Monday, January 22, 2007

Isaac Died: The Alternative Version of Akedas Yitzchak

The Last Trial is a fantastic book. (And it's available at YU)

It is the English translation of a work (actually, a sixty-seven page introduction to a poem titled 'The Akedah,' written by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn) by Shalom Spiegel titled Me-Aggadot ha-Akedah, literally, "From the Aggadot on the Binding of Isaac." Anyone able to read beautiful, rich Hebrew ought to read it in its original form. With that in mind, I still owe the translator, Judah Goldin, a debt of gratitude- I would never have been able to read this book otherwise.

Spiegel traces the various ideas, legends and lore that grew up around the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, and notes their sources and interpretations, including an approach that I very briefly touched upon in 11th grade and always wanted to know more about- that Isaac died.


The question begins with the famous verse, Genesis 22: 19.

    יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע. {פ}

    19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba. {P}

Avraham returned to the young men.
But where was Isaac?

One of the interpretations was that he was in Paradise. And why was he in Paradise? He was being healed. Why was he being healed? Because of his wound. What wound?

    after the incident on Mount Moriah: "And the angels bore him to Paradise, where he tarried three years, to be healed from the wound inflicted on him by Abraham on the occasion of the Akedah." [Yalkut Reubeni, Wa-Yera (Maggid, Toledot).]

Avraham hurt Yitzchak? Isaac was being healed "from the incision made in him by his father when he began to offer him up as a sacrifice?" [Hadar Zekenim 10b (=Bet ha-Midrash, ed Jellinek, V. p 157) and Minhat Yehudah, Toledot, Gen 25: 27; cf. Hizkuni ad Gen 22:19.]

Apparently the answer is yes.

But that is only a wound. I said that Isaac died. Well, then, how did he die? There are several different midrashim as to how this occurred.

    This is the version in Midrash Lekah Tob, and it is set down in connection with the verse (Gen 31: 42), "The God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac"- "for Isaac was in the grip of fear as he lay bound on top of the altar, and his soul flew out of him, and the Holy One, blessed be He, restored it to him by means of the dewdrops for Resurrection of the dead." (32)

So here we see an approach that Isaac died of fright and was resurrected.

But then we find a:

    small Midrash on the Prayer in Shibbole ha-Leket. On the surface it seems that here have been assembled only the different haggadic strokes we have listed and outlined thus far; but its language clearly reveals that something new has been added, and now the profile of the whole midrash is suddenly transformed in a manner we could never have anticipated or dreamed of from our reading of Scripture: "When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately brought upon him dew and revived him. (33)

The Midrash goes on to say that this is the reason that the "ministering angels began to recite, Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who quickens the dead."

In this case, it appears that Isaac was burnt- he was reduced to ashes.

Note that Avraham does not necessarily slay him here. As Spiegel takes care to point out, if one operates under the assumption that Avraham did everything in accord with the Torah, and later on the Torah gives very specific instructions as to the bringing of a korban or sacrifice, specifically in Leviticus 1: 7:

    וְנָתְנוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אֵשׁ--עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ; וְעָרְכוּ עֵצִים, עַל-הָאֵשׁ.

    7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay wood in order upon the fire.

Note the order: First one places fire on the altar, then wood.

Similarly, by Avraham- Avraham would have lit the fire, then placed wood, and then placed Isaac upon the wood. This idea is completely corroborated by Genesis 22: 9

    ט וַיָּבֹאוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת-הָעֵצִים; וַיַּעֲקֹד, אֶת-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים.

    9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.

In this case, then, Spiegel suggests,

    when Abraham offered up his sacrifice in accordance with the proper order for making a whole burnt offering, and he did with the wood what is done in the propr laying-out of the sacrificial woodpile, wood on top of the fire, and he put his son "on top of the wood." And if in fact he did not do anything to the lad and did not remove him speedily from the wood upon the fire that was burning, why, in a twinkling the whole pile went up in a blaze and the flames of fire had Isaac to themselves and "he was reduced to ashes" and dust. (36)

This is a completely plausible approach- in this case Abraham does not actively kill Isaac, he does not cut him or hurt him, but Isaac dies nonetheless because he is burned to death.

However, Spiegel now cites in a footnote the whole and correct version of this Midrash:

    And now, thanks to a Cambridge University Library manuscript (Or. 1080, Box I: 48), we learn that the Shibbole ha-Leket reading is indeed abridged. Perhaps either R. Zedekiah bar Abraham delli Mansi or some pious soul of an earlier generation was exercising restraint- for reasons similar to those which prompted R. Isaac Aboab to omit that haggadah entirely from beginning to end. For this MS reads: "When Abraham bound his son Isaac on the altar, and slew him and burned him, (the lad) was reduced to ashes, and his ashes were scattered on Mount Moriah; then the Holy One, blessed be He, brought down life-giving dew and revived him [...] See S. Spiegel in the Abraham Weiss Jubilee Volume (New York, 1964), pp. 553-566.]

In this case, Isaac was slaughtered, and Avraham slew him.

