Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Challenge of the Akeidah

Benyamin Reich, Akedah(A re-post from four years ago. The comments to this post are especially stimulating. On an unrelated note - it's time that the museum had a professional website, including an online reservations system. If anyone is interested in donating their services, please be in touch!)

The akeidah never used to present any problems for me. About 15 years ago a certain rabbi claimed that Avraham failed the akeidah, and that he should have protested the order, just as he protested God's destruction of Sodom. I wrote an essay in response, in which I pointed out various significant differences between the two cases, as well as the fact that from Jewish tradition as well as the text of the Torah itself it is abundantly clear that Avraham was not considered to have failed the akeidah.

Over the last few years, however, there is a question that has really been bothering me. I've been studying various literature on the topic, but so far I have not come up with a fully satisfactory answer. My studies continue, but I wanted to share my question here in the hopes that perhaps someone can suggest an answer.

My problem is with the "happy ending" of the story, where God tells Avraham not to kill Yitzchak. Was this the inevitable ending? Is it actually entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication?

Some claim this to be the case, and to be the message of the story. A teacher of mine once told me that God does not want child sacrifice, but He does want the willingness to do it. Rav Kook writes that there is a holy root to the pagan desire for child sacrifice, namely the willingness to give up everything for God, but Judaism demands this to be fulfilled differently. Shadal says that the point of the akeidah was to counter the claim by other nations that they are willing to sacrifice more than us. The akeidah showed that we are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice – but God doesn’t want it.

But if child sacrifice is immoral, and it is for this reason that God does not want it, then why would we be willing to do it? If it is entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, doesn't this mean that Avraham failed to understand what serving God was all about?

On the other hand, if it is not inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, then why did the story end with God telling him not to do it? Wouldn't this give the wrong message and undermine the lesson?

I came up with another question that puts all this into sharper focus: What if God would have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov? What should Yitzchak have said? If he says no, then he is disobeying God, which doesn't sound right. But if says yes, then he is acknowledging that child sacrifice might be a legitimate way of serving God. In which case, why didn't God let Avraham follow through with it?

I have a possible approach, but I am not sure if it is satisfactory. We do believe in the principle of yeherag ve’al ya’avor. There are situations when fulfilling God’s command takes precedence over life. And obeying God’s direct command is certainly a higher religious priority than the three cardinal sins. Sometimes the right thing to do is to sacrifice life for a higher goal. The akedah teaches us that God does not normally set things up this way. That it is not generally a goal – except in certain specific cases where it may serve as a Kiddush Hashem, such as with the akedah. Maybe it can be said that it would be simply impossible for God to have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov, and that asking such a question is like asking whether God can create a stone that He cannot lift. Maybe it is truly inconceivable that God would want child sacrifice as a regular part of serving Him, but not that He might ask for it on a rare and significant occasion?

That's the best that I could come up with so far, but I don't think it fully answers the questions that I raised. I would welcome peoples' thoughts on this.


  1. My take on the Akeda has always been this:

    Because Avraham Avinu was the first person to "know" HaShem, his life was essentially a "trial and error" as to what HaShem really wanted from him and his descendents. Until that time, child sacrifice was the "norm" in all of the religions, beliefs and customs of all of the people with whom Avraham had ever known, so in a way, it makes sense that he would not have assumed anything out of the ordinary with the demand when HaShem made it (as opposed to – say Sdom ve Amorrah, when HaShem’s intentions were clearly not the norm).

    This could be why Avraham was so willing to go ahead with the sacrifice of Yitzchak without question and without argument. At that point in history and in religious development, this was standard.

    The power of the story and how it played out is that HaShem brought Avraham to the very brink of doing what the entire world at the time engaged in doing – and then, when there was absolutely no turning back – He made it clear to Avraham the chiddush in worship – that child sacrifice has absolutely no place in our serving HaShem.

    I admit, I cannot really back up this theory of mine with textual reference, but nonetheless, it does seem to make sense to me.

    Rav Slifkin, I would welcome your reaction.

  2. Listen to these pod-casts on the Akeda by Rav Ezra Bick. Really clarrifies some of the issues.

  3. I think that it is hard to say that Avraham failed the test because the instructions were pretty clear and God's second "call from the heavens" at the end makes it clear that he gets a blessing for passing the test. Therefore I think that we must accept that this was the test and this was the desried result.

    One possible idea is that midrash adds an argument between Avraham and God where Avraham wants to let some blood all the same and God says don't do even anything. This would imply that child sacrifice is a desire of Avraham (as an archetype for man in general). The narrative thus becomes the internal conflict between the nurturing and sacrificial urges in Avraham with the nurturing winning as it should even though as you quoted from R Kook the sacrificial urge is valid as well as long as it is kept in its place. The act had to played out in practice and the result had to be the admission but defeat of the sacrificial urge.

    In rationalist terms we do have a problem here. If the act has a black flag flying over it then he should have refused. However if God himself speaks to you and tells you what to do then possibly rationality is suspended and Avraham could not be expected to refuse.

    The difference with Sdom is that if he had been told to destroy Sdom he should have gone. If God says I will destroy Sdom then he is begging a response from Avraham and passing the test is by responding.

    Could Yitzhak be told to kill Yaakov? Well no. Now that the principle had been established, Yitzhak would need to be given a new test that he wouldn't know the answer to.

  4. I forgot to include the link to the podcast: One of the points he brings (based on a midrash) is that when Avraham was about to sacrifice Yitchak, his eyes were crying yet his heart was happy to do Hashems will. Rav Bick explains, based on this midrash that intellectually Avraham realised he had to do the will of Hashem. Yet as the personification of justice and morality he still cried. Avraham still remained the champion of ethics and justice. He did not deny the legitimacy of the ethical despite the contradiction of Hashems command. He spent the three days before the Akedah trying to reconcile sacrificing his son with his ethical personality. His crying implied that he did not succeed, despite intellectually agreeing with the command. Hashem sees this as the fulfilment of his command, and perhaps the entire test was to see whether Avraham would renounce his ethical conscience. We see (based on the midrash) that he did not, hence he passes the test. The ultimate point of the test was thus to confirm the fact that Hashem cannot be separated from the ethical.

  5. A few random thoughts.

    1. Before Abraham was given the ram, its possible that G-d wanted child sacrifices... IN THE EYES OF AVRAHAM. But after the event we learn that this is not valid. The only question is, why did Avaraham not already know that? Maybe he did, maybe he didn't its hard to tell.

    2. Perhaps it was a test that he could not fail? If he said no, or if he said yes, either way was a valid response to the challenge. Scholem discusses this in one of his later books, and compares it to the fruit trees which Rashi says did not listen to hasehm and made bad tasting bark.

    3. One has to ask what the difference between a ram and yitchak are from the perspective of G-d. Why would one be a more acceptable sacrifice than the other? Clearly, when it comes to karbanot, the value of the thing being sacrificed is judged in the eyes of the person doing the ritual more than from G-d's perspective. So really the question has to be asked in the time of place of Avaraham, and not from today or the times of Yitzchak and Yaakov, and not in the days of Noach etc..

