Weekly Parsha Review Laced with Humor and Sarcasm from The Oisvorfer Ruv

Vayichi 2020 – Mummification & Embalmment

Raboyseyee and Ladies,

We begin this week’s review with big mazel tov wishes to our dear friend and superwoman Rochelle Rohde, upon the marriage this past Wednesday evening of her beautiful daughter Talya Alexandra to Uriel Hassan. And what a wedding it was! Mazel tov to Talia’s siblings and their spouses, to her uncles, aunts, and to her extended family. A very special mazel tov to Talia’s bubby, Mrs. Bernice Weiss; may she continue to see nachas from her extended family until at least 120.  Mazel tov as well to Uriel’s parents, Sara and Shilo Hassan and their entire family. May Talia and Uriel be blessed with many decades of marital bliss.

And a big mazel tov to our friends Chani and Jay Kestenbaum upon the engagement last week and the celebration this week of their son Yosef (aka: Joseph) to Becca Rauch, beautiful daughter of Suzi and Steve Rauch. A special mazel tov Suzi’s mom, Grandma Stahler, who in 1969 opened her house regularly to allow the future Oisvorfer to do his laundry while attending (but not learning too much in) the Yeshiva of Scranton.  

And in more exciting news, a big mazel tov to Gabriel Leifer upon his upcoming aufruf this coming shabbis, and his wedding this coming Sunday, to his beautiful kallah, Avigail Hackel, she the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Shlomo Hackel. Mazel tov to Gabriel’s parents, our friends, Astrid and Mordecai Leifer (Mord),  and to the entire extended Liefer and Guttmann families. The Oisvorfer and eishes chayil will be in attendance and look forward to sharing in this great simcha. Mazel tov to Gabriel’s grandparents, friends of many decades, Sarah and Moishe Leifer and Lieve and Joseph Guttmann. 

Mummification & Embalmment

Flu season is upon us and as a preventive measure, earlier this week, the Oisvorfer walked into a CVS where he requested and got the flu shot. Whether or not it will help, ver veyst, but one thing is zicher: the injected right arm has been hurting ever since. Why? Ver veyst? Speaking of the flu and getting sick, and also soon to be speaking of Yaakov Ovenu who makes his last appearance in this week’s parsha (until next year), according to some, and specifically Pirkei De Rebbe Eliezer (chapter 51 and in some editions, chapter 52), it is because of Yaakov that we all get sick. What’s pshat? Says he azoy: until Yaakov, people would just die – drop dead mamish it seems- without ever getting sick. When their number was up, be they in shul, on vacation, or elsewhere, they died without warning. Along came Yaakov and requested from the RBSO that he be given warning that his death was imminent. Why? He wanted time to tidy up his affairs. In this case, such tidying up specifically included the excoriation of  a few of his sons, while singling out for praise the others.

In any event, his pre-death warning system was granted and began manifest itself though illness. From then on people became sick before dying. Shoin: and with that one request, Yaakov gave birth to the entire medical profession. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, hospitals, drug companies, and so many others selling ancillary products and services, all owe their livelihoods to Yaakov. So do attorneys who line up to sue these very doctors and hospitals. Let’s not avada forget the RBSO who approved the grant. As the Oisvorfer has told you over and again: the heylige Toirah has inspired more entrepreneurship than have all the schools, colleges and universities combined. Yale and Harvard pale by comparison. Looking for a new business idea? Keep learning the heylige Toirah and Gemora: somewhere in your studies you will come across a new chap for a business.  And says the heylige Gemora (Buba Metzia 87A), azoy: until Yaakov there was no sickness. Yaakov came and requested mercy and shoin, sickness has since been upon us ever since. And we know this how? Says  the heylige Toirah (Bereishis 48:1) in this week’s parsha “after this Yoisef was told, ‘your father is ill.’” Shoin. Thankfully, in our times, being sick is typically not associated with dying, and the flu -even if not totally preventable- is for the most part, manageable. Thank the RBSO! Let’s move on to another topical discussion.

According to The Smithsonian Institution, the methods of embalming, or treating the dead body practiced by the ancient Egyptians -way back when- is called mummification. Using special processes, the Egyptians removed all moisture from the body, leaving only a dried form that would not easily decay. The Institution also tells us that mummification was practiced throughout most of early Egyptian history. Ober, according to another site, mummification is the process of removing internal organs, while embalming is the process of putting chemicals on/in the body to preserve it. And yet one other source tells us azoy: embalming and mummification both mean the same thing, but embalming is more focused on the general preserving of bodies, than is mummification. Got all that? Veyter! Shoin, if we didn’t know better, one might think these sites are run by family members of our medieval commentators of the heylige Gemora who loved to argue and disagree on everything. And we begin with this topic why? Because embalmment and or mummification is mentioned twice in this week’s parsha, OMG! What happened, and to whom? Let’s unwrap the mystery.

