"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"I was with a group of psychotherapists lately who told me, with full conviction, that at the Akeida ["Binding of Issac"-Gen. 19], Isaac was sacrificed and then rose again, and that this represents mankind's move from human to animal sacrifice. They base this on the concluding verse, "Abraham returned... and went to Beersheva," in which there is no mention of Issac's return. What do you think?"


This explanation of the Akeida does not stand up to scrutiny. Both the Torah and world history report widespread human sacrifice during and long after the time of Avraham. Any uplifting influence Avraham exerted on his generation about the sanctity of human life should be primarily attributed to his singleminded pursuit of his mission of spreading monotheistic awareness and morality for nearly a century prior to the Akeida. Indeed, the extent to which he had been successful made G-d's request even more difficult for him! In addition to the personal loss, to sacrifice his son would mean to publicly and absolutely contradict all the values he so strongly represented for all those decades.

G-d's opening words to Avraham in this episode are: "Please take your son Yitzhak and offer him up...." This unusual "please," say the commentators, indicates that G-d was asking Avraham for a favor (so to speak), in order to prove to the nations his absolute dedication to G-d. But if human sacrifice was the norm at the time, what would be so extraordinary in other people's eyes that Avraham also did such a thing?

Their other conjecture, that Yitzhak died and was resurrected, although seemingly far-fetched, can be found within the classic Jewish commentary on the problem you cited of why Yitzhak's return is omitted. First, though, let's survey the basic explanations:

1. [Ibn Ezra] Yitzhak isn't mentioned because there was no need for it; he is subordinate to Avraham;
2. [Malbim] Avraham told him to go directly to Hebron and Mother Sarah;
3. [Midrash] He went north instead of south, to the Yeshiva of Shem v'Eber.(1)

There are, however, Midrashim which take a different tack, based on the interpretation that when it says a few chapters later, "...Yitzhak went out to meditate in the fields..." (Gen. 24:63), "went out" refers to his emergence from the Garden of Eden when he had been recuperating and/or studying for the previous three years.

For example:
When the knife reached his neck, his soul left him. When G-d's voice came... [announcing] not to harm him, his soul returned to his body.... Yitzhak experienced the resuscitation of the dead. (2)

Avraham did begin to slit Yitzhak's throat and actually perforated his windpipe. When Avraham looked up and saw the ram, the angels swooped Yitzhak away, brought him to the Garden of Eden and left him there until he was completely healed. (3)

Although most authorities don't maintain that Yitzhak actually died, many do understand that on a spiritual level the sacrifice did take place or, alternatively, that in G-d's eyes it is as if it took place. Thus, we find many invocations for mercy in the High Holiday prayers which refer to "the ashes of Yitzhak piled before You." May their merit once again help us to be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year!

Yrachmiel Tilles

1) Local tradition says that yeshiva was at a known location here in Tsfat.
2) Artscroll from Pesikta d'Rabbi Eliezer.
3) Torah Anthology from Yalkut Shemoni.

Redesign and implementation - By WEB-ACTION