by Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – In an after-dinner conversation between two Babylonian sages, Rav Nahman invited his colleague Rabbi Isaac to share a Torah insight. Rabbi Isaac responded by quoting an astonishing declaration in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: “Our forefather Jacob never died!”
Rav Nahman retorted by pointing out how this assertion contradicted the explicit words of the Bible which details the very elaborate funeral and mourning rites that were performed for Jacob, and his burial in the ancestral Machpelah tomb. Rabbi Isaac dismissed those problematic texts and said that he had was expounding a scriptural verse of his own, from the prophecy of Jeremiah: “Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, saith the Lord; neither be dismayed, O Israel. For, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity.”
Although it is clear that the name “Jacob” is being employed in very different ways in the two passages – in one as the name of an individual, and in the other as the nation of his descendants six centuries later – Rabbi Isaac insisted that the Bible wants us to draw a direct comparison: just as Jeremiah assured the exiled people of Israel that they shall survive and be restored to a peaceful existence in their homeland, so should we infer that Grandpa Jacob was given a divine assurance of his immortality.
Rabbi Isaac’s homily is as puzzling as it is uplifting. Such interpretative comparisons usually work in the opposite direction, with the virtues of the ancestors providing a source of inspiration for the later generations. And in any case, the Talmud’s story does not make clear what we are supposed to conclude regarding the apparent death and funeral of the patriarch.
Rashi found justification for a literal reading of the statement of Rabbis Yohanan and Isaac in a precise reading of the Torah’s account of Jacob’s demise: “He expired, and was gathered unto his people.” That verse does not use the normal Hebrew word for dying (vayyamot).
Nahmanides and other commentators objected that the word for death is indeed found in several other places in the story; but suggested that those instances may not convey the objective facts but only the perspectives of the characters, including Jacob’s sons, and even the patriarch himself (“Israel said unto Joseph: behold, I die”) who might not have been cognizant of —or was too modest to mention— that he was destined for immortality. Rabbi Josiah Pinto speculated that Jacob’s immobile body remains secured against natural decomposition until the time of resurrection.
This episode brings to mind the legendary exchange between the first-century philosopher Apollonius of Tyana and a court clerk prior to Apollonius’ trial before the emperor Domitian. The philosopher supposedly revealed that he planned to maintain silence, as Socrates had done at his trial. When the clerk reminded him that Socrates had in fact been sentenced to death, Apollonius retorted enigmatically, “He did not die; the Athenians only thought he did.”
Nahmanides’ disciple Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret concluded that the statement must have a secret meaning, noting that Jacob was the first of our biblical ancestors whose progeny were entirely worthy, untainted by the likes of an Ishmael or an Esau.
The thirteenth-century Italian scholar Rabbi Isaiah di Trani cited this passage in support of his insistence that midrashic homilies should not be confused with actual exegesis. The consummate divine Author who composed the Torah instilled in it a single primary meaning, but (as is to be expected even from mortal authors) allowed for multiple levels of secondary interpretation. Accordingly, Rabbi Isaac should be understood as saying “Yes, I am perfectly aware that Jacob died, but my intention was to interpret the verse in every possible manner, even if it clashes with its literal sense. It likely contains an allusion to the teaching that ‘the righteous are deemed to be alive even after their deaths,’ in that their renown, their memories and their deeds are everlasting.”
In addition to his commentaries to the Bible and Talmud, Nahmanides was an exponent of the esoteric doctrines of the Kabbalah. In his hands the Talmud’s puzzling statement about Jacob’s not dying became a vehicle for expounding a fascinating belief about the soul’s nature and its destiny following death. The souls of “normal” righteous individuals are removed from our world and relocated directly to paradise (the “garden of Eden”) until the time of the resurrection. There is however a class of the holiest souls who continue to hover about our world, especially around their graves. To them are given ethereal spiritual garments which they can don in order to make periodic appearances in the mortal realms. Some later kabbalists explained that Jacob belonged to an exclusive group who kept their ethereal garments on at all times so that they could always be available to benefit the lower world by drawing down divine mercy.
The Zohar teaches that every person receives a spiritual garment in the next world, one that is woven from the good deeds and intentions that we amass during our lifetimes. In Jewish literature, the earliest mention of this garment of good deeds is found in the tenth-century Arabic collection of inspirational tales, the Book of Comfort by Rabbi Nissim Ibn Shahin of Kairouan. Some scholars trace this notion, which has no known equivalent in ancient Jewish sources, to ideas from the Persian Avesta where the reward for a virtuous life takes the form of a maiden whose charms increase in proportion to one’s righteousness. It also echoes themes from the concept of Karma in Mahayana Buddhism. Even philosophically orientated commentators like Rabbis Isaac Arama and Manasseh ben Israel favoured this approach, regarding it as consistent with Plato’s belief that the soul is essentially independent of the body (in opposition to the Aristotelian theory that body and soul make up an inseparable unity).
Indeed, aspiring to the exquisite robes of righteous souls like Jacob’s became a powerful motif in Jewish legend —truly a garment to die for.