Now look to Ta'anis 16a:

    ולמה נותנין אפר בראש כל אחד ואחד פליגי בה ר' לוי בר חמא ור' חנינא חד אמר הרי אנו חשובין לפניך כאפר וחד אמר כדי שיזכור לנו אפרו של יצחק

    Why now are ashes placed on the head of each and every one (of the participants)? There is a difference of opinion in this matter on the part of R. Levi bar Hama and R. Hanina. One says (All the participants put ashes on their heads, to indicate thereby,) Before Thee we are all [like dust and] ashes; and the other says (That is done) so that He might call to mind for our sake Isaac's ashes.

Isaac's ashes, did you say! What ashes are these- are they metaphorical ashes, is Isaac likened to ash; what does this mean?

But no! For see, later in Zevachim 62a-

    אלא מזבח מנא ידעי אמר רבי אלעזר ראו מזבח בנוי ומיכאל השר הגדול עומד ומקריב עליו ור' יצחק נפחא אמר אפרו של יצחק ראו שמונח באותו מקום

    Come now, listen: When the generation that returned from the Babylonian Exile began to build the Second Temple, "How did they know what to do with the altar? Said R' Eleazar: They beheld the altar all built and Michael, the Great Prince, stood by it sacrificing on it. But R. Isaac Napha said: They beheld Isaac's ashes, that these lay on that spot." (44)

So these are real ashes, very real, the foundation of the altar. When God is angry, He looks upon Isaac's ashes as a reminder, and forbears from meting out just punishment.

But this is not all- because another interpretation states that Isaac left one quarter of his blood on top of the altar. (This is from the earliest selections of Mekilta de-R. Simeon ben Yohai)

To quote directly,

    This is the kind of midrashic exegesis that can blow the top off everything said in the Torah about the Akedah event: "A quarter of blood" did you say! So then, the father did indeed lay hand and knife to the lad, and did do what he did to extract from him a quarter of blood, which is the amount required to keep a man alive, "as that galilean taught in Rab Hisda's presence- The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Into you h ave I put a quarter of blood, on the subject of blood I have cautioned you, etc. If you obey them, fine; otherwise I'll have your lives." If, therefore, Isaac gave a quarter log of his blood on the altar, then evidently Abraham did not refrain from this mighty strange action, and wound he did, and possibly with his own hands did slaughter his son. Or in Abraham ibn Ezra's language, in his commentary (Gen 22:19) : The father acted "contrary to Scripture," "for he slaughtered and abandoned" Isaac on the altar. (47)

In fact, in a conversation with Avraham brought down in several places but perhaps most accesibly in Beraishis Rabbah p. 90, Isaac says, "Father, do not be distressed. Come now and carry out the will of your Father in heaven: may it be His will that a quarter of my blood serve as an atonement for Israel." (49)

The idea of Isaac's offering up his blood is incredibly symbolic, especially when one learns that an alternative interpretation to Exodus 12: 23, " For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you," is referencing God's seeing Isaac's blood. In fact, in Genesis 22: 14, Avraham titles the place of the Akedah, 'The Lord Seeth,' again a reference to God's seeing Isaac's blood.

    like the haggadah on "the ashes of Isaac," "the blood of Isaac's Akedah" is carefully preserved, forever to serve as atonement and advocate of Israel in every generation. And whenever Isaac's descendants are in straits, He, as it were, beholds the blood of his Akedah, and pity fills Him so that He turns away the wrath of His anger from His city and His people. That is what we have read in the annals of David's reign, when plague and pestilence broke loose in the Land: "And as he was about to destroy, the Lord beheld, and He repented Him of the evil" (I Chron. 21: 15). What did he behold? He beheld the blood of Isaac's Akedah"- and immediately His compassion conquers His anger and He redeems and delivers. (58)

So now you want to question- but what about the ram? Wasn't the ram brought in place of Isaac? Not necessarily. The word used in the pasuk is "tachat" meaning under or "in place of," but it can also mean after. Those who hold that Isaac was sacrificed and then resurrected believe that the ram was sacrificed afterwards.

The firm idea, belief and midrash that Isaac died and was resurrected has been watered-down, with the inclusion of tentative "as thoughs." It is as though Isaac's ashes are piled on the altar, but they are not actual. Of course, there are commentaries who completely hold by the literal interpretation of Scripture, in which case this makes sense. But there is also a sense of though people would become confused if they knew the truth, and that is why only the finalities have been given- that Isaac did survive, and that Avraham passed the test. What happened before then is not mentioned or often taught, I think- there may be good reason as to why.


I have given you only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to this idea, and The Last Trial is so beautiful, scholarly, logical and clever that it would be very sad if you took this post as a replacement for reading the work itself. So please, please read the book, whether in the original Hebrew or the translated English- it's fascinating and covers far more than this particular idea, referencing all kinds of thought with regard to the Akedah.

