As Jacob lay on his deathbed, he instructed Joseph to not bury him in Egypt, but to transport his body and bury him with his father’s in Canaan, at the Machpelah. Jacob demanded that Joseph swear it to him, and he did.
When Jacob finally died, Joseph ordered his servant physicians to embalm his father. Joseph then petitioned Pharaoh for leave to travel and bury Jacob, which was granted. According to his plan, when Joseph and his brothers arrived at the Machpelah with the body of Jacob it would not have putrefied, as it had been embalmed by the physicians in Egypt.
• The Five Books of Moses not having enjoined embalming, Joseph’s instructions to so preserve his dead father’s body did not violate its words. But, accepting as we do, that the Oral Torah does proscribe it, and that presumably the sons of Jacob would have conducted themselves in accordance with all of Torah even before Sinai, how was Joseph justified in acting contrary to this proscription?
• Perhaps the answer is that Joseph wanted to ensure that the Egyptians would not misperceive Jacob as a “god,” because as a righteous man his body would not putrefy. If so, is a believer or community today accorded the freedom to create exceptions to the Torah’s commands when there is a perceived necessity or justification for it?
• Or was Joseph’s instruction to the embalmers perfectly proper and the Oral Torah’s proscription handed down over time, and as we now follow it, simply erroneous?
Rabbi Adam Mintz:
Joel—this week you have addressed the controversial topic of the evolution of Jewish law. Let me discuss several aspects of this issue in the broader context which will help explain the specific issue of embalming dealt with at the end of the Book of Breishit.
1. While many of the medieval commentators assume that the forefathers observed not only the written Torah but also the oral Torah, that view is not borne out in the text of the Torah itself. On the contrary, there are many places where it seems that the people in the Book of Breishit violated even the laws given at Sinai; the fact that Jacob married two sisters is merely the most famous example. The view that the forefathers observed the entire Torah is understandable. How could Abraham have eaten meat and milk together? Or, as the old joke goes, how could Jacob have traveled without a yarmulke? However, when we consider the role of the forefathers, we recognize that their role was to introduce monotheism into a world of polytheists. The laws of the Torah were a second step in that process which could only be accomplished once an entire nation was committed to monotheism. It is interesting that in the desert, the Jews rebel against God by worshipping the Golden Calf and not be violating specific commandments. If there is no monotheism, there is no reason for the observance of the commandments.
2. The fact that the forefathers did not observe the intricacies of rabbinic law does not mean that rabbinic law is an error. Traditional Judaism as expressed in the first mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches that the intricacies of the Oral Tradition were taught to Moshe by God on Mt. Sinai and transmitted from generation to generation. This does not mean that Moshe was taught the intricacies of electricity or BlackBerries. Rather, Moshe was taught certain principles that are applied in each generation to new inventions and new circumstances. The laws of burial and the tradition that burial be done immediately and with minimal interference and preparation may have reflected the different views of burial in the Ancient World that you mentioned. That is conjecture and requires further research. However, the traditional laws of Jewish burial that have been determined by the rabbis and practiced for two millennia reflect the Jewish attitude to the Jewish body and sould and to the evolution of the tradition.
If we look at the portion that leads up to the embalming of Jacob, it is fascinating to analyze the exchange between Jacob and Joseph prior to Jacobs passing on.
Feeling that soon he will leave the world, Jacob asks his son Joseph to make sure that he will be buried in the Holy Land, in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron where Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca were buried. Joseph agrees at once, but Jacob asks him to take an oath that he will do so, which Joseph does willingly.
Then, a moment later, Jacob speaks about the fact that when his wife Rachel, the mother of Joseph, passed away, he did not transport her to the Cave in Hebron, but buried her at the wayside. He did not even carry her to the nearby town of Bethlehem.
Rashi comments that Jacob felt that Joseph might feel upset that his father was asking him to make sure he would be buried in the ancestral burying place in Hebron, while he had not done the same for Joseph’s mother.
Nonetheless, Rashi says, Jacob had acted according to G-d’s Will, and hence, Rachel’s own will. For many years later, when the Jews would be led into exile by the Babylonians, they would pass near Rachel’s grave, where they would take courage, for they knew that she was imploring G-d on their behalf. The prophet Jeremiah, who lived through those events, said that “Rachel is weeping for her children” but also declared that G-d reassures her that they will be redeemed.
As an aside , here we see the difference between Jacob and Rachel. Jacob sought the highest level of holiness which could possibly be achieved. Hence he wanted to be buried in the sacred Machpelah Cave in Hebron. By contrast Rachel was concerned for her children. She was ready to forgo the sanctity of the Machpelah Cave, because instead she would have the chance to help her descendants who were going into exile.
Just a few weeks ago we read and commented on the story of Judah and Tamar, After acknowledging the trusth of his relationship with Tamar, Judah marries her. Yet Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law, and the Torah forbids a person to marry his daughter-in-law. True, the Torah had not yet been officially given, but, as we know, that the patriarchs kept the Torah voluntarily even before it was given, and Jacob’s brother presumably did the same when there was no reason not to. One of the answers that is given, is that Judah may have felt it was better to transgress a future law, which he was not obligated to keep, than abandon Tamar.
Is it possible that Jacob placed so much emphasis on being buried in the Machpelah Cave that Joseph uses similar logic to Judah? He decides to fulfill the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av – honoring his father and specifically his fathers final wish.
To Rabbi Mintz’s second point there is a Mishna in Avot (6:11) that states: “Everything G-d created in His world He created to express His glory ”
Using that principal technology and the advent of modernization are not challenges for our faith but rather new mediums and media through which to sanctify G-d and express Love for his children. How Halacha applies to modernization is only a part of how we can use technology for the betterment of a Jewis life and Jewish living.
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