Vayechi

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Vayechi, Vayehi, or Vayhi (וַיְחִיHebrew for “and he lived,” the first word of the parshah) is the twelfth weekly Torah portion (parshah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the last in the Book of Genesis. It constitutes Genesis 47:28–50:26. Jews in the Diaspora read it the twelfth Sabbath after Simchat Torah, generally in December or January.

Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh (17th century painting by Guercino)

Contents

Summary

Burial in Canaan

Jacob lived in Egypt 17 years, and lived to be 147 years old. (Genesis 47:28.) When Jacob’s death drew near, he called his son Joseph and asked him to put his hand under Jacob’s thigh and swear not to bury him in Egypt, but to bury him with his father and grandfather. (Genesis 47:29–30.) Joseph agreed, but Jacob insisted that he swear to, and so he did, and Jacob bowed. (Genesis 47:30–31.)

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656 painting by Rembrandt)

The blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh

Later, when one told Joseph that his father was sick, Joseph took his sons Manasseh and Ephraim to see him. (Genesis 48:1.) Jacob sat up and told Joseph that God appeared to him at Luz, blessed him, and told him that God would multiply his descendants and give them that land forever. (Genesis 48:2–4.) Jacob adopted Joseph’s sons as his own and granted them inheritance with his own sons. (Genesis 48:5–6.) Jacob recalled how when he came from Paddan, Rachel died on the way, and he buried her on the way to Ephrath, near Bethlehem. (Genesis 48:7.) Jacob saw Joseph's sons and asked who they were, and Joseph told him that they were the sons whom God had given him in Egypt, so Jacob asked Joseph to bring them near so that he might bless them. (Genesis 48:8–9.)

Jacob Blessing Joseph's Sons (painting circa 1635 by Jan Victors)

Jacob’s sight had dimmed with age, so Joseph brought his sons near, and Jacob kissed them and embraced them. (Genesis 48:10.) Jacob told Joseph that he had not thought to see his face, and now God had let him see his children, as well. (Genesis 48:11.) Joseph took them from between his knees, bowed deeply, and brought them to Jacob, with Ephraim in his right hand toward Jacob's left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Jacob's right hand. (Genesis 48:12–13.) But Jacob laid his right hand on Ephraim, the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh, the firstborn, and prayed that God bless the lads, let Jacob’s name be named in them, and let them grow into a multitude. (Genesis 48:14–16.) It displeased Joseph that Jacob laid his right hand on Ephraim, and he lifted Jacob’s right hand to move it to Manasseh the firstborn, but Jacob refused, saying that Manasseh would also become a great people, but his younger brother would be greater. (Genesis 48:17–19.) Jacob blessed them, saying Israel would bless by invoking God to make one like Ephraim and as Manasseh. (Genesis 48:20.) Jacob told Joseph that he was dying, but God would be with him and bring him back to the land of his fathers, and Jacob had given him a portion (shechem) above his brothers, which he took from the Amorites with his sword and bow. (Genesis 48:21–22.)

Jacob Blesses His Sons (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible)

Jacob’s blessing

Jacob gathered his sons and asked them to listen to what would befall them in time. (Genesis 49:1–2.) Jacob called Reuben his firstborn, his might, and the first-fruits of his strength; unstable as water, he would not have the best because he defiled his father’s bed. (Genesis 49:3–4.) Jacob called Simeon and Levi brothers in violence, prayed that his soul not come into their council — for in their anger they slew men and beasts — and cursed their descendants to be scattered throughout Israel. (Genesis 49:5–7.) Jacob called Judah a lion's whelp and told him that he would dominate his enemies, his brothers would bow before him, and his descendants would rule as long as men came to Shiloh. (Genesis 49:8–10.) Zebulun’s descendants would dwell at the shore near Sidon, and would work the ships. (Genesis 49:13.) Jacob called Issachar a large-boned donkey couching between the sheep-folds, he bowed his shoulder to work, and his descendants would dwell in a pleasant land. (Genesis 49:14–15.) Jacob called Dan a serpent in the road that bites the horse's heels, and he would judge his people. (Genesis 49:16–17.) Raiders would raid Gad, but he would raid on their heels. (Genesis 49:19.) Asher’s bread would be the richest, and he would yield royal dainties. (Genesis 49:20.) Jacob called Naphtali a hind let loose, and he would give good words. (Genesis 49:21.) Jacob called Joseph a fruitful vine by a fountain whose branches ran over the wall, archers shot at him, but his bow remained firm; Jacob blessed him with blessings of heaven above and the deep below, blessings of the breasts and womb, and mighty blessings on the head of the prince among his brethren. (Genesis 49:22–26.) Jacob called Benjamin a ravenous wolf that devours its prey. (Genesis 49:27.)

