is “made me forget,” but it must be said that the root in that sense occurs only five times in the biblical corpus, and at least two or three of those are doubtful….But a very common usage of n-sh-h is “to hold in debt,” and a natural meaning of that stem in the pi’el conjugation, as here, would be “to relieve from the condition of debt.” Such an unambiguously positive verb is a better parallel to “made me fruitful” in the next verse. I am grateful to Amos Funkenstein* for this original suggestion. — Alter translation**
When Jacob blesses his sons (in the portion two weeks hence; 49:22), Joseph is called “ben porat.” This is part of a verse considered difficult and variously translated as “wild she-ass’s son” (Plaut/Stein), “fruitful son” (Alter), and “charming son” (Stone). Note, however it is translated, similarities to the root letters for “Ephraim” and “fruitful” here.
* Funkenstein (1937-1995) was a historian of Judaism, among other subjects, and colleague of Alter at Berkley.
**See Source Materials for complete citations and more details on these Torah translation/commentaries.
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.