  6. The British Chief Rabbi's approach, if I understand it correctly, is essentially the same as Asher's: that the akeidah was how Avraham was taught that child sacrifice is wrong and has no place in G-d's plan.

  7. > nd obeying God’s direct command is certainly a higher religious priority than the three cardinal sins.

    Not necessarily true. The principle "Lo b'Shamayim hee" would suggest that God's direct command, should it violate the established halacha, should not be listened to because under the system God set up He asked us to maintain the halacha. Otherwise why didn't the Chachamim in Bava Metzia accept Rabbi Eliezer's position after God Himself told them to?

    At any rate, my understanding has always been that each of the ten trials was designed to create a spiritual aspect within Avraham that would later become a characteristic of the Jewish nation. Hence the willingness for martyrdom after being tossed into Nimrod's furnace (according to those who hold that this was the 1st trial) and so on. According to this approach, the Akeidah creates within the Jewish nation an ability to sacrifice everything in the name of God, even our own apparent futures should it become necessary.

  8. Dr. Schroeder brings this up in his latest book, "God According to God". His approach is more nuanced. He doesn't say that Avraham failed the test, as you said, it's clear from the text that he didn't. However, Dr. Schroeder does posit that God was not thrilled that Avraham didn't argue. His support for this is that the relationship between God and Avraham changed immediately at the Akeida. God stopped talking directly to Avraham. That's a pretty big "demotion".

    Anyway, that doesn't really answer your question. I would say that Yitzchak not getting shechted had to be the outcome. Not because of God's promise to Avraham that he'd father the Jews, He could have given him another son. If God had allowed the sacrifice to continue that, in one fell swoop, would have ended everything that Avraham had built up. The nascent religion of monotheism could not have survived such a theological blow. It would have shown everyone that Avraham's God is just just like all their gods.

  9. I'm basically with Asher. The whole message of the akeidah is that God wants us to serve him with life not death, with life affirmation not denial.

    There was no greater way for G-d to have given Avraham this message -- which was so different than the prevailing ideas at the time -- then to bring him to the precipice of the act.

  10. R. Chaim Volozhiner applies R. Yishmael's 13th hermeneutic to the question (vechein shnei ketuvim hamachishim zet et zeh. . .) as follows: G-d ahs specifically directed Avraham to sacrifice his child, but the Torah says "Et bincha lo titein lamolech." These are two seemingly contradictory passages in the Bible; "ad sheyavo hakatuv hashlishi v'yachriach beniehem." The third pasuk of "ya'an yadaati" clarifies the command to sacrifice Yitzchak and renders it a command to be willing to do so, and thus not a contradiction of the Molech injunction. I think it's a very elegant solution.

  11. I will take a stab (no pun intended) at the pshat...

    The pasuk which holds the key to the story (stated TWICE for emphasis): "You did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me."

    "You did not withhold from me." The emphasis is not Avraham's willingness to "murder" if God asked him to - it is his willingness to "give to God" that which was most important to him, his precious, beloved son, his entire future legacy - THAT was the test. And so he definitely passed the test.

    The way you gave to God in the ancient world was through sacrifice. By asking for Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak and then pulling the plug at the last minute, God got the two things He wanted: Avraham's maximal giving AND a live Yitzchak. Had it been done any other way, it would have been an either/or proposition.

    That is the pshat, IMHO.

    The story is saying that child sacrifice IN THEORY is a supremely positive thing - from the standpoint of "giving" that is. It is the highest, most maximal giving. But because IN PRACTICE it entails murder, it is a supremely negative thing - maximal evil in fact - and as such God would never allow it to actually be carried through to the end.

    Child sacrifice paradoxically represents the highest and lowest a person can reach. The chidush of the Akeida (and of Torah, as compared to competing cultures of the time) is that it is possible to strive for the highest without having to sink to the lowest.

  12. Perhaps everyone could include with their comment an answer to this multiple choice question:

    If God would have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov, what should Yitzchak have said?

    (A) Yes.
    (B) No.
    (C) It couldn't happen.

    1. What is the difference between this and Hashem asking Avraham to kill Yitzchak?

  13. The best interpretation I ever heard of the Akeda (although it has no official sanction) is that Abraham was testing God (earlier, Abraham does state his intention to return with Isaac). I'm certainly more comfortable with this.
    The bottom line for me is that obedience to God is not a greater virtue than human decency-- I don't see why the Nuremberg defense ought to work better in one case than another. If God wants my son, presumably God can take him. What God cannot do, however, is make me cooperate in something abhorrent to me without compromising the free will He supposedly gave me. The story is disturbing, and most interpretations seem like weak apologetics for a God that would be very difficult to love sincerely.

  14. I go for a. His assumption should be that this is a new test and therefore he should comply.

  15. (d) hashofeit kol haaretz lo yaaseh mishpat
    Joel Rich

  16. I don't see how that is an alternative to A, B or C.

  17. It means (to me) to say -based on the mesorah I recieved from my father it would seem to me this is against what I was taught as your will and that when such an event occurs I should question the communication (as did my father by Sdom). If you confirm then I will assume I missed something in the Mesorah and will do as you command and fine tune the mesorah I hand down.
    Joel Rich

  18. To me A would yield a different mesorah with an unresolved dialectic of when to question.

    Joel Rich

  19. About A B & C...

    Are you asking whether the same story could theoretically have been told using Yitzchak and Yaakov instead of Avraham and Yitzchak? Perhaps, but honestly I don't see the relevance of the question.

    But to indulge you, the answer would be (A). If the Torah wants to convey the message of the Akeida, the message would apply in Toldot as much as it does in Vayera.

    I also don't agree with the wording of your question. Avraham wasn't asked to "kill" Yitzchak but to "sacrifice" him. Meaning, the focus and moral of the story is in the giving.

    But this is all if you're talking about the pshat of the story. If you're asking a question about the morality of killing one's child for God, then clearly the answer is (B) - for Avraham, Yitzchak or ANYONE.

  20. "Are you asking whether the same story could theoretically have been told using Yitzchak and Yaakov instead of Avraham and Yitzchak?"

    No, no. I am asking, after the episode of the Akeidah, what if God were to appear to someone and repeat the request.

  21. At the heart of the problem is how you define morality. If morality is defined as “What God tells us to do,” then killing Yitzchak is a moral act. If morality is an objective construct, AND killing for reason other than self-defense is immoral, then Avraham should have refused.

    If a human king demanded of a subject that he kill his child to prove his loyalty we would condemn the king as immoral, even if at the last minute he prevented the subject from going through with it. That should tell us something.

  22. As I gave Chief Rabbi Sacks' answer above, I should add his answer to Rabbi Slifkin's follow-up question, which is C - no one could be tested like this again, because G-d made clear through the Akeidah that human sacrifice is always wrong.

    I forget where he gave this answer, but I think it was somewhere on his website.