And Jacob charged his sons to bury him with his fathers in the cave of Machpelah that Abraham bought and where they buried Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and where he buried Leah. (Genesis 49:29–32.) And then Jacob gathered his feet into his bed and died. (Genesis 49:33.)

Jacob's Body Is Taken to Canaan (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

The burial of Jacob

Joseph kissed his father's face and wept. (Genesis 50:1.) Joseph commanded the physicians to embalm Jacob, and they did so over the next 40 days, and the Egyptians wept for Jacob 70 days. (Genesis 50:2–3.) Thereafter, Joseph asked Pharaoh’s courtiers to tell Pharaoh that Jacob had made Joseph swear to bury him in the land of Canaan and ask that he might go up, bury his father, and return. (Genesis 50:4–5.) Pharaoh consented, and Joseph went up with all Pharaoh’s court, Egypt’s elders, chariots, horsemen, and all Joseph’s relatives, leaving only the little ones and the flocks and herds behind in the land of Goshen. (Genesis 50:6–9.) At the threshing-floor of Atad, beyond the Jordan River, they mourned for his father seven days, and the Canaanites remarked at how grievous the mourning was for the Egyptians, and thus the place was named Abel-mizraim. (Genesis 50:10–11.) Jacob’s sons carried out his command and buried him in the cave of Machpelah, and the funeral party returned to Egypt. (Genesis 50:12–14.)

Burying the Body of Joseph (illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible)

With Jacob’s death, Joseph's brothers grew concerned that Joseph would repay them for the evil that they had done, and they sent Joseph a message that Jacob had commanded him to forgive them. (Genesis 50:15–17.) When the brothers spoke to Joseph, he wept, and his brothers fell down before him and declared that they were his bondmen. (Genesis 50:17–18.) Joseph told them not to fear, for he was not God, and even though they had intended him evil, God meant it for good, to save many people. (Genesis 50:19–20.) Joseph spoke kindly to them, comforted them, and committed to sustain them and their little ones. (Genesis 50:21.)

The death of Joseph

Joseph lived 110 years, saw Ephraim's children of the third generation, and grandchildren of Manasseh were born on Joseph's knees. (Genesis 50:22–23.) Joseph told his brothers that he was dying, but God would surely remember them and bring them out of Egypt to the land that God had sworn to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Genesis 50:24.) Joseph made the children of Israel swear to carry his bones to that land. (Genesis 50:25.) So Joseph died, and they embalmed him, and put him in a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50:26.)

In inner-biblical interpretation

Genesis chapter 49

Genesis 49:3–27, Deuteronomy 33:6–25, and Judges 5:14–18 present parallel listings of the twelve tribes, presenting contrasting characterizations of their relative strengths: Genesis 49:3–27, Deuteronomy 33:6–25, and Judges 5:14–18 present parallel listings of the twelve tribes, presenting contrasting characterizations of their relative strengths:

TribeGenesis 49Deuteronomy 33Judges 5
ReubenJacob’s first-born, Jacob’s might, the first-fruits of Jacob’s strength, the excellency of dignity, the excellency of power; unstable as water, he would not have the excellency because he mounted his father's bed and defiled itlet him live and not die and become few in numberamong their divisions were great resolves of heart; they sat among the sheepfolds to hear the piping for the flocks, and did not contribute; at their divisions was great soul-searching
Simeonbrother of Levi, weapons of violence were their kinship; let Jacob’s soul not come into their council, to their assembly, for in their anger they slew men, in their self-will they hewed oxen; cursed was their fierce anger and their cruel wrath, Jacob would divide and scatter them in Israelnot mentionednot mentioned
Levibrother of Simeon, weapons of violence were their kinship; let Jacob’s soul not come into their council, to their assembly, for in their anger they slew men, in their self-will they hewed oxen; cursed was their fierce anger and their cruel wrath, Jacob would divide and scatter them in Israelhis Thummim and Urim would be with God; God proved him at Massah, with whom God strove at the waters of Meribah; he did not acknowledge his father, mother, brothers, or children; observed God’s word, and would keep God’s covenant; would teach Israel God’s law; would put incense before God, and whole burnt-offerings on God’s altar; God bless his substance, and accept the work of his hands; smite the loins of his enemiesnot mentioned
Judahhis brothers would praise him, his hand would be on the neck of his enemies, his father's sons would bow down before him; a lion's whelp, from the prey he is gone up, he stooped down, he couched as a lion and a lioness, who would rouse him? the scepter would not depart from him, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, as long as men come to Shiloh, to him would the obedience of the peoples be; binding his foal to the vine and his ass's colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine, his eyes would be red with wine, and his teeth white with milkGod hear his voice, and bring him in to his people; his hands would contend for him, and God would help against his adversariesnot mentioned
Zebulunwould dwell at the shore of the sea, would be a shore for ships, his flank would be upon Zidonhe would rejoice in his going out, with Issachar he would call peoples to the mountain; there they would offer sacrifices of righteousness, for they would suck the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sandthey that handle the marshal's staff; jeopardized their lives for Israel
Issachara large-boned ass, couching down between the sheep-folds, he saw a good resting-place and the pleasant land, he bowed his shoulder to bear and became a servant under task-workhe would rejoice in his tents, with Zebulun he would call peoples to the mountain; there they would offer sacrifices of righteousness, for they would suck the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sandtheir princes were with Deborah
Danwould judge his people, would be a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path, that bites the horse's heels, so that his rider falls backwarda lion's whelp, that leaps forth from Bashansojourned by the ships, and did not contribute
Gada troop would troop upon him, but he would troop upon their heelblessed be God Who enlarges him; he dwells as a lioness, and tears the arm and the crown of the head; he chose a first part for himself, for there a portion of a ruler was reserved; and there came the heads of the people, he executed God’s righteousness and ordinances with IsraelGilead stayed beyond the Jordan and did not contribute
Asherhis bread would be fat, he would yield royal daintiesblessed above sons; let him be the favored of his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil; iron and brass would be his bars; and as his days, so would his strength bedwelt at the shore of the sea, abided by its bays, and did not contribute
Naphtalia hind let loose, he gave goodly wordssatisfied with favor, full with God’s blessing, would possess the sea and the southwere upon the high places of the field of battle
Josepha fruitful vine by a fountain, its branches run over the wall, the archers have dealt bitterly with him, shot at him, and hated him; his bow abode firm, and the arms of his hands were made supple by God, who would help and bless him with blessings of heaven above, the deep beneath, the breast and the womb; Jacob’s blessings, mighty beyond the blessings of his ancestors, would be on his head, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brothersblessed of God was his land; for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep beneath, and for the precious things of the fruits of the sun, and for the precious things of the yield of the moons, for the tops of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the everlasting hills, and for the precious things of the earth and the fullness thereof, and the good will of God; the blessing would come upon the head of Joseph, and upon the crown of the head of him that is prince among his brothers; his firstling bullock, majesty was his; and his horns were the horns of the wild-ox; with them he would gore all the peoples to the ends of the earth; they were the ten thousands of Ephraim and the thousands of Manassehout of Ephraim came they whose root is in Amalek
Benjamina ravenous wolf, in the morning he devoured the prey, at evening he divided the spoilGod’s beloved would dwell in safety by God; God covered him all the day, and dwelt between his shoulderscame after Ephriam

Jacob’s blessing of Reuben in Genesis 49:4, depriving Reuben of the blessing of the firstborn, because he went up on Jacob’s bed and defiled it, recalls the report of Genesis 35:22 that Reuben lay with Bilhah, Jacob's concubine, and Jacob heard of it.

Genesis chapter 50

When Joseph in Genesis 50:20 told his brothers that they meant evil against him, but God meant it for good to save the lives of many people, he echoed his explanation in Genesis 45:5 that God sent him to Egypt before his brothers to preserve life. Similarly, Psalm 105:16–17 reports that God called a famine upon the land and sent Joseph before the children of Israel.

In classical rabbinic interpretation

Genesis Chapter 47

Rabbi Johanan taught that trouble follows whenever Scripture employs the word vayeishev, meaning “and he settled.” Thus “Israel settled” in Genesis 47:27 presaged trouble in the report of Genesis 47:29 that Israel’s death drew near. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 106a.)

Karna deduced from Genesis 47:30 that Jacob sought burial in Israel to ensure his resurrection. Karna reasoned that Jacob knew that he was an entirely righteous man, and that the dead outside Israel will also be resurrected, so Jacob must have troubled his sons to carry him to Canaan because he feared that he might be unworthy to travel through subterranean tunnels to the site of resurrection in Israel. Similarly, Rabbi Hanina explained that the same reason prompted Joseph to seek burial in Israel in Genesis 50:25. (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 111a; see also Jerusalem Talmud Kilayim 81a.)

Rav Judah cited Genesis 47:30 to support the proposition that gravediggers must remove surrounding earth when they rebury a body. Rav Judah interpreted the verse to mean “carry with me [earth] of Egypt.” (Babylonian Talmud Nazir 65a.)

Rabbi Elazar read Genesis 47:31 to report that Jacob bowed to Joseph because Joseph was in power. The Gemara read Jacob’s action to illustrate a saying then popular: “When the fox has its hour, bow down to it.” That is, even though one would ordinarily expect the lion to be the king of beasts, when the fox has its turn to rule, one should bow to it as well. The Gemara thus viewed Joseph as the fox, to whom, in his day, even the senior Jacob bowed down. (Babylonian Talmud Megilah 16b.)