Last week we read of two very emotional reunions: Yoisef revealed himself to his brothers, and also met up with this father after 22 years. Welcome to Vayichi; it’s a week and 71 years later and by the time Vayichi and Sefer Bereishis come to a close, both will have passed away. And while all agree that Yoisef taka died, there are exegetes who claim that Yaakov never did. He didn’t? Ever? Ober doesn’t the heylige Toirah dedicate a goof number of pisukim to events  -including his funeral- following his passing? It does! Does it not in very colorful detail describe his embalmment, his funeral procession, and his burial in the Meoras Hamachpaylo where he was interred alongside Leah, one of his four wives? And did he not leave special instruction on where he was to be buried? And the answer is yes to all these questions: Yaakov was empathic about his burial; he planned his own funeral, and of course the heylige Toirah describes his passing. And if that taka is the case, how can one he be dead and buried, yet still be alive? Ver veyst? Ober let us not forget; this myseh is found in the heylige Gemora where avada all that is written is zicher emes, unless it is not. How could that be? Nu, if you went to yeshiva, avada you recall that the heylige Gemora consists of halocho limyseh (the bottom line) and aggadah (tales, stories, lore, meant to teach us lessons); this particular exchange among several Gemora personalities falls into that category. Shoin: I said it, now what? Of course, there are those who believe that every story retold in the Gemora is absolutely emes, ober that discussion –a rather lengthy one- for another day.

The Gemora says what? That Yaakov never died? Nu, let us learn it together: says the heylige Gemora (Taanis 5b), azoy, “Rebbe Yoichonon stated, ‘Our father Yaakov (Jacob) did not die.’ Rabbi Nachman asked, ‘Was it in vain that they eulogized Yaakov and embalmed his body and buried him?’ Rabbi Yoichonon responded, ‘I derive this (his proof) from a verse: ‘Fear not, Yaakov My servant… for I will save you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity’ (Jeremiah 30:10). The verse likens Yaakov to his offspring: just as his offspring live, so too, Yaakov.’”

What did Rebbei Yoichonon mean when he stated that Yaakov did not die? If he intended to say that his soul is still alive, who needs proof from a verse? Avada we all chap that the souls of all righteous people are eternal, so they teach us. And if he meant that Yaakov’s body did not die, several verses, including one quoted below, explicitly state that he did. What’s pshat? Says the heylige Toirah (Bereishis 50:15), “Yoisef’s brothers realized that their father had died.” Is that clear enough? Shoin, case closed: he did die. Ober along comes Toisfes (a medieval Talmudic commentator) and says that when describing Yaakov’s death, the Toirah (Bereishis 49:33) only states that he ‘expired’, not that he ‘died.’ Limeye nafka-mina (and the difference)? Shoin: to solve the mystery, we need to examine the difference between these two verbs. Are you confused? You should be. Seemingly there is a shtikel difference –efsher of the life and death variety- between the words “expired” and “died.” In other words, a person could efsher expire but still be alive. Think of the many medications and ointments lying in your cupboards. Some expired years ago, ober, if you need them, you will avada convince yourself that the particular product is still alive and potent. Grada, the Oisvorfer came across an article stating just that: in most cases, even years after expiration, pills and other zachin remain potent. And if that’s the case, is it not believable that Yaakov expired but did not die? So happens that if Yaakov but expired but did not die, we can better chap why none of his children sat shiva or eulogized their own father. They didn’t? Say it’s not so please; our heylige shvotim didn’t mourn for their own father? Oy vey! It so happens that the heylige Toirah only mentions that the Mitzrim (Egyptians) eulogized Yaakov, ober, not one word about how sad his own kids might have been with his passing. Says the heylige Toirah (Bereishis 50:11), “A profound mourning for Egypt.” Ober, avada we can give them a pass if Yaakov did not in fact die; why mourn for a living person? Was Yaakov faking his own death? Was he about to enter the WPP (witness protection program?)

Shoin, we covered the difference between ‘expired’ and ‘died’ and now let us further examine what to die really means. Seemingly on can die but also not be fully dead. How is that shayich? And the reason this debate is even possible? Seemingly, one’s state of deadness depends on just how one translates or interprets the word dead. Shoin! Back to that in a moment, ober we interrupt to discuss embalmment. Did we mention that Yaakov was embalmed? Indeed so; we did because that is specifically what the heylige Toirah tells us; who are we to argue?

