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What Is the Meaning of ‘Ketonet Passim’?

כתנת is an easy word. It appears many times in Tanach and is a garment. But what is the meaning of that word פסים?

The “ketonet pasim” only appears in one other story in Tanach, the story of Tamar at Samuel II, perek 13. (The phrase appears three times in the Joseph story and two times in the Tamar story.) In the Tamar story, we are told that it was a type of מעיל that “benot ha-melech ha-betulot” wore.

Where do we get the well-known translation “coat of many colors?” The Septuagint (3rd century BCE) used the word “poikilos” to translate the word פסים in the Joseph story. (It used a different word in Samuel II.) “Poikilos” is usually understood to mean “various colors.” This translation was followed in the King James Bible of 1611. The 1917 translation of the Jewish Publication Society often followed the King James version and they did so here, as well. (See the translation at the top in the Chumash of Rabbi Hertz.)

Onkelos had used the word פסי, which is subject to different interpretations. But the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan used the word מצויר. I have seen this translated as “many colors.” But I have also seen this translated as “with pictures,” “with designs” or “embroidered.” If it did mean “many colors,” then we would have another early source for the “many colors” translation.

There are those who view פס or פסים, as a kind of material. For example, Rashi calls it “kli milat.” From other statements in Rashi (see the Artscroll Rashi), we can see that he meant “fine wool.” Rav Saadiah Gaon wrote that פס or פסים meant “silk.”

But there are many other approaches to the word. As an introduction, I have to explain that פס has several meanings in Aramaic/rabbinic Hebrew: “One meaning is ‘strip,’ stripe.” See Jastrow, page 1191. This meaning is not found in Tanach.

The other meanings are “hand” and “ankle/foot.” See, e.g., Mishna Megillah 4:8, Mishna Ohalot 1:8 and Jastrow, page 1191. Most likely, פס has these meanings because it means “end.” The hand and the ankle/foot are the ends of the arms and legs. (This meaning of פס is related to the word אפס. In Tanach, we have “afsei aretz” many times, meaning the “ends of the earth.” There is also a biblical root פשׂה, which means “extend, spread.”)

Earlier than the mishna, we have the “hand” meaning in the Aramaic section of Tanach at Daniel 5:5 “pas yeda.” “Pas” means that part of the יד downward starting from the wrist. See similarly in Daniel 5:24.

We have the “ankle” meaning at Ezekiel 47:3:אפסים. (I am not concerned with the initial א, since the meaning of פס as “end,” probably derives from אפס.)

Let us now look at the various interpretations of פסים that have been proposed. Based on the “hand” and “ankle, foot” meanings, our phrase can mean a coat that goes all the way down to the hand, or all the way down the ankle/foot, or all the way down to all of these. Genesis Rabbah 84:8 and others suggest the first of these approaches.

A midrash edited by Solomon Buber has the second of these approaches, as do others. Samuel David Luzzatto and Rav David Zvi Hoffmann are among those who follow the third approach. Daat Mikra — in both the Joseph and the Tamar contexts — mentions all these approaches as possibilities. (See also Josephus who writes in the context of Tamar: “long-sleeved tunics reaching to the ankle.” See Antiquities VII,8,1. The Septuagint in the context of Tamar had used a Greek word that meant “long-sleeved” relating to the arm.) It is widely viewed that such a coat would symbolize that the wearer was one who was exempt from manual labor.

(Rav Hirsch views the “end” meaning not as indicating the length of the coat, but as indicating that the coat had special trimming on its edges.) There are Rishonim who view “ketonet passim,” as a garment with various colors. The earliest with this view are Ibn Balaam, Ibn Janah, Radak (in his Genesis commentary, and in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim) and Ralbag (on Samuel II). But, how do they come to this conclusion?

When partial quotes from these sources are brought, it sometimes seems that they are getting it from the “stripe” meaning of פס. (A striped garment can imply that the stripes are of different colors.) But when I read all the above sources carefully, I realized they are all deriving their interpretation from the “hand” meaning. They are understanding פסים as implying a garment made of separate patches that are the size of a hand, and viewing the implication of separate patches as the patches being of different colors. (Of course, a garment can be composed of patches and not be multi-colored. But it is, surely, the luxurious implication of the ketonet that leads them to suggest that we are dealing with patches of different colors.)

It is not clear to me what motivates this unusual interpretation. The interpretation of פסים as describing the length of the coat is a much simpler one. A creative approach is found in Bechor Shor and Hizzekuni: a beautiful coat לפייסו (“to pacify him”). But this meaning of פיס is not a biblical meaning. It is found in rabbinic Hebrew, borrowed from Greek (and related to our word “appease.”)

Among modern translations, the Koren has “coat with long sleeves” and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has “long, colorful coat” (with a long and colorful comment below!) The phrase “l-b-sh p-s-m” is referred to in a clothing list from Ugarit (Syria) dated not later than the 13th century BCE, but the precise meaning is unclear.

There are Babylonian temple texts from around 600 BCE that refer to “kitu pishannu” or “kutinnu pishannu.” This was a ceremonial robe that had various gold ornaments sewed onto it. See Anchor Bible Genesis, and Hayim ben Yosef Tawil, “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew,” page 300. “Pisshanu” is an Akkadian term for “stitched-on ornaments.” But even if we assume a linguistic connection, these texts are much later than the Joseph story.

Finally, Daat Mikra on Samuel II includes a photo with the caption reading: “women dressed in ketonet passim; wall fresco in ancient Egypt” (my translation). After investigation, I found that this is from a famous Egyptian tomb painting from 1900 BCE from the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni-hasan, which depicts women and men (all described as foreigners) wearing multicolored tunics. But any connection to “ketonet passim” is complete speculation!

After all of that, what do I think? The simplest approach is that it means a coat that goes all the way down to the hand, or all the way to down the ankle/foot, or all the way down to all of these, based on the פס, “end meaning.” Such a coat would symbolize that the wearer was one who was exempt from manual labor.

——

I would like to acknowledge the article by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky in Jewish Action 2018, which provided many of the sources.

As to כתנת, it is a word that appears (sometimes with slight modification) in many ancient languages, Semitic and non-Semitic. In Greek, their related word is “chiton.” On this word, see Josephus, III, 7, 2. The Latin word “tunica” (the basis for our English word “tunic”) was probably, originally, “ktunica.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. The most creative explanation is the one first found at Genesis Rabbah 84:8: פסים symbolizes Joseph’s troubles: Potiphar, Socharim, Yishmaelim and Midianim!

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