A Midrash read Genesis 47:31 to teach that Jacob gave thanks for Leah, for Genesis 47:31 says, “And Israel bowed down [in thanksgiving] for the bed's head,” and the Midrash read Leah (as the first who bore Jacob children) to be the head of Jacob's bed. (Genesis Rabbah 71:2.)

Genesis Chapter 48

Interpreting Genesis 48:1, the Gemara taught that until the time of Jacob, there was no illness (as one lived one’s allotted years in health and then died suddenly). Then Jacob came and prayed, and illness came into being, as Genesis 48:1 reports, “And one told Joseph, ‘Behold, your father is sick’” (reporting sickness for the first time in the Torah). (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 87a.) Similarly, the Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer reported that from the creation of the Heaven and earth until then, no person had ever become ill. Rather, they would remain fit until the time they were to die. Then, wherever they would happen to be, they would sneeze, and their souls would depart through their noses. But then Jacob prayed, seeking mercy from God, asking that God not take his soul until he had an opportunity to charge his sons and all his household. And then, as Genesis 48:1 reports, “And one told Joseph, ‘Behold, your father is sick.’” Therefore a person is duty bound to say “life!” after another sneezes. (Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer 52.)

Jacob Blesses Joseph's Sons (engraving by Gerard Jollain from the 1670 La Saincte Bible)
Jacob Is Blessing Joseph and His Sons (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)

Interpreting Genesis 48:5–6, the Gemara examined the consequences of Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh. Rav Aha bar Jacob taught that a tribe that had an inheritance of land was called a “congregation,” but a tribe that had no possession was not a “congregation.” Thus Rav Aha bar Jacob taught that the tribe of Levi was not called a “congregation.” The Gemara questioned Rav Aha’s teaching, asking whether there would then be fewer than 12 tribes. Abaye replied quoting Jacob’s words in Genesis 48:5: “Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine.” But Rava interpreted the words “They shall be called after the name of their brethren in their inheritance” in Genesis 48:6 to show that Ephraim and Manasseh were thereafter regarded as comparable to other tribes only in regard to their inheritance of the land, not in any other respect. The Gemara challenged Rava’s interpretation, noting that Numbers 2:18–21 mentions Ephraim and Manasseh separately as tribes in connection with their assembling around the camp by their banners. The Gemara replied to its own challenge by positing that their campings were like their possessions, in order to show respect to their banners. The Gemara persisted in arguing that Ephraim and Manasseh were treated separately by noting that they were also separated with regard to their princes. The Gemara responded that this was done in order to show honor to the princes and to avoid having to choose the prince of one tribe to rule over the other. 1 Kings 8:65 indicates that Solomon celebrated seven days of dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Moses celebrated twelve days of dedication of the Tabernacle instead of seven in order to show honor to the princes and to avoid having to choose the prince of one tribe over the other. (Babylonian Talmud Horayot 6b.)

Rav Judah said in the name of Samuel that Genesis 48:5, where grandchildren are equated with children, serves to remind the reader that cursing a husband’s parents in the presence of the husband’s children is just as bad as cursing them in the husband’s presence. Rabbah said that an example of such a curse would be where a woman told her husband’s son, “May a lion devour your grandfather.” (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 72b.)

Rav Papa cited Genesis 48:5 to demonstrate that the word “noladim,” meaning “born,” applies to lives already in being, not just to children to be born in the future, as “nolad” appears to refer in 1 Kings 13:2. (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 30b.)

A Baraita used Genesis 48:6 to illustrate the effect of the law of levirate marriage, where a brother marries his dead brother’s wife and raises a child in the dead brother’s name. Just as in Genesis 48:6 Ephraim and Manasseh were to inherit from Jacob, so in levirate marriage the brother who marries his dead brother’s wife and their children thereafter were to inherit from the dead brother. (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 24a.)

The Gemara noted that in Genesis 48:7, Jacob exclaimed about Rachel’s death as a loss to him, supporting the proposition stated by a baraita that the death of a woman is felt by none so much as by her husband. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 22b.)

Rabbi Hama ben Hanina taught that our ancestors were never without a scholars’ council. Abraham was an elder and a member of the scholars’ council, as Genesis 24:1 says, “And Abraham was an elder (זָקֵן, zaken) well stricken in age.” Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was an elder and a member of the scholars’ council, as Genesis 24:2 says, “And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who ruled over all he had,” which Rabbi Eleazar explained to mean that he ruled over — and thus knew and had control of — the Torah of his master. Isaac was an elder and a member of the scholars’ council, as Genesis 27:1 says: “And it came to pass when Isaac was an elder (זָקֵן, zaken).” Jacob was an elder and a member of the scholars’ council, as Genesis 48:10 says, “Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age (זֹּקֶן, zoken).” In Egypt they had the scholars’ council, as Exodus 3:16 says, “Go and gather the elders of Israel together.” And in the Wilderness, they had the scholars’ council, as in Numbers 11:16, God directed Moses to “Gather . . . 70 men of the elders of Israel.” (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b.)