An Aside: You will note that Isaac was "like one going out to be burned and carrying on his own shoulders the wood for his pyre" (Tanhuma, ed Buber, Wa-Yera, 46, p. 114). You will also note that he left a quarter of his blood upon the altar, he was resurrected, and either his blood or his ashes act as redemption for the Jews, for God looks at them and refrains from carrying out punishment. Those who mock Christianity and consider it ridiculous or implausible because of the idea that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected are incorrect. The religion may be flawed, but it is not wrong because of this idea, for as you see, we too believe in it, before they ever did.


Anonymous said...

"Similarly, by Avraham- Avraham would have lit the fire, then placed wood, and then placed Isaac upon the wood."

This itself is a compelling argument, as it clearly indicates that even if Avraham did not actually slay him, he would have been burnt.

Charlie Hall said...

A huge difference between normative Christianity and Judaism is the idea of substitutionary atonement: For most (not all) Christians, the "Jesus died for our sins" concept is central to their faith. There is nothing comparable in Judaism -- and thus the "sacrifice" of Isaac is not comparable to that of Jesus.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Interesting point about the order of sacrifice... first placing the 'fire', than the wood (fuel), than the sacrificial animal. But remember, the sacrifice is already dead before it's placed on the fire.

According to that reading, Avraham slaughtered Yitzhhaq first, and then after placing him on the burning altar, was prevented from cutting up the body.

Chana said...

Charlie Hall,

I never meant to suggest that Isaac was a divine figure or atoned for all our sins. However, his merit comes up a lot in Judaism and is a central part of Rosh Hashana and even Yom Kippur davening, I believe. Isaac did not DIE for our sins, and that is not a key concept, but he WAS, according to this reading, resurrected, and his blood/ ashes appease God's wrath.


Good point. This is why, of course, the FULL text of this Midrash as mentioned with regard to the Cambridge text says exactly that (that Avraham slew and then burnt Isaac.)

Anonymous said...

One of my Rabbeim in Yeshiva spoke about Yalkut Ruveini (and my Rav in Savannah mentioned it also) as a quick vort showing that Yitzchak actually was shechted. If you read the Yalkut Ruveini inside, there are a number of further details he points out from the psukim themselves that further prove this idea.

My rebbe from yeshiva also mentioned (I can't recall if this is in the Yalkut Ruveini or not) regarding Yitzchak's appearance when Eliezer returns with Rivkah. He mentioned how the pasuk talks about Yitzchak returning from "the field," possibly in reference to Gan Eden - basically, Yitzchak had just come back into our realm.

In addition, he referred to the Rashi (I think) that says when Yaakov came in to serve Yitzchak food to get the berachos for the first born, Yitzchak recognized the scent of Gan Eden as it exhuded from Yaakov's garment (which Rivkah had been keeping for Eisav, which Eisav took from Nimrod's freshly murdered corpse - the special garment that HaShem made for Adam after the cheit). How could Yitzchak know what Gan Eden smelled like (my Rebbe asked)? Because he had been there before!

Dan Rosen said...

The notion that Isaac's ashes are a physical thing need not mean that they are, well, a physical remnant of Isaac -- one medrash reads that Avraham said ""יהי רצון, שה' יקבל עולה זו, ששחטתי עתה, כאילו שחטתי לפניו את בני יצחק על גבי המזבח"." As the ultimate idea of sacrifice is that the animal (if the kavannah is right) takes the place of the person, then the ashes of the animal are equivalent to the ashes of the person. When the gemara notes that a spot is marked by Isaac's ashes, or that in the merit of the ashes we survive, it could just as easily be the merit of the ram's ashes which were are theologically identical with those of Isaac and which represent both Avraham's complete subsuming of his will, and Isaac's purity of mind and spirit.
Resurrection is not alien to Judaism but the death of the righteous "to atone" is a much more complex notion which was reduced ad absurdum in the Jesus narrative. The Ibn Ezra says as much in his comment that anyone who says that Isaac was actually killed and brought back to life is ignoring the text -- while we can learn out deeper stories, the primary responsibility is to learn those aggadot within the context of the textual demands.

Did Isaac get a cut on the neck which required 2-3 years of healing? Did he die of fright, only later to be brought back to life? Was he burnt alive by the inaction of his father (which wouldn't follow the command that the angels gave...Avraham was already not casting his hand on the child")? I'm not sure, but to think that if, in some sense and according to some medieval (read: influenced by domninant Christian thought) legends (which is when these aggadot trace according to my recollection of Spiegel) Isaac died and that helps keep us alive also means that a death atones for others is a reading which is not demanded or even justified by even those midrashim.

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Elfleda said...

Interesting and I'm saying this from a Christian perspective, but if Abraham had killed Issac or his body had been burned to ash and scattered around, why would later passages then speak against indulging in the same ritual child sacrifice through fire that has been archaeologically happened in the region other peoples? Isn't it more likely that just as homosexual myths such as Zeus and Ganymede were created to justify pederasty in parts of ancient Greece, that this version was created to justify later child sacrifice? Ultimately what would the point of Isaac actually dying be when he was already a miracle baby and child who would fulfil God's covenant with Abraham?