Ober, according to the sages who tell us that Yaakov did not die, what does the heylige Toirah mean to tell us when befeirsuh (in plain Hebrew) it tells us that he was embalmed? Did they embalm a live person? So happens that no lesser a giant than the Alshich mentions this tradition. And when we say tradition, we do not mean or refer to words from the song Tradition….Tradition we hear Tevya singing in Fiddler on the Roof; instead, when one or more Talmudic exegetes (sages) mention this or any  other theory, no matter how outlandish,  it becomes a tradition. When it comes to tradition, some believe them to be sacred, others not so much. Still, if he did not die, why would the heylige Toirah tell us that he was embalmed? Nu, one cannot trap our sages as they -mistama from learning Gemora- were so clever- and of course they have answer to the embalmment of a live person. Yaakov’s embalmment was necessary to pretend that he died. Why? To collect on a life insurance policy? In order to prevent the goyishe Mitzrim who at that time were still enamored with Yoisef and by extension his father and even brothers from turning Yaakov into an idol, to deify him. More on  that soon. What to do? Embalm Yaakov while still alive. What that means, ver veyst? According to this pshat, Yoisef commanded those he employed to proceed with embalmment in order to deceive them into thinking Yaakov was dead. Why would he do that?

We shall address that below, ober ershtens we ask azoy: is embalmment what Yiddin do to loved ones who have passed? It is not! Be that as it may, let us read two pisukim directly from the heylige Toirah which tell us what took place after both Yaakov and Yoisef passed away. We begin with Yaakov Ovenu.

Says the heylige Toirah (Bereishis 50:2), azoy:

בוַיְצַ֨ו יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶת־עֲבָדָיו֙ אֶת־הָרֹ֣פְאִ֔ים לַֽחֲנֹ֖ט אֶת־אָבִ֑יו וַיַּֽחַנְט֥וּ הָרֹֽפְאִ֖ים אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:


And in English: “Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel.” They did what to Yaakov? Embalmed him? Mamish? What is embalmment? Was this kosher? We shall debate that shortly. On the other hand, where was it then written that it was not? No place! Do we Yiddin allow our loved ones to be embalmed? We don’t. Embalming is not practiced today. Did Yoisef do the right calling for his embalmment? We shall explore that as well. Ober before we do, let’s read what happened to Yoisef when he died. Says the heylige Toirah (Bereishis 50:26) azoy:

26And Yoisef died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt.   כווַיָּ֣מָת יוֹסֵ֔ף בֶּן־מֵאָ֥ה וָעֶ֖שֶׂר שָׁנִ֑ים וַיַּֽחַנְט֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ וַיִּ֥ישֶׂם בָּֽאָר֖וֹן בְּמִצְרָֽיִם:

As you can imagine, the heylige Oisvorfer was not the first to ask this question and taka The Malbim (50:2) wonders why Yoisef would allow such a process given that it was rooted in Egyptian religious beliefs. Ober since the Toirah specifically tells us that Yaakov was embalmed, The Malbim explains azoy: typically, when a person dies the neshomo (soul) leaves the body immediately, but the ruach (spirit) lingers. The ruach departs only after the body decays, and this happens because one was not able to make his ruach into a purely ruchni (spiritual) thing, whatever that means. Ober Yaakov avada achieved completeness in this area; he was able to actualize his whole being into a spiritual existence and hence did not need his body to decay. As such, his ruach departed at the same time as his neshomo. In other words: he was completely dead and accordingly, Yoisef was permitted to have him embalmed. What that means, I have no idea! Let’s try again: in Jewish tradition there are seemingly immense differences between the body and the soul. Says Koheles (Ecclesiastes 12:7): “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto G-d who gave it.” When does that happen? According to Kabala, only when the body returns to dust naturally, can the soul return to the RBSO. Says the heylige Toirah (Bereishis 3:19) “for dust you are and unto dust shall you return.”  Said Rav Shamshon Rephoale Hirsch:  “Here we see an interesting contrast between the Egyptian view, which expresses itself in the embalming of the dead, and the Jewish view. The Egyptians-embalmed the dead, so that the body would retain its uniqueness; however, they did not consider the soul unique. However, according to Judaism’s view, the soul is eternal and the body has no permanent place. Our mortal body turns to dust and experiences many material incarnations.” All clear? Veyter.

Let’s try that again: since he was completely dead with both his body and soul gone –and his body did not require decomposition, mummification or embalmment, if it took place for Yaakov, would be just fine. And says The Radvaz(1:484) citing the Rashba, azoy: if embalmment is being performed to honor the deceased, or for some other valid purpose, then it is permitted. As an aside, and not that embalmment talk makes anyone hungry, there is a serious discussion from the Radvaz (3:979) concerning whether or not it’s permitted to eat a mummy. Nu, mistama this discussion was written when he wasn’t busy arguing other matters.

