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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Jacob’s Embalmment

How was Joseph allowed to embalm his father Jacob? Is that permitted according to Jewish law?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s a good question. Embalming seems quite contrary to the Jewish way in burial. The body is buried very simply, allowing it to decay and return to the earth as quickly as possible. This is also considered spiritually beneficial for the soul. After death, a person’s soul is naturally drawn to his body – the thing most familiar to it. The longer it takes the body to decompose, the longer it will take for the soul to depart this world and ascend to heaven (see e.g. Talmud Brachot 18b).

A number of the commentators explain that what Joseph 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 Jacob’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. (Today this is done much less invasively with refrigeration.)

There is further a debate in the Midrash if Joseph erred in embalming his father (even if it was this more minor procedure). According to one opinion it was not only justified but requested by Jacob – presumably to preserve his body for the extended period needed.

According to a second opinion in the Midrash, Joseph 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 Jacob would not decay, and so, preserving his body was unnecessary. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 47b) states that the decomposition of the body is a form of atonement – something the fully-righteous Jacob did not need. Thus, in embalming his father, Joseph showed a lack of appreciation of his father’s greatness.

This opinion states further that because of Joseph’s sin of poor judgment, he was the first of the brothers to die (see Exodus 1:6), passing on at a youthful 110 (as compared to Levi’s 137).

The commentator Ohr HaChaim offers a fascinating alternative suggestion as to why Joseph embalmed his father. Joseph actually did know that his righteous father would not decay. But he feared that had the Egyptians witnessed this, they would have deified Jacob and worshiped his body, also possibly not allowing him to take the body out of the country. To avoid this, Joseph purposely had him embalmed – so that the Egyptians would attribute his preservation to natural causes.

(Sources: Zohar Parshat Vayechi 251a, Targum Yonatan, Da’at Zekeinim, Chatam Sofer Y.D. 336, Yabia Omer III Y.D.23:25, Igrot Moshe, Y.D. 3:143, Shevet Halevi 2:203, Bereishit Rabbah 100:4, Talmud Baba Metziah 84b.)

Sexual Immorality – Giving Up One's Life

I read that all the Torah's commandments "can be broken to save a life" except for three. I think I understand two of the three:

1) Idolatry - this would threaten the very fabric of Judaism and therefore cannot be allowed.

2) Murder - you cannot take one life to save another, because every human being is infinitely valuable. In the words of the Talmud, "who knows whose blood is redder?" (Though it is permitted to take a life in self-defense.)

The one that is really puzzling me is #3: Sexual immorality like incest and adultery. Why is this so serious? I'm not suggesting it is a "good" thing, but if sleeping with your brother or another man's wife would save a life... why not?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Let's start with the premise that a stable family structure is the primary foundation of healthy society. Societies in which the family unit is falling apart are societies in trouble.

What is the prime cause of the breakdown of the family unit? Sexual promiscuity -- e.g. adultery causes divorce, teen pregnancy produces unwed mothers, etc.

Given that the sex drive is the strongest human drive (second only to survival itself), human nature, left undisciplined, will allow sex to dominate personal and societal life. One look at Hollywood tells us this is true.

Perhaps an even starker example is in antiquity, where society was highly sex-centered. Almost all the polytheistic religions begin with the gods engaging in sexual activity in order to create the world. Temple prostitutes, temple orgies, and fertility rites were regular features of almost all religions. In classical Greek civilization, pederasty (man-boy) was viewed as the highest form of love. As a result, Greece was a misogynist society where women were relegated to the very bottom of the social ladder and birthrates plummeted.

Such a society could not sustain itself – and ultimately decayed and crumbled.

The Torah believes that only when sexuality is channeled within the committed bond of marriage, can society hope to escape this destructive obsession with sex. Jewish law requires a person to control himself physically and focus his sexual and emotional energy on his spouse exclusively. Judaism was therefore unique in the world when it came out and forbade homosexuality, pederasty, bestiality - and held marriage as the ideal state.

It is not overstating to say that the Torah's laws changed the world and made the creation of Western civilization possible.

As a way to guard this ideal, the Torah prescribes strict deterrents, and the obligation to sacrifice one's life rather than transgress. It is only this "absolute" prohibition which can convey the absolute importance of sexual morality. And that is why there are no exceptions, for any reason at all.

User-friendly Siddur

I am just getting into a routine of daily prayer. The old siddur that I have uses a very stilted translation. Is there anything more up-to-date that you’d recommend?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

As far as commentary and instruction on Jewish prayer, nothing comes close to the ArtScroll Siddur (Mesorah Publications 1984). It is translated by top-rate Jewish scholars, who understand the subtleties of the Hebrew language and have a great knowledge of Talmudic sources. More than just a text of the prayers, this includes full explanations of all prayers, laws and customs. Features a masterful essay on the essence of prayer. Includes special prayers for the holidays and life-cycle events. Beautifully organized and designed.

ArtScroll also publishes a transliterated prayer book. They even have what’s called an “inter-linear” prayer book, which has the Hebrew and English running together on the same line.

You should find these in any Jewish bookstore, or at www.artscroll.com.

May the Almighty hear all our prayers!