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.)