  23. As I gave Chief Rabbi Sacks' answer above, I should add his answer to Rabbi Slifkin's follow-up question, which is C - no one could be tested like this again, because G-d made clear through the Akeidah that human sacrifice is always wrong.

    I forget where he gave this answer, but I think it was somewhere on his website.

  24. R'DS
    So wjhat would Yitzchak respond if it did happen - this can't be happening, it must be a dream or a maaseh satan?

  25. > God stopped talking directly to Avraham

    On the contrary. This is not a demotion. Until that point Avraham's will was not 100% with God's, hence he needed guidance and reassurance. With the akeidah he had come 100% into sync with God's will and no longer needed specific communications because all his acts were now Godly.

    > If God would have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov, what should Yitzchak have said?

    I'm going to say (B). I think Yitzchak Avinu would have said one of three possible things:
    1) You tried this with dad. I'm not falling for it too!
    2) He would have said "yes" but Rivkah would have arranged a switcheroo
    3) He would have said "no" because he too was in sync with God's will and would have recognized this command as being out of order.

  26. I would answer C since the test was specifically designed for Avraham, who embodied the midah of chesed. In other words, it was never neccesary to give such a test to Yitzchak as he embodied the midah of gvurah. Avraham needed to show that he too was a gibor by acting against his very nature (albeit ethical nature) to fulfill Hashems command. Excuse the lack of refences.

  27. I am asking, after the episode of the Akeidah, what if God were to appear to someone and repeat the request.

    Ah, in that case Yitzchak should clearly opt for (B), as in:

    "Take it from the guy who was lying there with a knife to his throat, this is NOT the kind of performance that begs an encore!"

    Seriously, once the point was made: "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him", that was the final word on child sacrifice. The Akeida is an "eit la'asot" to teach a point, not a "klal".

  28. Perhaps everyone could include with their comment an answer to this multiple choice question:

    If God would have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov, what should Yitzchak have said?

    (A) Yes.
    (B) No.
    (C) It couldn't happen.

    REPLY: My answer is clearly "A."

  29. I don't think that it could have happened that HaShem would have made the same demand on Yitzchak regarding Ya'akov. There would have no point to it.

    If HaShem did this with Avraham in order to make the lesson about His absolute restriction on child sacrifice, then what could possibly have been gained from making the same demand a generation later?

  30. My answer is (A), but I should add the proviso that I have never really understood the Avraham and Sodom story. Even presuming the existence of natural morality (about which there is much debate), isn't G-d the ultimate arbiter of morality and the one who created natural morality? On what basis, then, is Avraham arguing?

    My philosophy professor raised the possibility that morality actually exists independent of G-d -- just like math, according to some people, exists independent of G-d. I, however, am not really comfortable with this.

    1. In the Sodom story, G-d invited Avraham to pray (not argue) for their salvation. I am not sure of the point of the whole exercise, when nothing came of it. Maybe it is a preparation for future generations who may require the limud zechus of 10 tzadikim saving the whole town . Once it has become a part of the Torah, Avraham has paved the way for future generations. Another part of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.
      My answer to the question is definitely (A). I don't know how it could happen, but that is neither here nor there.

  31. My answer, C)

    It didn't happen because there could no longer have been any theological point to it.

  32. Dovid bar Cohen writes: "Avraham wasn't asked to "kill" Yitzchak but to "sacrifice" him."

    Or, "bring him up as a sacrifice." If Yitzchak was given the same test, I suspect he'd point at the midrash that says, more or less, "technically speaking, God didn't tell Abraham to sacrifice Yitzchak." He would find a way to analyze the command so carefully as to not kill Yaakov. I guess then, R' Slifkin, that my answer is "C", but Yitzchak would treat God's command as "A" and would have faith that he'd get a command to back down at the very end, just like his father did. So, in effect, "B". How's that for covering the bases?!

    By the way, R' Slifkin, this post of yours was refreshing and thought-prokoking!

  33. To Menachem Lipkin:
    The first time I heard the theory that God's silence to Avraham after the Akeida was because of His displeasure, I was relatively shocked. I thought I had learned "all" about the Akeida. The fact that it came from my dad's Reform rabbi might have had something to do with it. Of course, being Orthodox, I rejected it right away. Naah, actually, I simply considered a different possibility why God didn't speak to Avraham afterwards. I guessed that maybe Avraham passed the test so well that there was no need for God to speak with him. Or perhaps we can draw no conclusions at all from the fact that the Torah doesn't mention any further communication between God and Avraham. The Torah, of course, leaves out lots of information.

  34. I think the answer requires understanding of the context. This was before Matan Torah, and though there were already the 7 MBN in affect, clearly nothing was taught. Avraham was living in the spiritual void of the time, and it was a hiddush just to be a monotheist. So in this spiritually and morally immature climate, you can't really know well enough to defy a directive of Gd. To understand that what I'm being told is a test and I'm meant to reject it since what's being requested is murder and murder is forbidden takes a level of clarity that without a doubt could not have existed at the time.

  35. "But if child sacrifice is immoral, and it is for this reason that God does not want it, then why would we be willing to do it? If it is entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, doesn't this mean that Avraham failed to understand what serving God was all about?"

    Huh gufah; the lesson is that we must give up our brains when we serve hashem. If he says kill, we kill; if he says stop, we stop. The universe is obviously billions of years old, yet hashem and the gedolim say it's 6000 and that's good enough. So too, we might think killing our children is wrong but if this is what hashem says then that is what we should do. Fortunately, the gedolim bruach kodshom have only required molestation and not murder.

  36. We know child sacrifice is wrong, but why is it wrong? CR Sacks posits that the akeida was there to show that our children are NOT our property and that we can't do what we want with them. the same rational for the Land of Israel ( see Rashi, of course) and the people of Israel(see the reason we had to be enslaved, albeit temporarily, to teach that ownership of humans is wrong)
    God owns everything.

  37. Child sacrifice was the norm in surrounding cultures. Child sacrifice was practiced in Israel well after we took over the land -- Jephthah's daughter was one case, and Jeremiah says (7:31):

    ". . . And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire -- which I never commanded, which never came to My mind."

    As Asher says, "At that point in history and in religious development, this was standard."

    I hear God's lesson to Abraham as:


    It just took us a long time to really hear it.

    I've never liked the hypothetical question:

    ". . . What if God told me to kill someone ?"

    because I'd always ask:

    ". . . How do I know it was Him, and not the Evil One?"

    But I've never heard that voice.

    When I was younger and asked about a source for analysis of the Akeidah, many people pointed me to Kierkegaard's "The Fear and the Trembling". Reading that book really scared me, because it opened the question of:

    ". . . How did _Isaac_ feel? "



  38. I think that among other things the Akeida is more of a measure-for-measure for Sarah who caused the near death of Yishmael. There are many similarities in the underlying sequence.
    -one parent acts unilaterally.
    -travel to some other place.
    -child almost dies.
    - last minute "reprieve".
    - Males involved each get a bonanza of mystical bonus points from God.

