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    Off with his head! – Vayyeshev

    guillotinePotiphar, to whom Joseph was sold as a servant, is a leading character in the Joseph story.

    He is called in the Torah Pharaoh’s sar hatabbachim, which some versions translate “chief steward”.

    He was obviously a major official in the Egyptian government. The Latin Vulgate calls him the king’s chief bodyguard or the captain of the palace guard, a very important staff member because the royal person was in constant danger and needed constant protection.

    But whilst sar means a chief or prince – some think it is the origin of “sir” and “sire”, though that is only etymological imagination – the difficult question is what tabbachim means.

    In Hebrew it has a connection with food; perhaps it means a slaughterman, since tabbach is a butcher. There are those who believe Potiphar was the royal chef, trusted by the king to prepare his food without being suspected of poisoning the dishes.

    Rashi considers the word means “chief slaughterman of animals”, once again a task which required trustworthiness.

    Onkelos, supported by Saadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra, give the name a political significance as “chief executioner”, i.e. chief slaughterman of human beings.

    In the type of kingdom which Pharaoh ruled, it was the chief executioner who carried out the ultimate penalty, “Off with his head!”

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