Monday, December 24, 2007

Jacob Our Father Did Not Die

Bereishit/Genesis 49:33
And then Ya‘aqov finished commanding his children,
and then he pulled his feet onto the bed;
and then he expired, and then he was gathered to his peoples.

The word I translated here "and then he expired" — following the 1917 JPS at Mechon Mamre — seems to be used for the process of dying, primarily that which leads up to the final moment. By our Ancestors Avraham and Yitzhhaq, as well as by Uncle Yishma‘eil, two words are used in sequence: ויגוע וימת. He *expired, and then he died.

The second, more common word for death — מות — is not found by our Ancestor Ya‘aqov. This lead Ribbí Yohhanan, as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud masekhet Ta‘anit 5b, to hyperbolically claim that Jacob our Father did not die. After all, sure it says ויגוע... but the Torah never says about Ya‘aqov וימת!

After being challenged by the realia of the verses — after all, even though it never says that he "died", it does say (later on) that he was mourned, embalmed and buried — Ribbí Yohhanan backs up his audacious claim with another פסוק, this time Yirmeyahu/Jeremiah 30:10, that equates the individual Jacob/Israel with the nation of his descendants. As long as they live, so does he.

Which brings me to my point.

Let's take a closer look at the embalming.

Who does the embalming? רופאים, healers. I can see how healers, doctors, physicians, would be involved in a biological procedure, but why call them 'healers'? Why not 'embalmers'?

At the end of פרק מ"ט, quoted at the top of this post, who dies? Ya‘aqov. And at the beginning of the next chapter, who is embalmed? Yisra’eil. Why the change in name here, in the middle of the story?

Jacob died, but Israel — his children and their descendants, the nascent nation — remained alive. And when the healers embalmed Jacob's body, they were preserving Israel, tempering the people, taking the body of an individual and making of it the body of a nation. The embalming of Ya‘aqov prefigured the slavery and oppression that would overtake his descendants not that long afterwards in that very land — the struggle that would forge them into a people that would one day be freed to accept the Torah.


Blogger Ha-historion said...

nice vort.
by the way, according to the opinion that the avot kept the entire torah, how was embalming allowed?

12/25/2007 2:48 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


i remember seeing some justifications of that... one of them was that it wasn't meant to be a permanent embalming, it was just enough to last the time it would take for them to bring Ya‘aqov to burial back in Kena‘an.

12/25/2007 8:29 AM  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

very nice, steg. hmm.

12/27/2007 6:18 PM  

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