    Gary Goldwater

  39. The question you pose on the Akeidah is strong enough on its own. I don't find that the hypothetical question with Yitzhak and Yakov adds anything to it, personally. I certainly agree with overall theme of your question and think it's a good one.

  40. The akeida story is prefaced with the words, "...GOD tested Avraham..". That is supposed to clue the reader to the fact that GOD had no intention of having Avraham actually sacrafice his son. Of course, GOD didn't communicate this test idea to Avraham since that would have defeated its purpose. Avraham was supposed to wrestle with the conundrum of the just and moral GOD whom he recognized giving him a direct, immoral, and absurd command. While the command was absurd, the alternative of not following it would have made Avraham's life until then an absurdity. Moreover, as the prophet Amos testified much later, the divine word burns into the soul of the receiver, and can't be disregarded.

    Now, Avraham could have resolved the issue by assuming that in the end GOD would stay his hand - as actually happened. He just had to evince readiness to actually slaughter his beloved son. Alternatively, he would be allowed to proceed with the sacrafice, but GOD would return his son to life. That resolution, I believe, is what allowed Avraham to proceed with the divine order. Such a test was unique, however, and ordained only to justify the choice of the descendants of Avraham and Yitzchak as GOD's people. It was not intended to be used again since the very idea of such a command is repugnant to a moral person, much less, GOD.

  41. I believe that it is impossible that we would be able to read a Torah portion that states “and Abraham slaughtered Isaac, his son…” Our religion would then be implausible to any rational, thinking human being. The value system that is ingrained in our nature would never be able to relate to such an event.

    I would like to suggest that this itself was Abraham’s test. Abraham believed that he was serving a benevolent and just God who sent him prophecies denouncing human sacrifice and evil human behavior. Abraham subsequently receives the prophecy of the Akeida, which essentially refutes all that he has believed up to this point. The prophecy, taken on its face value, reveals that the God that Abraham has been serving all his life is neither benevolent nor just. Most human beings would follow their natural thinking instinct and refuse to carry out such an act. Abraham passed the test of submitting to God’s will, even though the outcome demanded of the test would have been incompatible with the human mind’s understanding, and that we, as Jews looking back on the test, believe could never have been a possible outcome.

  42. "If God would have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov, what should Yitzchak have said?

    (A) Yes.
    (B) No.
    (C) It couldn't happen."

    My views on each of the answers.
    If A: The implication of this answer, is that no matter what G-d says to us, we must always comply, no matter what. However, this is clearly not the situation we are in. If A was the correct answer, then we would not have halacha, or TSBP and instead we would all be classified as angels and not human beings. We are told to "walk in G-d's ways". We are not told to be automatons or angels which do G-d's will without question. It is not until G-d does something for us, (taking us out of egypt) that we asked to do anything. Without the moral imperitive of gratitude towards hashem, there isn't a need to listen to Him. So certainly, Issac would not have this requirement.

    If B: The implication of this view is that sometimes it is necessary for us to reject the will of Hashem if it conflicts with another will of Hashem, or conflicts with our own moral code. This is a position that is clearly rejected by Tanach, with the pejorative accusations of "doing what was right in their own eyes." which then lead to idolatry and divine punishment. Again one can argue that there is a difference between post Exodus and pre-exodus, so there is no real reason why Yitchak can not say no in this case.

    If C: On first take, C appears to be a cop-out. How do we know that this could not happen? If it did happen it wouldn't be a question, and since it didn't, perhaps that means it can't? In general, it seems like C is not really an answer to the question. However, not answering C opens up the possibility that G-d could have asked the Jewish people to sacrifice Jesus as a means of atointment. Since we reject this as a possibility, saying that only animals can be sacrificed, then C appears to be a legitimate answer.

    So for this particular question I would answer B. If the question was re-asked regarding Chana.. i.e. if Chana was asked to sacrifice Shmuel.. I would say that at that point in History, the answer would be C.

  43. I think understanding the Akeidah can only be done in the context of what has transpired previously in the Torah.

    Adam rejected God's authority by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam took moral authority to himself, quite contrary to God's original plan. Man established himself as a power in the world, which prevented him from maintaining a close relationship with God.

    Fast forward to Avraham, we have the first man who is willing to abrogate moral authority and submit to the will of God. The Akeidah pushed that to the limit, testing whether or not Avraham would exercise his own moral authority over that of Gods, even in a case where it was so clear that it was immoral. To apply a lesson from philosophy, when faced with Euthyphro's Dilema, are things good because God says they are good, or does God just tell us to do that which is good, Avraham had to choose the former, rather than the latter.

    As such, I think your question is resolved. God would not have let Avraham kill his son; he was simply testing to what extent Avraham was willing to submit his will to that will of God. The story doesn't relate anything inherent as to the morality of child sacrifice in and of itself, other than the fact that it is something that all decent people would find abhorrent.

    As for Yitzchak, God's relationship with him had different parameters than his relationship with Avraham. As for us, and whether or not this level of devotion is required of us...I'll leave that as an exercise to the reader. Our relationship with God goes through many different permutations and accommodations over the course of the narrative of the Chumash.

  44. Thank G-d! Once again we can discuss an important theological topic. I was really getting sick of Dr. Betech.

  45. One of the major approaches of the meforshim is that each of the 10 tests centered around Araham not questioning G-d, not being "meharher achar midosav." For example, despite G-d telling him it will be better in Canaan, when a famine came shortly after his arrival that forced him to go down to Egypt, Avraham still didn't question what G-d said or did.

    This is epitomized by asking Avraham to sacrifice the miraculously born son through which the future nation was promised to descend, and doing so despite Avraham having preached against child sacrifice for so long. Yet Avraham didn't argue; he just hoped that he could somehow fulfill G-d's will without having to follow through with killing him (see -page 6).

    The answer to your question(s), then, would be that even though child sacrifice was wrong, the "test" was whether Avraham would question G-d, or just do it. Which did Avraham value more, being "right" or doing what G-d wants? True, they always coincide, but this request was a way to find out (show us) what the answer was.

    I would therefore answer (a) to your Yitzchoh/Yaakov query, because the bottom line is doing what G-d asks no matter what, but it couldn't be the same test (at least not in the same form), as Yitzchok already knew the "secret" that G-d never really asked that he be sacrificed, only that he be brought up as a sacrifice.

  46. Question to people answering A:

    If Yitzchak is supposed to answer A, then why in so many other instances does Avaraham answer B and not get chastised?

  47. ==== "doesn't this mean that Avraham failed to understand what serving God was all about?"

    I think this is it. See v3 - "vayaar et hamakom merachok". Read 'haMakom" as a kinui for G-d. "And Abraham saw God from a distance" -- A thought he was very close to G-d, but actually he was very far from G-d. (The situation of many frum people today....)

  48. Respectfully, I think there's an important piece missing from most analyses of the Akeida:


    Remember, Hashem promised Avraham that Yitzchak would be a great nation, which meant he couldn't die on that altar. (Unless you wish to argue Avraham believed Hashem was a liar - which opens a much larger can of worms.) Also, Avraham himself says explicitly "v'nishtachaveh v'NASHUVA aleichem." He expects Yitzchak will be fine, and says so. Those who disagree with the idea Avraham had foreknowledge need to find creative medrashic ways of reinterpreting this pasuk away from the p'shat, for exactly this reason. (e.g., nitnaveh v'lo yada, etc.)

