Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Parshat VaYechi

The Mummification of Yaakov

"Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years" (Bereshit 47:28). For a country, whose religion was obsessed with death, that is an ironic statement.

The Egyptians spent their whole lives preparing for death, or better, for life after death. They spent years, building sealed air tight crypts, ensuring that the food buried with them would not spoil, that the wealth that had would accompany them would not be stolen and that of course, their bodies would be preserved.

In order to stop the decomposing of bodies, the Egyptians mastered the skill of embalming.

Yaakov, on his deathbed, begs Yoseph: "do not bury me in Egypt" (ibid 29). He wants nothing of the Egyptian faith in the after-life. Yaakov makes Yospeh swear that he will "carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their (i.e. his fathers') tomb" (ibid 30).

Therefore, we find it strange that up on his death, "Yoseph commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel" (ibid 50:2). Indeed, Yoseph himself is also mummified: "Yoseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him and he was placed into a coffin in Egypt." (ibid 26).

What's going on here?

Of course, there was a practical purpose to embalming both of them, as they had both requested that they be buried in Canaan. Yoseph knew that it would take many years for himself to be re-interred in Canaan.

"Yoseph said to his brothers, 'I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Avraham, to Yitschak, and to Yaakov.' Yoseph adjured the children of Israel, saying, 'God will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here.'" (ibid 24-25).

Yoseph did not seem to have the influence he had once had and could not organize his immediate burial in Egypt. Indeed, the words he used, suggest that there had been deterioration in Israel's status. If they feel the need to remembered, they must have been feeling forgotten. Nevertheless, Yoseph believes that one day they will return to Canaan. However, that will happen in many years. Therefore, in order to preserve his body for its re-interring, it needed to be embalmed.

Now, even though Yaakov's burial was to be relatively quick, it was not immediate. The embalming process took forty days (see ibid 3). The Egyptians mourned for him for 70 days (possibly concurrent with the embalming). After that, Yoseph asked Pharaoh for permission to bury Yaakov in Canaan (it would have been inappropriate for a mourner to approach the royal court). Not only did "Yoseph's entire household and his brothers and his father's household" go up to Canaan, but also a large procession of "chariots and horsemen also went up with him, and the camp was very numerous" (ibid 9-10). There was a further seven days of mourning when Canaan's borders were reached (see ibid 10) and then the journey was resumed until they reached Hebron.

It would have been disrespectful for Yaakov's body to remain in a state of putrefaction for this lengthy period and journey. Mummification may have been the only respectful option available.

However, note that Yoseph orders his physicians to do the embalming and not priests (ibid 2). Furthermore, Yoseph's remains are placed in a coffin not a crypt (ibid 26). Through this simple act of using the scientific rather than the ceremonial aspects of embalming, Yoseph ensures that his father and he are not contaminated by the religion of Egypt. They are merely preserved for a monotheistic burial in their homeland.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "Yoseph's inheritance" appears at


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