And the bottom line? Was Yaakov embalmed or mummified? That of course depends on whether or not he died. So, let’s make believe he did and if he did then the Egyptian doctors made efforts to preserve his body until his burial back in Chevron, Israel (then still K’nan). And taka so says Rashi and the Ibn Ezra. And if he did die, and if he was embalmed, the embalming would have been Halachically permissible. Why? Because no place does the heylige Toirah tell us otherwise. Moreover, let’s not forget that Yaakov died before the heylige Toirah was to be revealed. In fact, he died at least 100+ years earlier. Some however say that embalmment would only have been permitted for Yaakov if all his organs were buried and not wasted. Then again, others say that the embalming was only external to provide the body a good scent, to keep the schmeck fresh. Accordingly, his embalmment was kosher. The bottom line: it’s seemingly always good -even in death- to smell good.

A number of the commentators explain azoy: what Yoisef had the Egyptian doctors do was not true embalmment – which is a rather gory process, involving discarding many internal organs. Rather, it was a non-surgical procedure, in which preservatives were inserted into Yaakov’s navel, allowing the body to last during the lengthy mourning period and travel to Israel for burial. In fact, according to Jewish law, one may do such forms of temporary preservation for the honor of the deceased. Thankfully in our times,  this is accomplished  much less invasively with refrigeration.

Ober, says The Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, a 19th century Jewish commentator) that embalmment, even to Yaakov, was more real: the Mitzrim would remove from the dead body the brain and the innards, and would fill the stomach with herbs and spices, and afterwards they would salt the body with nitrum for forty days. Herodotus says seventy days, and Diodorus says more than thirty days. And there is no doubt that this practice was known among the Yiddin and to Moishe better than it was known to the Greeks.

The bottom line: Both Yaakov and Yoisef underwent a chanita (embalmment)  process, ober what exactly is this chanita (embalming) that was performed on both Yaakov and Yoisef? Was it permitted? Let’s read what a few had to say. Says the medrish (Midrash Rabba and the Abarbanel: chanita involved an invasive procedure of cutting the stomach open and removing the intestines, liver, etc. Spices and other chemicals were then added to prevent decay. The body eventually hardened and retained its form for an extended period of time. So happens that the Radak and Tosfos Yom Tov (Pesachim) agree and add that this embalming was done to other Jewish kings as  further described elsewhere in Tanach.  And says the Rashba, citing the Midrash that chemical cremation is permitted in specific cases. Ober says the heylige Zoihar (cited by the Chasam Sofer and others) that Yaakov’s body would never have been mutilated. Rather, they inserted the necessary elements through open passageways in the body. All that being said, was it kosher for Yoisef to order chanita (mummification or embalmment) on his father?

Says the medrish:  some say Yoisef was criticized for not having faith that Yaakov wouldn’t decompose. And he was punished as a result. More jail time? Another encounter with Mrs. Potiphar? Also not! According to one opinion it was not only justified but requested by his farther, presumably to preserve the body for the extended period needed. Yoisef  was but heeding a dying man’s request, in this case, his own father’s request. According to a second opinion, Yoisef was wrong in doing so, but not because embalming is forbidden per se, but because he should have realized that the body of a righteous person like Yaakov would not decay, and so, preserving his body was unnecessary. Says the heylige Gemora  (Sanhedrin 47b), the decomposition of the body is a form of atonement – something the fully-righteous Yaakov did not need. Thus, in embalming his father, Yoisef showed a lack of appreciation of his father’s greatness. And his punishment? According to the pshat that Yoisef did bad, he was the first of the brothers to die (Shmois 1:6), passing on at a youthful 110 (as compared to Levi’s 137).

And says the Ohr HaChaim so gishmak, azoy: Yoisef  embalmed his father though he knew gantz gut (very well) that his righteous father would not decay. Ober, he feared that had the Mitzim witnessed this, they would have deified Yaakov and worshiped his body. Yoisef efsher feared that the Egyptians might misunderstand a refusal to embalm Yaakov’s body, they might think he is not dead, or that his corpse does not need embalming because it emits no odor? In any case, there was -in Yoisef’s opinion- a real  danger that the Mitzrim might decide to worship Yaakov as a god.

Moreover, had that been the case, Yoisef would have been hard pressed to get permission to transfer his body out of Mitzrayim. And….Yoisef did not have the connections Carlos Ghosn has to smuggle him out. This was Mitzrayim, not Japan!

A gittin Shabbis-

The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv

Yitz Grossman

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