    As a result, Avraham had no reason to protest, as he did not think any harm would be fall Yitzchak.

    In answer to R' Slifkin's multiple choice question, my answer is: it depends on whether Yitzchak knew the prophecy Rivkah received (which is also a messy question). If he did, he should say yes, since he would know Yaakov would be fine. If not, he should say no, or at least protest vigorously.


    PS: Avraham's foreknowledge of Yitzchak's safety is reflected in the comments of Rashi, Ibn Janach and various medrashim, so it's not like I made it up.

    Also, the idea that Avraham messed up by not protesting is also an ancient idea, going back at least 1500 years to the the Kedushta of R' Yohanan HaCohen and the wiritngs of R' Yom Tov Elem Bonfils and Ibn Caspi in Gaviah Hakesef.

  49. Dear Gary Goldwater,
    The point you make about the similarities between the akeidah of Yitzchak and the gereisha of Yishmael is important, but I cannot agree with your conclusion that it is some sort of middah k'negged midah for Yishmael. Remember, Avraham initially refused to do it, and acceded only after Hashem commanded him to.


  50. Ameteur wrote:

    >>If Yitzchak is supposed to answer A, then why in so many other instances does Avaraham answer B and not get chastised?<<

    There is a very big difference between protesting against things directly commanded to you and against things that will adversely affect others. The latter indicates caring for others; the former indicating unwillingness to follow the commandment.

  51. Murder is wrong only because God said it is. He made us, and if he wishes to unmake us, he has the right. He doesn't want us to kill each other, so we can't. But when he says to, even if it might seem wrong -- committing genocide against the Seven Nations or Amalek, say -- then we have to kill. Likewise for child sacrifice. So (a) for me.

    The story ends with God telling Avraham to stop because he had already passed the test at that point ("ata yadati ki yerei elokim ata"), so it was time for him to be rewarded. The reward was middah kenegged middah: since he was willing to give up his son, not only would he keep his son, his descendents would be great and numerous.

    Likewise, when God afflicted Iyov and Iyov still didn't swerve from his faith, God gave Iyov back all he previously had and more. But in that case God killed his sons before the test was over, so keeping them wasn't a tenable option. Here, too, God could have chosen to wait for Avraham to complete the sacrifice, but he happened to choose not to. I wouldn't read any significance into this choice of God -- in my interpretation, whether Avraham finished makes no difference. (I guess this makes my view very unconventional.)

    If God said he himself would kill Yitzchak, it would be appropriate for Avraham to pray to save him, and we find prayers such as this many times in Tanach. But since God asked Avraham to kill Yitzchak himself, Avraham could not question, because that would make him disobedient. The only time I can think of in Tanach where anyone receives a direct order from God and asks to be let off is Moshe at the burning bush, and God responds there angrily. Thus I don't think Avraham was expected to pray on Yitzchak's behalf.

    So my answer is that we must follow God in everything; child sacrifice is banned only so long as God says so; God wanted to test Avraham's devotion; Avraham completely passed the test as soon as he picked up the knife with the intent to kill his son; and at that point there was no reason to let him finish, but if God hadn't stopped him it would have been correct for him to finish.

  52. I've always wondered, why is it that G-D Himself tells Avraham to sacrifice his son, yet it's only an angel of G-D that stops him, and tells him not to; Shouldn't G-D have said it. Also why was the voice of an angel of G-D of a high enough authority to override the direct word of G-D?

  53. "I believe that it is impossible that we would be able to read a Torah portion that states “and Abraham slaughtered Isaac, his son…” Our religion would then be implausible to any rational, thinking human being. The value system that is ingrained in our nature would never be able to relate to such an event."

    For which leyning does everyone make sure to stand up and have in mind to be yotzei the special mitzvah? For the commandment of genocide. I have no doubt that a million and one terutzim are jumping in to your head right now about why killing amaleki babies is not problematic. Just the same, you'd have a million and one terutzim for why it was just to slaughter Isaac.

  54. "There is a very big difference between protesting against things directly commanded to you and against things that will adversely affect others. The latter indicates caring for others; the former indicating unwillingness to follow the commandment."

    Now I'm even more confused... Sacrificing yaakov adversly affects others! Namely Yaakov!

    "I've always wondered, why is it that G-D Himself tells Avraham to sacrifice his son, yet it's only an angel of G-D that stops him, and tells him not to; Shouldn't G-D have said it. Also why was the voice of an angel of G-D of a high enough authority to override the direct word of G-D?"

    Are you suggesting that an angel of G-d could possibly give a message that isn't coming from G-d himself? Remember, an angel is a "malach" a messenger... So, whats the difference?

    Some would argue that a malach is a means of using the "natural" system of events, while G-d himself doing something is an indication of a breaking of the system.

    Using this line of reasoning, G-d asking Abraham to sacrifice Issac was a "breaking" of the divine system.. it was something so strange it required direct intervention. Stoping a child sacrifice however is always wanted, so an angel is already there to stop those type of things.

  55. Haimish, the torah distinguishes between the prophetic experiences of Moshe and all other prophets. Concerning the latter it states (Num.12:6), " ..if you will have prophets, I, Hashem, will make myself known to him in a (night) vision, I will speak to him in a dream". The akeida test was made of Avraham in a night vision or dream since we learn that he awoke early to attend to the assigned task. GOD only appeared to prophets (or the patriarchs) in an awake state in the guise of angels rather than a direct visitation. That is why an angel is the one who prevents Avraham from actually sacraficing his son, and that is why GOD appeared years earlier to Avraham in the form of 3 angels. In both cases the incidents occurred in the daytime when Avraham was fully awake. Besides, the concept of an angel is that of an agent who acts solely according to the will of the sender (GOD). Hence there can be no contradiction between what GOD tells the prophet in a dream and the subsequent wording of an angellic being. The latter is merely a clarification of the former.

  56. Haimish Jew-

    It's possible that Avraham's mindset at the time wouldn't allow for a more direct communication. Remember, "the shekhina isn't shoreh" on a sad or depressed person, he or she must be "b'simcha," which is why prophets (such as Elisha) had a musician play for them to "get into the proper state of mind." As high a level as Avraham was one, especially at the moment he was willing to sacrifice his son, there might have been a part of him that was not totally "b'simcha," thus preventing direct communication with/from G-d.

    Additionally, one of the reasons given for the test(s) by the commentators is to show the angels how special Avraham was. It is therefore appropriate for it to be an angel that says "no need to go any further, I already see how special you are."

    (Just some "stream of conscienceness" thoughts to your query.)