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (miniature on vellum from the early 14th century Golden Haggadah, Catalonia)

Rabbi Johanan deduced from Genesis 48:15–16 that sustenance is more difficult to achieve than redemption. Rabbi Johanan noted that in Genesis 48:16 a mere angel sufficed to bring about redemption, whereas Genesis 48:16 reported that God provided sustenance. (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 118a.)

Rabbi Jose son of Rabbi Hanina deduced from Genesis 48:16 that the descendants of Joseph did not have to fear the evil eye. In Genesis 48:16, Jacob blessed Joseph’s descendants to grow like fishes. Rabbi Jose son of Rabbi Hanina interpreted that just the eye cannot see fish in the sea that are covered by water, so the evil eye would have no power to reach Joseph’s descendants. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 118b.)

The Gemara read the reference in Genesis 48:22 to “one portion above your brothers” to mean that like a firstborn son, Joseph received a double portion. Rav Papa asked Abaye whether perhaps Jacob merely gave Joseph an extra palm tree. Abaye answered that Genesis 48:5 demonstrated that Jacob intended that Joseph would get two full portions “even as Reuben and Simeon.” Rabbi Helbo asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani why Jacob took the firstborn’s birthright from Reuben and gave it to Joseph. The Gemara answered by citing Genesis 49:4 to show that Reuben lost the birthright when he defiled Jacob’s bed. The Gemara asked why Joseph benefited from Reuben’s disqualification. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani responded with a parable of an orphan who was brought up by an adoptive father, and when he became rich he chose to give to his adoptive father from his wealth. Similarly, because Joseph cared for Jacob, Jacob chose to give to Joseph. Rabbi Helbo challenged that reason, arguing instead that Rabbi Jonathan said that Rachel should have born the firstborn, as indicated by the naming of Joseph in Genesis 37:2, and God restored the right of the firstborn to Rachel because of her modesty. And a baraita read the reference in Genesis 48:22 to “my sword and . . . my bow” to mean Jacob’s spiritual weapons, interpreting “my sword” to mean prayer and “my bow” to mean supplication. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 123a.)

Rabbi Johanan said that he would sit at the gate of the bathhouse (mikvah), and when Jewish women came out they would look at him and have children as handsome as he was. The Rabbis asked him whether he was not afraid of the evil eye for being so boastful. He replied that the evil eye has no power over the descendants of Joseph, citing the words of Genesis 49:22, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine above the eye (alei ayin).” Rabbi Abbahu taught that one should not read alei ayin (“by a fountain”), but olei ayin (“rising over the eye”). Rabbi Judah (or some say Jose) son of Rabbi Hanina deduced from the words “And let them (the descendants of Joseph) multiply like fishes (ve-yidgu) in the midst of the earth” in Genesis 48:16 that just as fish (dagim) in the sea are covered by water and thus the evil eye has no power over them, so the evil eye has no power over the descendants of Joseph. Alternatively, the evil eye has no power over the descendants of Joseph because the evil eye has no power over the eye that refused to enjoy what did not belong to it — Potiphar’s wife — as reported in Genesis 39:7–12. (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 20a; see also Berakhot 55b.)

Jacob Blessing His Sons (miniature circa 1475–1480 by François Maitre from Augustine's La Cité de Dieu)

Genesis Chapter 49

The Gemara explained that when Jews recite the Shema, they recite the words, “blessed be the name of God’s glorious Kingdom forever and ever,” quietly between the words, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” from Deuteronomy 6:4, and the words, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” from Deuteronomy 6:5, for the reason that Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish expounded when he explained what happened in Genesis 49:1. That verse reports, “And Jacob called to his sons, and said: ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what will befall you in the end of days.’” According to Rabbi Simeon, Jacob wished to reveal to his sons what would happen in the end of the days, but just then, the Shechinah departed from him. So Jacob said that perhaps, Heaven forfend, he had fathered a son who was unworthy to hear the prophecy, just as Abraham had fathered Ishmael or Isaac had fathered Esau. But his sons answered him (in the words of Deuteronomy 6:4), “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” explaining that just as there was only One in Jacob’s heart, so there was only One in their hearts. And Jacob replied, “Blessed be the name of God’s glorious Kingdom for ever and ever.” The Rabbis considered that Jews might recite “Blessed be the name of God’s glorious Kingdom for ever and ever” aloud, but rejected that option, as Moses did not say those words in Deuteronomy 6:4–5. The Rabbis considered that Jews might not recite those words at all, but rejected that option, as Jacob did say the words. So the Rabbis ruled that Jews should recite the words quietly. Rabbi Isaac taught that the School of Rabbi Ammi said that one can compare this practice to that of a princess who smelled a spicy pudding. If she revealed her desire for the pudding, she would suffer disgrace; but if she concealed her desire, she would suffer deprivation. So her servants brought her pudding secretly. Rabbi Abbahu taught that the Sages ruled that Jews should recite the words aloud, so as not to allow heretics to claim that Jews were adding improper words to the Shema. But in Nehardea, where there were no heretics so far, they recited the words quietly. (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 56a.)

