Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayehi 5770/ January 2, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Burial and Blessing

Dr. Mordechai Sabato

Department of Talmud

This week’s reading deals with Jacob’s last days in Egypt, as stated at the beginning of the reading:  “The time approached for Israel to die.”  The account of these events can be divided in two:  from the beginning of the reading until the end of chapter 49, which contains Jacob’s testament to his sons, and chapter 50, describing his death and burial. [1]

Jacob’s testament to his sons can be divided into four paragraphs:

1.     47:28-31, in which Jacob asks Joseph not to bury him in Egypt,

2.     48:1-22, in which Jacob blesses Joseph, as well as his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh,

3.     49:1-28, in which Jacob blesses his twelve sons, [2]

4.     49:29-33, in which Jacob instructs his sons to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah.

These four paragraphs, following one after the other, deal with two themes – the place of Jacob’s burial, and his testament to his sons.  The last two paragraphs form a chiastic parallel to the first two, meaning an arrangement in the order A-B-B-A.  The third paragraph, dealing with Joseph’s blessing to his sons, parallels the second paragraph, dealing with Jacob’s blessing to Joseph, and the fourth paragraph, dealing with Jacob’s command to his sons to bury him in the land of Canaan, parallels the first paragraph, also dealing with Jacob’s request of Joseph to bury him with his ancestors.  


Thus we can say that we have two sections, each of them comprised of two paragraphs, and that the sections parallel each other.  In the first section, comprised of paragraphs one and two, Joseph stood alone before Jacob.  He was the recipient of the request concerning Jacob’s burial and he was the one blessed, while the rest of the sons are not mentioned at all.  In the second section, comprised of paragraphs three and four, all of the sons, including Joseph, stood before Jacob.  They were all given parting words and all were commanded to see to his burial, and Joseph had no special status in this section. [3]   An indication of this difference is given at the beginning of each section.  The first opens with the words, “He summoned his son Joseph,” whereas the second opens with, “And Jacob called his sons,” and concludes with, “All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him.” [4]

Language Connections

In each of the two sections one can find linguistic connections between the two paragraphs comprising it. The first paragraph concludes with the verse, “Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed,” and the second paragraph says, “Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.”  Both paragraphs mention the subject of burial; in the first, Jacob’s burial, and in the second, Rachel’s.  Also the opening phrase of the second paragraph – “Some time afterward” – clearly ties the two paragraphs together.  The same holds for the two paragraphs comprising the second section.   In the first paragraph Jacob says to his sons, “Come together that I may tell you,” and in the second he says to them, “I am about to be gathered to my kin.”   The first paragraph concludes, “this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each [Heb. otam] a parting word appropriate to him [ otam],” and the second begins, “Then he instructed them [otam].”  The linguistic connection between each pair of paragraphs is indicative of their connection in content:  he who takes care of Jacob’s burial is also worthy of receiving his blessing, and those who receive his parting words are the ones charged with seeing to his burial.

The chiastic structure is also indicative of the relationship between Jacob being buried in the land of Canaan and his parting words to his sons.  The paragraphs dealing with his burial are the frame, with the blessings and parting words enclosed in between, indicating that promising to bury him in the land of Canaan is what makes the blessings possible.  The importance of his burial place in Jacob’s eyes can also be seen from the parallel between the end of the first paragraph and the end of the last paragraph.  At the end of the first it says, “And he said, ‘Swear to me.’  And he swore to him. Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed,” and at the end of the second it says, “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”   Jacob could find peace only after Joseph had sworn to him, and this peace was expressed by his bowing at the head of his bed; and only after instructing his sons regarding his burial could Jacob draw his feet into his bed and breathe his last.

What is signified by the connection between Jacob’s request to be buried in the land of Canaan and his parting words to his sons?  To understand this point we must compare it to the passage at the end of the reading in which Joseph makes the children of Israel swear:   “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When G-d has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”  Just as Jacob made Joseph swear, so Joseph made Israel’s sons swear.  However Jacob made Joseph swear he would not bury him in Egypt, but would take him shortly after his death to the land of Canaan, whereas Joseph made them swear to take up his bones only when the entire people were to be redeemed from Egypt.  

Between Jacob and Joseph

This difference reflects the disparity between Jacob’s status and Joseph’s status.   Jacob was one of the three patriarchs of the nation, whereas Joseph was one of the tribes comprising the nation.   Joseph, who had been separated from his brothers at Shechem and taken down to Egypt, sought to return and become reunited with them, and that would happen only when all the children of Israel left Egypt for the land of Canaan.  Had Joseph requested that he be buried in the land of Canaan shortly after his death, that would have been an expression of estrangement from his brothers.  But Jacob insisted that he be buried with his ancestors in the Cave of Machpelah close upon his death, and in this regard said to Joseph, “When I lie down with my fathers ... bury me in their burial-place.”  He also reiterated this to his sons, “Bury me with my fathers ... there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah.”   Jacob knew that only by being united with his fathers in the Cave of Machpelah in the land of Canaan would it be able to create a complete bond between the three patriarchs and the land, and the eternal bond between the people and their land would be forged.

Jacob’s insistence not to be buried in Egypt assured that his children would not settle permanently in that land.   Jacob’s demand that he be buried with his fathers was what assured that the Lord would be with his children and would bring them back to the land of their ancestors.

Blessing and the Land

Both Jacob’s blessing to Joseph and his parting words to his sons are based on the people of Israel dwelling in their land.  The second paragraph deals with Jacob’s blessing to Joseph and begins with the Lord’s promise to Jacob:  “I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession.”   This promise is the basis for Jacob’s blessing to Joseph and for his saying to Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, that they would be as Reuben and Simeon to him.  Also the conclusion of the paragraph returns to the theme of possessing the land:  “I am about to die; but G-d will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.”   Also Jacob’s blessing to his sons is directed, inter alia, at the tribal inheritance of the land.   Thus we see that without first assuring the bond between the nation and its land, there would be no place for Jacob’s blessing to Joseph or to the twelve tribes, and this bond is conditional, as we said, on Jacob being buried with his fathers.


[1] From verse 14 on, Scripture describes what took place after the burial. However this event too can be related to Jacob’s death, since the subject is the tension between Joseph and his brothers now that Jacob is no longer alive.

[2] In this article I ascribe to the interpretation that the third paragraph concerns Jacob’s parting words to his sons and that the concluding verse, “this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him,” relates to the entire passage.   See the discussion of this point in the Hebrew article by Amos Hakham on Parashat Va-Yehi, 1999 (no. 269).

[3] In this section, too, Joseph’s blessing is singular both in its length and its content. Nevertheless, here Joseph receives a blessing as part of the entire group of siblings.  It should be noted that precisely in this section Judah is the brother who stands out above all the others, for he receives the blessing, “Your father’s sons shall bow low to you,” a blessing that until then had been true actually of Joseph, but this is not the place to go into further detail.

[4] The duplication in the two sections and the need for it is a separate question which will not be discussed in this article.  Suffice it to note that also chapter 50, describing Jacob’s actual burial, has considerable duplication between verses 1-11, which give an account of the burial at Joseph’s initiative (and use expressions matching what was said in the passage where Jacob makes Joseph swear regarding his burial), and verses 12-13, which again describe Jacob’s burial, this time by his sons (and there, too, one finds considerable matching of language between these verses and the ones describing Jacob’s instructions to his sons).