  57. (I generally, read the titles, skim the articles, and decide to come back when I have more time to sort out the concepts, and discuss my many questions… which of course never happens. But this time, since the topic seems a bit less complex in some ways, and I have some thoughts I’d like to share, which will be outdated tomorrow…here goes.)
    It’s funny, with me, it was just the opposite. The akeidah always presented a problem for me. Ever since I heard the story as a young child I was bothered by questions. How could Hashem ask Avraham to kill his child? (the only… or otherwise.) What kind of a parent would test their child by asking them to drink poison? Vechule ve’chule. Then questions from my first grade students. “But Morah, Avrohom should have known that Hashem would have never let him do it in the end.” More ve’chules.
    But somewhere, along the way, I put it into a context that actually made sense to me. (As I recall Rabbi Slifkin saying, “Sometimes, you just have to ask different questions.”)
    What does it mean that “Hashem” “told” Avraham to sacrifice his son? What does it mean when Hashem kavyachol tells anyone anything? How does one “hear,” the “voice” of Hashem?
    Hashem says that He speaks with Moshe Rabeinu “peh el peh.” What does this mean? And does this not mean that with others He didn’t do so?
    To oversimplify and make my point, not meaning to be sacrilegious, haven’t we all at some time felt that godly inner calling, beckoning us to do what we knew was right? (And even, sometimes, did we not later feel the rightness of a different path?) Can it not be, that the greater a person is the more he can ‘hear’ this voice? (Or the greater anav someone is, the more he can set himself aside and kavyachol have the voice of Hashem come through him.)
    Avraham Avinu being of the caliber that he was, heard this voice clearly. It told him to Lech away from his land and his father’s home, but didn’t yet tell him what place he would discover. It was this same voice that guided him along the way from one challenge to the next. (Through his ups and downs…ba’mah edah? Lu Yishmael? Ve’heemin Ba’Hashem. Hithalech lefanai ve’heye tamim. Etc.)
    It was this voice that told him, as he continued to grow in his hakaras Hashem, to sacrifice his child, as would have been a logical course, since this was the lofty ritual of the time. And it was this same inner voice that later, after he began to take the first dramatic steps, made him grow into the realization that serving God could be a higher form, that of not being willing to sacrifice your child. (Ye’hareg ve’al yaavor. Not ya’harog ve’al yaavor.)
    Please note. I am not saying that Hashem didn’t speak to Avraham. It’s just that to me, Hashem speaking to Avraham does not mean the same thing we think it does when we are in elementary school.
    In the same way that I believe, we as a nation heard ‘Hashem speak’ at Har Sinai, but not in a human voice. (As I’m writing this now, I’m realizing further development of this concept as the corporealism posts come to mind)
    (And…by the way, wouldn’t this derech tie in with the mefarshim I believe I heard (Malbim?) about many of these ‘events’ in fact being dreams?)

  58. To explain my thoughts using a Rationalist Judaism paradigm, (though this wasn’t exactly the way I saw it before,) living things don’t only evolve physically. They also do so psychologically, emotionally, spiritually etc. One can clearly observe how this happens throughout the Torah. For example, note how the husband wife relationships progress starting with Adam and Chava and moving on through the Avot. (When do we first learn of love?) I guess if you don’t want to call it evolutionary, you can call it developmental.
    In the same way, at some point, people progressed from sacrificing their children to the gods to the next phase. The akeidah is the Torah’s story of how it happened with whom it happened, and of Am Yisrael being the inheritors of this philosophy.
    Incidentally this is why Hashem would/could not have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov. (C) That challenge became extinct as soon as Avraham performed it. In the same way Avraham was not told not to eat from the etz ha’daas. He always made his choices living in a world of da’as.)
    I have more to add, but would like to turn instead to what does persist in bothering me about the Akedah.

    How could Avraham Avinu have gone off to sacrifice (murder) Sarah’s only child, without giving her any warning of what was about to transpire?

    What can we make of the many medrashim around the topic of Akedat Yitzchak? A particularly troubling medrash is the one about the conversation between the ‘satan’ and Sarah, that we learned as little children right along with the p’shat (as if the pshat wasn’t traumatic enough.) All this is exacerbated by the tragic ending. Sarah dies upon hearing the news.

    As far as Avraham protesting the destruction of Sedom, but not the Akedah. The Akedah was an inner discovery where Avraham himself was ‘asked’ to do something, and was therefore ultimately resolved within himself. The destruction of Sedom was Avraham grappling with something out of his control that Hashem would do. The only thing he could choose was to protest.

    To me the Sedom conversation was the introduction of the paradigm we continue to ask to this day, (Holocaust, Haiti, Hamas,) “Ha’af tispeh tzaddik im rasha?” At the end, unresolved, Avraham shav limkomo, as we too do today. (unfortunately without protesting.)What can one possibly make of that story? What is the need for this medrash, especially since there is another inyan between Akedat Yitzchak and the beginning of Chaye Sarah? And worst of all…how can anyone make peace with the fact that Sarah Imenu died, (was killed) as a result of the Akeidah? To me it sounds like.

    “Ha ha Avraham. I tricked you. You don’t have to kill your child. You can kill this animal instead.”
    “Whew baruch Hashem. What a relief. I passed the test! (Though I nearly died myself from the stress.) My child is alive!
    “Ha ha Avraham, fooled again. You thought you were coming home to relive this epiphany with your wife. Your wife is dead! You didn’t lose your son. You lost your wife instead. And your son lost his mother. Too bad you had no chance to say goodbye.”
    Happy ending?
    How can one believe that? Helplease.

  59. I probably should have done this before my last post, but I just opened a chumash and reread the parsha with this concept in mind. I feel there is much in the text that validates my point.
    The entire scene is written as a journey where father and son move on yachdav trustingly into the unknown. As before, Avraham is told “lech lecha”…”asher omar elecha.”
    He sees the place ‘merachok’, and one glimmer at a time, eventually it comes into focus. Count how many times we find the shoresh of seeing in this parsha until ultimately Avraham names the place , “Hashem Yireh.” (Oy, just getting started. More thoughts on this to save for another time.)
    Shabbat Shalom

  60. It is interesting that Akedah is an abbreviation for Al Kiddush Hashem.

  61. During the kri'ah yesterday I was thinking a lot about this blog and the various responses to it, when a thought occurred to me.

    I have not researched it at all, so I have no idea if other, much wiser minds than my own have already made this connection (or completely rejected it as apikorsus), but I thought I'd put it out there for reactions and thoughts...

    I was thinking about the connection between Avraham's arguing with HaShem over Sdom v'Amorrah and the Akeida. Perhaps there is an element in the story of the Akeida of HaShem wnating to show Avraham Avinu how very seriously He took the decision to destroy Sdom v'Amorrah.

    Avraham was very quick (and generally considered righteous) to try to bargain with HaShem to spare the cities, and HaShem allowed him to negotiate with Him to a certain point.

    But perhaps HaShem also wanted Avraham to understand that this was not a decision the HaShem took lightly at all, or had not considered thoroughly.

    We have a midrash of HaShem reprimanding the angels immediately after kri'yat Yam Suf for rejoicing when HaShem was forced to kill His Egyptian children.