Interpreting Jacob's words "exceeding in dignity" in Genesis 49:3, a Midrash taught that Reuben should have received three portions in excess of his brothers — the birthright, priesthood, and royalty. But when Reuben sinned, the birthright was transferred to Joseph, the priesthood to Levi, and the royalty to Judah. (Genesis Rabbah 97.)

The Gemara asked why Numbers 16:1 did not trace Korah’s genealogy back to Jacob, and Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac answered that Jacob had prayed not to be listed amongst Korah's ancestors in Genesis 49:6, where it is written, “Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united.” “Let my soul not come into their council” referred to the spies, and “unto their assembly let my glory not be united” referred to Korah’s assembly. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 109b.)

A Midrash taught that the words "I will divide them in Jacob" in Genesis 49:7 foretold that scribes in synagogues would descend from the tribe of Simeon, and students and teachers of Mishnah would descend from the tribe of Levi, engaged in the study of the Torah in the houses of study. (These by their profession would thus be prevented from living in masses and would be scattered.) (Genesis Rabbah 97.)

A Midrash taught that the words "Judah, you shall your brothers praise (יוֹדוּךָ, yoducha)" in Genesis 49:8 signify that because (in Genesis 38:26, in connection with his daughter-in-law Tamar) Judah confessed (the same word as "praise"), Judah's brothers would praise Judah in this world and in the world to come (accepting descendants of Judah as their king). And in accordance with Jacob's blessing, 30 kings descended from Judah, for as Ruth 4:18 reports, David descended from Judah, and if one counts David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat and his successors until Jeconiah and Zedekiah (one finds 30 generations from Judah's son Perez to Zedekiah). And so the Midrash taught it shall be in the world to come (the Messianic era), for as Ezekiel 37:25 foretells, "And David My servant shall be their prince forever." (Genesis Rabbah 97.)

Jacob Blesses His Sons (engraving by Gerard Jollain from the 1670 La Saincte Bible)

Rabbi Levi considered the words “Zebulun[’s] . . . boundary shall be upon Zidon” in Genesis 49:13 but since Sidon is in Asher’s territory, Rabbi Levi concluded that the verse alludes to Zebulun’s most distinguished descendent, Jonah, and deduced that Jonah’s mother must have been from Sidon and the tribe of Asher. (Jerusalem Talmud Sukkah 28a.)

Rabbi Johanan taught that the words “and he lay with her that night” in Genesis 30:16, in which the word hu appears in an unusual locution, indicate that God assisted in causing Issachar’s conception. Rabbi Johanan found in the words “Issachar is a large-boned donkey” in Genesis 49:14 an indication that Jacob’s donkey detoured to Leah’s tent, helping to cause Issachar’s birth. (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 31a.)

Rabbi Melai taught in the name of Rabbi Isaac of Magdala that from the day that Joseph departed from his brothers he abstained from wine, reading Genesis 49:26 to report, “The blessings of your father . . . shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him who was a nazirite (since his departure) from his brethren.” Rabbi Jose ben Haninah taught that the brothers also abstained from wine after they departed from him, for Genesis 43:34 reports, “And they drank, and were merry with him,” implying that they broke their abstention “with him.” But Rabbi Melai taught that the brothers did drink wine in moderation since their separation from Joseph, and only when reunited with Joseph did they drink to intoxication “with him.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 139a.)

The Tosefta interpreted Genesis 49:27 to allude to produce yields of Bethel and Jericho. The Tosefta interpreted “Benjamin is a wolf that pounces” to mean that the land of Benjamin, the area of Bethel, jumped to produce crops early in the growing season. The Tosefta interpreted “in the morning he devours the prey” to mean that in Jericho produce was gone from the fields early in the seventh year. And the Tosefta interpreted “and in the evening he divides the spoil” to mean that in Bethel produce remained in the fields until late in the seventh year. (Tosefta Sheviit 7:12.)

