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Sunday, December 19, 2004

VaYechi - Did Ya'akov Die?

ויכל יעקב לצות את בניו, ויאסף רגליו אל המטה, ויגוע ויאסף אל עמיו

(בראשית מ"ט, ל"ג)

After the things he said to his sons on his deathbed, Ya'akov dies:

And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.

(Bereshit 49, 33; KJV)

But does he? Rashi on this pasuk says that the word "death" does not appear in relation to Ya'akov, and refers us to masechet Ta'anit where we are taught that "Ya'akov did not die". Let us look at this reference (Ta'anit 5b):

Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Yitzchak were having a meal together and R. Nachman asked R. Yitzchak to say a dvar torah. R. Yitzchak responded by quoting R. Yochanan who warned people not to speak during the meal, lest they swallow their food incorrectly and put themselves in danger. After the meal, R. Yitzchak dropped his bombshell, again quoting R. Yochanan: Ya'akov did not die! So R. Nachman asked: but we read in Bereshit that Ya'akov was eulogized, mummified and buried! So R. Yitzchak quoted from the prophet Yirmiyahu to equate the eternity of the seed of Ya'akov to prove that Ya'akov himself is still alive.

Strange conclusion, to say the least. In order to try and understand this aggadah from Ta'anit, we need to examine the general approach to interpreting aggadah in the Talmud. Which way should we interpret it: literally, alegorically, mystically, psychologically, or a combination of all of the above? Rambam gives us a direction (even though he does not address this aggadah specifically. In his preamble to perek chelek in Sanhedrin, he categorizes people into three groups:

  1. The "literals", those who accept what the sages said at face value. According to this group, Ya'akov indeed did not die.
  2. The "rationals", those who accept what the sages said but only if it does not conflict with their beliefs, and if it does they ridicule the sages. According to this group, R. Yitzchak did not know what he was on about when he said Ya'akov did not die.
  3. The "wise", those who understand that what the sages say has two levels, an apparent one and a hidden one. Where conflice arises between the saying and rational belief, there must be a hidden meaning that requires an allegorical interpretation of the sages' saying.

Rambam obviously followed the third approach, which enables us also to try and interpret R. Yitzchak's statement allegorically. From a rational perspective and from reading the text in Bereshit, there is no doubt that Ya'akov died, as R. Nachman rightly points out. But we might also conclude that Ya'akov continues to live among us, in the memory of the People of Israel. As long as we read about him, about his life and his teachings, and as long as we strive to follow his ways, he is not dead. Just as the Talmud in Brachot says: the righteous even in death are considered alive.

The idea for this week's Parasha Thought is from Dr. Avraham Elkayam of Bar Ilan University

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