    We also have the "bottom line" (as it were) of The Book of Yonah, in which HaShem makes it very clear to Yonah that destroying His own children - no matter how sinful and evil they have become - is only a very last resort - even for Him, and to be avoided at any cost if at all possible.

    Avraham Avinu did not have the "hindsight" or either kri'yat Yam Suf or the reality of Nineveh. Perhaps HaShem felt that Avraham need to fully appreciate how very seriously HaShem had taken the decision regarding Sdom v'Amorrah.

    Anyway - just my couple of agurot worth for a Sunday morning.

    Thoughts and reactions, anyone...?

    Shavu'a Tov!

  62. All the above seem to ignore the fact that following the akeida, Yitzchak does not return home with Avraham. (Check it out!)
    How, after his father was about to slit his throat (and according to some midrashim, he actually drew blood), could he continue the loving relationship! No further meeting between Yitzchak and Avrhaham is recorded.
    Where does he go? According to a midrash, he went to Paradise to recuperate. But p'shat makes it quite clear. Where do we next meet up with Yitzchak? At his meeting with Rivka. The text tells us that "Yitzchak had come from the approach to Beer-Lahai-Roi" in the Negev region. Name ring a bell?
    It was the dwelling place of his half-brother Yishmael. After "losing" his father, he sought comfort with his old brother/playmate and his (Yishmael's) mother, Hagar.
    Could the story carry the message - be careful that your total unquestioning devotion to God (or at least to how you interpret God's desires) not be at the expense of your family's welfare.

  63. I have said the following pshat on the Akeida recently. We know that regarding the Anshei Sdom, Avraham put up a major fight with G-d. Why did he not put up a fight about his own son? Consider the following thought-experiment: If Avraham had been commanded to sacrifice his next-door neighbor's son, would he have done so? The answer seems to be unquestionably not. He would simply have refused, no matter what punishment would be coming his way. However, when it came to Yitzchak, his humility caused him to recuse himself, as he thought he could not be unbiased to properly judge a case involving his own family. He thought maybe he or Yitzchak had done something terrible to become chayav misa, and he had no grounds to refuse. This honesty and humility was the greatness he displayed. Yet for somebody else, he would have gone through hell and high water to save him.

    This trait of arguing with G-d was also displayed by Moshe when he said V'im ayin mecheini na. In addition, please see Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer's blog a few months back (and my comments there) where he quotes a Midrash Tanchuma that Moshe on his own inserted the requirement that by the zayin amamin, one must offer peace, before engaging in battle. The RBSH agreed and was proud of Moshe. This shows the gadlus of klal yisroel, that we always desire peace.

    A remaining question, then, is why Shaul was punished for refusing to kill Agag. I have a few possible answers, including that Shaul could not claim he was opposed to bloodshed, since he tried to kill Dovid. But perhaps, another Jew would have every right to conscientously object. Another answer is that Agag was the king of the nation, who had waged war, and had to be killed to prevent further bloodshed of innocents. However, had this been a random 4-year old child of the nation of Amalek, perhaps a Jew absolutely should conscientously object.

    The problem is compunded when we recall with horror Hitler's killing of Jewish children, while at first glance it seems the Torah says to kill Amalekite children. Hence, unless one wants to accept that our religion is built on sheer absurd hypocracy, it follows that the greatness of the Jewish people is their abhorrence of violence, unless in an absolute immediate life-threatening situation. It therefore seems clear that any Jew should and would refuse to kill a child of any nation despite whatever religious obligation he may have. If G-d has any desire to wipe some nation out, surely he has ample means at his disposal, that don't involve my killing a child. Perhaps that is the meaning of the pasuk that we are called Yisrael, ki sarisa im elokim v'im anashim vatuchal. A Jew fights with G-d when he believes G-d is committing an injustice.

  64. This is supposed to be a rationalist blog and there appears to be a lot of confusion regarding the Akeida.
    Please excuse this long post. Rationalist should imply finding the emet, not just looking a who said what. I will do it in two parts.
    The meaning of this episode his highly controversial. Traditional Jewish interpretation s have opined that the episode implies:
    A. Abraham passed the test because of his obedience
    B. Abraham passes the test because he was willing to have his son martyred for the sake of God.
    Explanation (A) is first found in the Josephus discussion of the Akedah (Antiquities of the Jews chapter XII): “ Now Abraham thought that it was not right to disobey God in anything, but that he was obliged to serve him in every circumstance of life.” The problems with this explanation are that Abraham did not appear to exhibit unquestioning obedience in prior encounters with God. For example, Abraham questions God extensively as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are prepared.
    Martyrdom has been felt by many to be the message of the Akedah. In this view, Abraham was willing to give his son as a sacrifice to God, and Issac was willing to be a sacrifice. The first appearance of Explanation (B) is controversial. The Apocryphal literature (writings not included in Tanach but generally included in Christian Bibles) contains a series of the “books of the Maccabees”. Maccabees II contains the famous description of Hannah and her seven sons. These individuals undergo hideous tortures at the hands of Antiochus rather than eat pork or violate other aspects of Jewish Law. This book is stated by its author to be an abridgment of a larger work by one Jason of Cyrene (not exactly the name of a Torah-Jew). The book was written in Greek and translators point to stylistic similarities with Greek literature and tragedy. Maccabees IV revisits the Hannah story and has a more philosophical tone. Both of these works were related to the Akedah by the early Christian Church, in view of Hannah's willingness to sacrifice herself and her children. Indeed, the seven brothers were given a place on the Christian Calendar of Saints. Some feel that the account in Maccabees IV even touches on the notion of their sacrifice expiating the since of others. However neither of these works clearly relates the Akedah to the story of Hannah. As noted, these works (composed after the Maccabee rebellion but before the turn of the 1st century CE) show heavy Greek influence and were not included by Chazal in the Tanach. Jewish references to the Hannah and her sons story are found in the Talmud Gitten 57b and in Lamentations Rabbah ( midrash). The former refers to “the woman and her seven sons” and the latter names the woman as Miriam. These quotes are almost identical comparing her acts of sacrifice to that of Abraham and in fact outdoing him. However, the texts do not say that she was directly inspired by the Akedah. The primary story of Jewish martyrdom in the traditional texts is that of the Ten Martyrs read on Yom Kippur. Nowhere in this story Is there a reference to the Akedah. The invoking of the Akedah to justify martyrdom does not really appear until the time of the Crusades in the Middle Ages (1096). At that time, direct references were made to Hannah and to the Akedah. Multiple religious historians have felt that the Jewish martyrdom at the time of the Crusades was influenced by the Christian emphasis on martyrdom. Certainly, the emphasis on a story in the Christian bible but not the Jewish Tanach would point to this.
    Why dwell on the chronology of Jewish martyrdom as it related to the Akedah ? The reason is that the story was never clearly related to martyrdom until the Middle Ages or Talmudic times, and likely under the influence of Christianity. Therefore, we must look to another explanation for the Akedah as originally written.

