Harassment in the workplace

The Talmud, Brachot 63a teaches: “Rebbe said, ‘One should not appoint an apotropos (custodian) over his home, for had Yosef not been appointed by Potiphar, he would never have come to the brink of sin.’”

Breisheet Chapter 39 tells Yosef’s story of how he was brought down to Egypt and bought by Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer and chief executioner. Everything was going well for him. God was on Yosef’s side and he became the successful supervisor over Potiphar’s household.

In Breisheet 39:7-20 the problems begin:

After these events, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Yosef, and she said, “Sleep with me.” He refused…Even though she spoke to Yosef every day, he would not listen to her, to sleep with her nor to be with her. It was on such a day, that he came to the house to do his work and no man of the household was there in the house. She grabbed him by the garment saying, “Sleep with me.” He left his garment in her hand and fled and he went outside…

Why was the day that Potiphar’s wife grabbed Yosef’s garment different from all of the other days that she bothered him?

According to Rashi it was a special day of merriment and idolatrous feasts when they all went to their temples. She said, “I have no day as suitable to seduce Yosef as this day.” She therefore told them, “I am ill and cannot go to the temple.”

Since everyone else was off celebrating the holiday in the temple, Yosef and Potiphar’s wife were truly alone and therefore she made more of an effort to seduce him. Nobody was there to witness what was happening.

A few lessons that can be learned from Potiphar’s wife’s behavior:

The laws of Yichud (the laws pertaining to seclusion with the opposite sex) should be taken seriously. According to Jewish law, a man may not seclude himself with a woman who is not his wife, neither may a woman seclude herself with a man who is not her husband. This is true even where the act is unlikely to lead to transgression. It is better to be safe than sorry and take the precautions outlined in the laws of Yichud as it says in the Talmud, Ketubot 13b “there is no guarantee against promiscuity.”

There is also no guarantee that if you observe the laws of Yichud you will be fully protected but if you are able to avoid being in a locked room with a member of the opposite sex you are already in a better place.

A lot of the issues of harassment that have been exposed recently have been about men harassing women but there are many incidents from Biblical times until today that prove that it also works the other way around.

Unfortunately, we have seen incidents where women looking to get attention make false claims as Potiphar’s wife did which can make women as a whole look less credible when filing claims of abuse.

Ramban comments that Potiphar doubted his wife and knew that Yosef didn’t do anything wrong and therefore he didn’t kill him but rather sent him to jail.

Breisheet Rabba states that Potiphar said to Yosef, “I know this charge against you is false but lest a stigma fall on my children I will put you in prison.”

We must all keep our eyes open for red flags in order to keep safe.