Parashat Vayechi: Aveilut (Mourning)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Shiur #12: Aveilut (Mourning)

By Rav Binyamin Tabory


            The Torah tells us that after Yaakov passed away and was embalmed, the Egyptians bewailed him for seventy days.  Yosef then asked Pharaoh for permission to bury Yaakov in the grave which had been prepared in Canaan.  Pharaoh acceded to this request and a great entourage accompanied them until they reached Goren Ha-atad, where eulogies were delivered and seven days of mourning were observed (Bereishit 50:1-12).


            The gemara (Moed Katan 20a) seeks a biblical source for seven day aveilut.  Tosafot (ad loc.) point out that you cannot derive it from our incident, as the seven days of mourning were observed prior to interment.  However, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Moed Katan 3:5) does say that this is the source for aveilut.  The Yerushalmi then says, "We learn this (from an incident that occurred) before the Torah was given." Tosafot (ibid.) interpret this rhetorically; is it possible to learn something from an event prior to matan Torah?


            There is a major controversy among Rishonim if aveilut is indeed biblically mandated.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Eivel 1:1) maintains that the Torah commanded us to observe aveilut only on the day of death and burial.  Moshe innovated seven days of mourning (as well as seven days of simcha for newlyweds).  He points out that you cannot deduce a full week of aveilut from our parasha, because this halakha was established when the Torah was given.  Apparently, the Rambam understood the Yerushalmi as Tosafot did.


            Although there are opinions that all aveilut is only of rabbinic origin (Rosh and Rabbeinu Tam cited in Rabbeinu Yona, Berakhot 9b in Rif), the Rif (Berakhot 9b) cites an opinion that there is a biblical obligation to mourn for seven days, and his source is our incident.  He apparently understands that this Yerushalmi declared that such a law could be deduced from an event that preceded matan Torah, and did not question it.  However, this opinion still seems to be quite difficult, as Tosafot pointed out.  Did this not take place before burial?  How, then, could this be the source of seven days of aveilut after interment?


            In order to understand this point and the chain of events, let us analyze the entire story.  In the beginning of our parasha, Yosef was called to Yaakov, who instructed his son to perform an act of kindness and truth: "Do not bury me in Egypt."  He asked to be buried with his ancestors.  Although Yosef immediately said that he would fulfill the request, Yaakov insisted that Yosef swear to comply and take an oath.  It is interesting to note that Yaakov did not specify the exact place of burial (Me'arat Ha-machpela). 


            Later on, after the blessings were given, Yaakov commanded his children to bury him in Me'arat Ha-machpela and he explained that his ancestors and wife, Leah, were all buried there (Bereishit 49:29-32).


            Why did Yaakov command Yosef separately, and later also command the brothers?  Why did Yaakov specify where he wished to be buried only to the brothers and not to Yosef?  Why was Yosef required to swear that he would fulfill his father's request but the brothers were not so required? 


Moreover, Yosef related the account of events to Pharaoh a little differently than was related in the Torah.  He told Pharaoh that his father administered an oath to bury him in the burial ground which had been already prepared for him in Canaan.  He did not mention that his father's main point seemed to be not to be buried in Egypt.  (The interested reader may find a different analysis of the events in R. Mordechai Breuer's book, Pirkei Bereishit, Tevunot Press, Alon Shevut, 1998, pp. 716-720.)


            It may be suggested that Yaakov split his wish into two parts.  He did not feel comfortable to ask Yosef to bury him in Me'arat Ha-machpela, as Yaakov did not bury Rachel, Yosef's mother, there.  Furthermore, there was no assurance that Yosef would be allowed to leave Egypt.  After all, he was a ruler of the country and people may have suspected that he would not return.  Perhaps the residents of Canaan would not allow him to enter, as they would fear his power and would assume that he wished to conquer Canaan.  On the other hand, Yaakov could not ask the brothers to take him out of Egypt, as they did not have any authority or power to do so.  The Egyptians, who respected and revered Yaakov, would insist that his burial should take place in Egypt, where his tomb would become a shrine.  Yaakov commanded Yosef, who had the authority, to take him out of Egypt.  He insisted that Yosef take an oath in order to "force" Pharaoh to acquiesce to this request.  Indeed, Pharaoh said, "Go and bury your father as he adjured you" (Bereishit 50:5).  After Yosef took the body out of Egypt, the brothers were to bring Yaakov to Me'arat Ha-machpela, where their mother was buried.


            Following this analysis, it is possible that the entire entourage went until Goren Ha-atad, which is in Trans-Jordan, and thereby Yosef fulfilled his obligation.  He then gave over responsibility to the brothers to perform the actual task of bearing Yaakov to Me'arat Ha-machpela.  Inasmuch as Yosef had finished his part of the agreement and therefore turned back to return to Egypt, he (and only he) was required to fulfill aveilut.  This is in accordance with the principle that once the mourners transfer the body to the pallbearers, aveilut begins (Moed Katan 22a). 


Thus, we could derive from this event that aveilut of seven days is biblically mandated.  In fact, Rav Kasher (Torah Sheleimah, Jerusalem, 1992, vol. 8, p. 1902) cites a manuscript of Moshav Zekeinim that claims that the kings of Canaan did not allow Yosef to enter Canaan, so he had to return to Egypt and therefore had to sit "shiva." 


Additional proof could be added from the details of the story.  "They came to Goren Ha-atad, which is in Trans-Jordan, and they eulogized him greatly and he observed a seven day mourning period" (Bereishit 50:10).  Although they (all the entourage) came there and eulogized, only HE observed shiva.  Immediately afterwards, it says that the brothers did as they were commanded.  Originally, it said that Yosef went to bury his father, along with everyone else, and now the Torah mentions the brothers.  It seems that Yosef had the responsibility of taking Yaakov out of Egypt and coming to Goren Ha-atad.  At this point, the brothers assumed their responsibility and Yosef sat shiva.


            Somewhat of a similar approach was taken by R. Meir Simcha in his Meshekh Chokhma.  He said that aveilut was observed by the Egyptian part of the entourage, who were not allowed to enter Canaan.  Although the idea is similar, it would seem a bit strange that the Yerushalmi derived aveilut from the Egyptians.  It therefore seems to be more logical to assume that it was Yosef who mourned; furthermore, the singular "and he observed" implies that one person mourned.


            The midrash Lekach Tov observes that the seven days of mourning parallel the seven days of creation.  Man was created alone in order to teach us that one person is comparable to the entire universe (Sanhedrin 33a).  Therefore, when someone dies, we should mourn seven days.