A Baraita taught that in all of Israel, there was no more rocky ground than that at Hebron, which is why the Patriarchs buried their dead there, as reported in Genesis 49:31. Even so, the Baraita interpreted the words “and Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt” in Numbers 13:22 to mean that Hebron was seven times as fertile as Zoan. The Baraita rejected the plain meaning of “built,” reasoning that Ham would not build a house for his younger son Canaan (in whose land was Hebron) before he built one for his elder son Mizraim (in whose land was Zoan, and Genesis 10:6 lists (presumably in order of birth) “the sons of Ham: Cush, and Mizraim, and Put, and Canaan.” The Baraita also taught that among all the nations, there was none more fertile than Egypt, for Genesis 13:10 says, “Like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.” And there was no more fertile spot in Egypt than Zoan, where kings lived, for Isaiah 30:4 says of Pharaoh, “his princes are at Zoan.” But rocky Hebron was still seven times as fertile as lush Zoan. (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 112a.)

Rabbi Isaac taught in the name of Rabbi Johanan that Jacob did not die. (Genesis 49:33 reports only that “he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.”) Rav Nahman objected that he must have died, for he was bewailed (as Genesis 50:10 reports) and embalmed (as Genesis 50:2 reports) and buried (as Genesis 50:13 reports)! Rabbi Isaac replied that Rabbi Johanan derived his position that Jacob still lives from Jeremiah 30:10, which says, “Therefore fear not, O Jacob, My servant, says the Lord; neither be dismayed, O Israel, for, lo, I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” Rabbi Isaac explained that since Jeremiah 30:10 likens Jacob to his descendants, then just as Jacobs descendents still live, so too must Jacob. (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 5b.)

Jacob's Body Carried into Canaan To Be Buried (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible)

Genesis Chapter 50

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba taught in the name of Rabbi Johanan that when in Genesis 41:44 Pharaoh conferred power on Joseph, Pharaoh's astrologers questioned whether Pharaoh would set in power over them a slave whom his master bought for 20 pieces of silver. Pharaoh replied to them that he discerned royal characteristics in Joseph. Pharaoh's astrologers said to Pharaoh that in that case, Joseph must be able to speak the 70 languages of the world. That night, the angel Gabriel came to teach Joseph the 70 languages, but Joseph could not learn them. Thereupon Gabriel added a letter from God’s Name to Joseph’s name, and Joseph was able to learn the languages, as Psalm 81:6 reports, “He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony, when he went out over the land of Egypt, where I (Joseph) heard a language that I knew not.” The next day, in whatever language Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, Joseph was able to reply to Pharaoh. But when Joseph spoke to Pharaoh in Hebrew, Pharaoh did not understand what he said. So Pharaoh asked Joseph to teach it to him. Joseph tried to teach Pharaoh Hebrew, but Pharaoh could not learn it. Pharaoh asked Joseph to swear that he would not reveal his failing, and Joseph swore. Later, in Genesis 50:5, when Joseph related to Pharaoh that Jacob had made Joseph swear to bury him in the Land of Israel, Pharaoh asked Joseph to seek to be released from the oath. But Joseph replied that in that case, he would also ask to be released from his oath to Pharaoh concerning Pharaoh’s ignorance of languages. As a consequence, even though it was displeasing to Pharaoh, Pharaoh told Joseph in Genesis 50:6, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear.” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 36b.)

The Mishnah cited Genesis 50:7–9 for the proposition that Providence treats a person measure for measure as that person treats others. And so because, as Genesis 50:7–9 relates, Joseph had the merit to bury his father and none of his brothers were greater than he was, so Joseph merited the greatest of Jews, Moses, to attend to his bones, as reported in Exodus 13:19. (Mishnah Sotah 1:7–9.)

Joseph and His Brothers Carry Jacob Back into the Land of Canaan To Be Buried in the Cave where Abraham and Sarah Were Buried (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)

Rav Hisda deduced from the words “and he made a mourning for his father seven days” in Genesis 50:10 that Biblical “mourning” means seven days. And thus Rav Hisda deduced from the words “And his soul mourns for itself” in Job 14:22 that a person’s soul mourns for that person for seven whole days after death. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 152a.)

Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Isaac disagreed about how to interpret the words of Genesis 50:15, “And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us.’” Rabbi Levi taught that the brothers feared this because he did not invite them to dine with him. Rabbi Tanhuma observed that Joseph’s motive was noble, for Joseph reasoned that formerly Jacob had placed Joseph above Judah, who was a king, and above Reuben, who was the firstborn, but after Jacob’s death, it would not be right for Joseph to sit above them. The brothers, however, did not understand it that way, but worried that Joseph hated them. Rabbi Isaac said that the brothers feared because he had gone and looked into the pit into which they had thrown him. (Genesis Rabbah 100:8.)

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel read Genesis 50:15–17 to report that Joseph’s brothers fabricated Jacob’s request that Joseph forgive them in order to preserve peace in the family. (Jerusalem Talmud Peah 8b.)

