In this week’s Parsha, Yosef gives the order for Yaakov’s body to be mummified. The Pasuk says, “Vaytzav Yosef Et Avadav Et HaRof’im Lachanot Et Aviv,” “And Yosef ordered his servants and physicians to embalm his father” (50:2). However, Bereishit 3:19 says, “Ki Afar Atah VeEl Afar Tashuv,” “For you are dust, and to dust shall you return,” from which we infer that mummification is prohibited by Torah law! How, then, could Yosef prescribe it for his father?
The Or HaChaim suggests an answer to this question. He points out that a Tzadik’s body never fully decomposes, so Yaakov, as a Tzadik, would merit having his body preserved. The Mitzrim observed a seventy-day mourning period before entombing the dead body, which meant that the Egyptians would see the miracle of Yaakov’s body’s preservation. Because of this miracle, they would worship Yaakov and perhaps turn his body into an idol. Therefore, Yosef had the Egyptians embalm the body, so they would attribute the lack of deterioration to their own skills. Thus, Yosef was preventing Yaakov from joining the pantheon of Egyptian gods.
The Torah says that the physicians worked on the embalming process for forty days and that the Mitzrim wept for seventy days. Rashi teaches that Yaakov’s “embalming” involved only the usage of a mixture of nice-smelling spices on the body. Therefore, Rav Aryeh Kaplan further explains that Yaakov’s partial embalming took only forty days, while a regular embalming process would have taken seventy days. After the forty days of Yakov’s partial embalming, though, the Mitzrim continued to mourn for another thirty days to finish the regular mummification and mourning period. Perhaps the reason the Mitzrim felt compelled to finish the grieving process, as opposed to ending after forty days, was that they had not realized that Yaakov’s “mummification” was finished and that his lack of deterioration was a miracle from Hashem.