Yaakov: Embalmed or Not? by Doniel Sherman


This week’s Parsha poses a very interesting Halachic problem. After Yaakov died, Yosef commanded his physicians to embalm and mummify Yaakov, as the Pasuk says, “VaYetzav Yosef Et Avadav Et HaRofe’im LaChanot Et Aviv VaYachantu HaRofe’im Et Yisrael,” “And Yosef commanded the physicians, his servants, to embalm Yaakov, and the physicians embalmed Israel” (Bereishit 50:2). Mummification is the process of permanently preserving a body in its physical state. This is a very problematic Pasuk, as it contradicts one of Hashem’s commands earlier in Sefer Bereishit. As Hashem expelled Adam from Gan Eden, He told him that he would be punished by having to work the ground by the sweat of his brow in order to sustain himself until he dies and returns to the ground. Hashem then concludes by stating, “Ki Afar Atah VeEl Afar Tashuv,” “For you are dust and to dust shall you return” (Bereishit 3:19). The two Pasukim are clearly contradictory, as the first Pasuk contains God’s command that all bodies be buried and returned to the ground to deteriorate, while the latter Pasuk in VaYechi contains Yosef’s command that Yaakov be mummified.  How could Yosef have blatantly disregarded Hashem’s command?

Shockingly, most Meforshim, including Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak, agree that Yaakov wasn’t mummified in the usual sense of the word.  Rather, the mummification process consisted of adding spices and fragrance to Yaakov’s body. 

Rabbi Pinchas Winston provides another way to understand this contradiction.  He quotes a Midrash that explains that Yaakov was hesitant to be buried in Egypt because he would be worshipped as a god.  When Yaakov went to Egypt, the Nile river rose and the famine ended, thus the Egyptians would have had “justification” in deifying him. Yaakov was worried about such a possibility, and took preventive measures by asking his sons to bury him in Eretz Canaan.  Rabbi Winston proposes a radical approach; perhaps Yaakov wasn’t really embalmed. In fact, Yosef had someone else’s corpse embalmed, mourned over and worshipped, while Yaakov’s real body was brought unharmed to Mearat HaMachpeilah. 

Regardless of whose opinion is accepted, it would seem that Yaakov wasn’t really mummified according to the regular understanding of the word. Rather, his body was made sweet smelling, resolving the troubling contradiction. 

It is always important to examine the stories we find in Tanach through the prism of Halacha.  Doing so often reveals important insights and perspectives about the story and the application of the laws. 

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