Rabbi Benjamin bar Japhet said in the name of Rabbi Elazar that Genesis 50:18 bore out the popular saying: “When the fox has its hour, bow down to it.” But the Gemara questioned how Joseph was, like the fox relative to the lion, somehow inferior to his brothers. Rather, the Gemara applied the saying to Genesis 47:31, as discussed above. (Babylonian Talmud Megilah 16b.)

Rabbi Jose deduced from Joseph’s talk of providing in Genesis 50:21 that when Jacob died, the famine returned. (Tosefta Sotah 10:9.)

Rav Judah asked in the name of Rav why Joseph referred to himself as “bones” during his lifetime (in Genesis 50:25), and explained that it was because he did not protect his father's honor when in Genesis 44:31 his brothers called Jacob “your servant our father” and Joseph failed to protest. And Rav Judah also said in the name of Rav (and others say that it was Rabbi Hama bar Hanina who said) that Joseph died before his brothers because he put on superior airs. (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 13b.)

A Baraita taught that the Serah the daughter of Asher mentioned in both Genesis 46:17 and Numbers 26:46 survived from the time Israel went down to Egypt to the time of the wandering in the Wilderness. The Gemara taught that Moses went to her to ask where the Egyptians had buried Joseph. She told him that the Egyptians had made a metal coffin for Joseph. The Egyptians set the coffin in the Nile so that its waters would be blessed. Moses went to the bank of the Nile and called to Joseph that the time had arrived for God to deliver the Israelites, and the oath that Joseph had imposed upon the children of Israel in Genesis 50:25 had reached its time of fulfillment. Moses called on Joseph to show himself, and Joseph’s coffin immediately rose to the surface of the water. (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 13a.)

Commandments

According to Maimonides and Sefer ha-Chinuch, there are no commandments in the parshAH (Maimonides. Mishneh Torah. Cairo, Egypt, 1170–1180. Reprinted in Maimonides. The Commandments: Sefer Ha-Mitzvoth of Maimonides. Translated by Charles B. Chavel, 2 vols. London: Soncino Press, 1967. ISBN 0-900689-71-4. Sefer HaHinnuch: The Book of [Mitzvah] Education. Translated by Charles Wengrov, 1:91. Jerusalem: Feldheim Pub., 1991. ISBN 0-87306-179-9.)

In the liturgy

Many Jews recite Genesis 48:16 and 49:18 three times as part of the Tefilat HaDerech (Wayfarer’s Prayer), said on setting out on a journey. (Menachem Davis. The Schottenstein Edition Siddur for Weekdays with an Interlinear Translation, 311–13. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2002. ISBN 1-57819-686-8.)

The Weekly Maqam

In the Weekly Maqam, Sephardi Jews each week base the songs of the services on the content of that week's parshah. For Parshah Vayechi, Sephardi Jews apply Maqam Hijaz, the maqam that expresses mourning and sadness. This maqam is appropriate in this parshah because it is the parshah that contains the death of the patriarch Jacob.

David's Dying Charge to Solomon (1643 painting by Ferdinand Bol)

Haftarah

The haftarah for the parshah is 1 Kings 2:1–12.

Connection to the Parshah

The parshah and haftarah both report the testaments of seminal leaders of Israel to their sons, the parshah of Jacob (in Genesis  49) and the haftarah of David. Both the parshah and the haftarah precede the testament with the phrase “the time drew near that [the leader] must die.” (Genesis  47:29; 1 Kings 2:1.) Both the parshah and the haftarah employ the word “va-yetzav,” “he instructed.” (Genesis  47:29; 1 Kings 2:1.) A Midrash notes that both the parshah and the haftarah use language reflecting the leader’s diminution of authority: the parshah reports Jacob entreating his son, “If now I have found favor in your sight . . . I pray thee” (Genesis  47:29); the haftarah describes David simply as “David” (in 1 Kings 2:1) instead of the title of honor “King David” used a chapter before (in 1 Kings 1:1). (Midrash Tanchuma Vayechi 2.) In both the parshah and the haftarah, the leaders brought up unpleasant slights that haunted them to their last days: Jacob brought up that his son Rueben defiled Jacob’s bed (Genesis  49:4) and that his sons Simeon and Levi slew men and beast in their anger (Genesis  49:5–6); David brought up that his nephew Joab killed Abner and Amasa (1 Kings 2:5) and that Shemei insulted David on the way to Mahanaim. (1 Kings 2:8.) In so doing, both leaders complained of subordinate family members who acted too zealously on what others might have viewed as the leader’s behalf: Jacob with regard to Simeon and Levi (Genesis  49:5–6) and David with regard to Joab. (1 Kings 2:5.)

Further reading

The parshah has parallels or is discussed in these sources:

Biblical

Homer

Ancient

Philo

Early nonrabbinic

Josephus

Classical rabbinic

Talmud

Medieval

Hobbes

Modern

Mann

External links

Texts

Commentaries

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