Butler and Baker

Parshat Vayeishev 5775

This week’s parsha ends with Joseph in prison.

He’s been a model prisoner and has been put in charge of all the other prisoners.

Then Pharaoh gets angry with his chief butler and chief baker and throws them into the same prison with Joseph.

One night the butler and baker have dreams that leave them troubled.

Joseph interprets the dreams and his interpretation comes to pass a few days later.

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Why Different Interpretations?

That’s the basic story.

One thing that bothers a lot of people is why did Joseph interpret one dream in a positive way and the other in a negative way.

One the surface the dreams seem very similar.

Why not give them both a positive spin?

The Text

Here’s the relevant text of each dream. I’m using the translation from The Rashi Chumash.

Chief Butler

Genesis 40
9 And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, saying to him: In my dream, behold, a grapevine before me.
10 And on the grapevine, three shoots, which seemed to bud. And its blossom sprouted; and its cluster brought forth grapes.
11 And Pharaoh’s goblet was in my hand. And I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s goblet; and I placed the goblet on Pharaoh’s hand.

Chief Baker

Genesis 40
16 And the chief baker saw that he had interpreted well, and he said to Joseph: I, too, in my dream; and, behold, three wicker baskets on my head.
17 And in the top basket, of all the food of Pharaoh, the work of a baker. And the birds ate them from the basket on my head.

The Butler’s Good Interpretation

The butler’s dream opens with a grapevine. A grapevine by itself is neutral.

With Noah he planted grapevines and then became drunk with disastrous results.

On the other hand, in Psalms 104:15 wine is praised because it “gladdens man’s heart.”

In verse 10, as the butler watches, the grapevine begins to fulfill its potential as it bring forth shoots, blossoms, and finally grapes.

Then in verse 11 the butler is active. He takes, he squeezes, he places the goblet in Pharaoh’s hand. The butler is clearly fulfilling his role in the royal palace.

In fact, he’s perhaps even going beyond his normal role. I assume that normally he only served the wine. In his dream he is also depicted as one who actively makes the wine.

My key take away here is that the butler is active and fulfilling his potential.

The Baker’s Bad Interpretation

However, the baker is not at all active in his dream.

In his dream he sees himself with wicker baskets on his head.

A wicker basket is not very elegant. I would assume that Pharaoh would not have his food brought to his table in a mere wicker basket.

The basket is filled with Pharaoh’s food. That’s a good sign. But, it’s only called “the work of a baker.” It’s not identified as the work of the chief baker.

Finally, the food is destroyed by birds. Even if it wasn’t destroyed, could it be brought to Pharaoh after birds had pecked at it?

Also, the fact that birds ate the food indicate that the birds were not afraid of the chief baker. In general, birds will not come close to a living person.

Unlike the butler, the chief baker is not active and he is not fulfilling his normal role. In fact, by seeing himself as carrying bread on his head, he’s not acting like a baker at all.

As you can see at Shuk Machne Yehuda, it’s not the bakers who are carrying bread and other baked goods to the stalls for sale. All of the carrying is done by ordinary delivery boys.


There was good reason for Joseph to see a bright future for the chief butler because he was active in his dream doing his normal work.

However, the chief baker already appeared to be so lifeless that even the birds were not afraid of him.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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