  65. Continued: C. Against Human Sacrifice
    The key to understanding the Akedah in to realize that Abraham did not sacrifice Issac. This immediately reduces the plausibility of the martyr interpretations referred to above. While such interpretations may have appeared at later times in Jewish History under conditions of severe persecution, it is doubtful that apply to the original intent of the Akedah. The second key is realize that Abraham did not argue with God or question him. Since this is the same Abraham who extensively questioned God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the failure to argue has been considered very puzzling. However, child sacrifice in Mesopotamia at the time of Abraham was not uncommon. Furthermore, it was considered a demonstration of loyalty to one's God.
    Therefore, Abraham, living in the culture of Mesopotamia, was not surprised by the request and was prepared to act on it. To one living in that culture at that time, child sacrifice was not a repugnant act. The third key is the use of different names of God in the Akedah. Umberto Cassuto, a famous Italian scholar and Rabbi of the 20th Century, argued that the term Elokim refers to the God of all nations , to the universalistic aspects of God. Hashem refers to the God of Israel. Many Rabbis state that Hashem refers to God's quality of mercy and Elokin to that of strict justice. Such terms are often proxies for the more general explanation given by Cassuto. Remarkably, Elokim is used in the Akedah until the angel stops Abraham from sacrificing Issac. At that time and thereafter, the name Hashem is used. Thus, Abraham realizes the God of the nations may have wanted human sacrifice, but not the God of Israel. Thus, the real purpose of the Akedah is remove the last vestiges of pagan beliefs from Abraham. His unquestioning acceptance of the message to sacrifice Isaac demonstrates that he still harbored such beliefs. Only by living through the terrible emotions associated with child sacrifice could Abraham comprehend the barbarity of the practice. This was far more effective than a “Thou shalt not sacrifice thy children” command. After Abraham stops his attempt to sacrifice Isaac, he is told by the angel of Hashem “that because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one, that I shall surely bless you”. Therefore, God was pleased with the way things wound up. Consequently, if Abraham had in fact sacrificed Isaac that would have constituted withholding his son from God. God had plans for Isaac, to make him into a nation. This would not have been possible if he was killed by his father. The purpose of Bereshit is to mold character and middot, not deliver Halachas. As a result of the Akedah, the idea of abhorrence human sacrifice was embedded in the Jewish psyche. We take this for granted today. However, think of the Aztecs and Incas, who made such sacrifice the center of their religious practices. If these South American tribes had their own Akedah story, much death and human suffering could have been avoided.

  66. I believe there is a piyut in the yotzrot for Shavuot in which Avraham is criticized for not being sufficiently compassionate toward his son. I think the point was to explain why the Torah was given to Israel by way of Moshe who argued with God on behalf of Israel and not Avraham.who did not argue on Yitzhak's behalf..

  67. I have a post on this at this link

  68. Rabbi Natan,
    I send you a piyut in Hebrew, that every Jewish Romanite shul (=Byzantine Jews = Greece, Turkie, Balkans, etc.) said on Hag Hashavuot until the Holocaust, before beginning reading the Ten Commandments. The piyut is from R' E. Hakalier, the most prominent and father of all the paytanim. According to this piyut (I suppose that you will find it in every Mahzor from Greek Jews), Avraham failed with the Akedah. The Piyut answers a great question: why was the Torah not given by rhe Zadikim of Sefer Bereshit? Here is the answer why Avraham was not allowed to give the Torah:

    ענתה אָמוֹן לאדון לְעַלְסוֹ ולנצחו
    עלם אש חֲננתו בכלות כחו
    עקדו על עצי מזבחו
    עצור שלושה ימים עָש אפרוחו
    ערב ונרצה ניחוחו
    עָצַם ובכל ארץ הפיח ריחו
    עניין כרחם אב על בנים בשכחו
    עטיפת תחנה היה לו לערוך בשיחו
    עתה ידעתי שִימעַתוֹ לשבחו
    עושה ארץ בכחו
    ( אפסי חוג', לרבי אלעזר קליר שורות 205-215)
    בתוך: שולמית אליצור, רבי אלעזר בירבי קליר, קדושתאות ליום מתן תורה, ירושלים תש"ס, עמ' 185.

  69. The Halahah is that Avraham and Yitzak prayd to God :

    מי שענה לאברהם אבינו ... (משנה תענית ב ד; רמב"ם הלכות תעניות ד ט"ו;

  70. My grandfather was very troubled by the Akeida narrative and the interpretation of the classic meforshim. He took comfort in the interpretation of the Noam Elimelech that Avraham and Yitzchak really knew all along that they weren't going to be required to go through with the sacrafice, and the test was for them to just go through the motions of the commandment with full expectation of the happy ending.

  71. Hi Rav,

    I wonder about the possibility that Avraham failed the test that HaShem set him with akidat Yitzchak. There are several biblical narratives that this story contrasts with. The ones that come immediately to mind are:

    1) Noah, ish Tzadick tamim hyah be'dorato "a rightious man, blameless in his generation

    2) Avraham with regard to Sodom and Gmaroh

    3) Moshe in response to HaShem wish to destroy B'nei Yisrael after the Golden Calf.

    With regard to Noach; Rashi (I believe, without checking) says that "in his generation" was because compared to Avraham he would not be seen as so righteous. The criticism of Noach was that he displayed no effort to save others of his generation, or to warn the people around him of the forthcoming deluge, and need to repent. This contrast negatively with Avraham with regard to Sodom and Gmaroh, where he tried to bargin with HaShem to prevent the destruction of the regions.

    Sdom and Gmaroh compare favourably with Moshe's response to HaShem after HaShem sort to destroy Bnai Yisrael. Moshe's response was "Now if you will forgive them (well and good); bit if not erase me from the record that you have written" In both of these case Avraham and Moshe argued with HaShem on the moral value of HaShem chosen course of action. In both cases these men stood up to HaShem. In contrast, Avraham was strangely mute and submissive in response to commandments to sacrifice his son.

    Surely, based on the appropriate response to the earlier instance, and the moral high ground Moshe carved for himself, Avrahams capitulation here was the wrong choice?

  72. I like Yitzchuk's tattoo on his lower leg...

  73. >>where God tells Avraham not to kill Yitzchak. <<

    Correction - the angel told Avraham not to kill Yitzchak. In fact, G-d never spoke to Avraham again.

  74. See my article "The Binding of Isaac":

  75. Garnel Iroheart said: "The principle "Lo b'Shamayim hee" would suggest that God's direct command, should it violate the established halacha, should not be listened to because under the system God set up He asked us to maintain the halacha. Otherwise why didn't the Chachamim in Bava Metzia accept Rabbi Eliezer's position after God Himself told them to?"
    Lo B'shamayim He means that God cannot tel you how to pasken a halachic question. It does not mean that God cannot you to violate halacha. For example, By Eliyahu Hanavi with the ravens, the Gemara in Chulin 5a says על פי הדבור שאני. Rashi explains שהקב"ה התירו לפי שעה דכתיב (מלכים א יז) ואת העורבים צויתי שם לכלכלך

    As someone already pointed out, there is no difference between God commanding you to kill an Amalekite and God commanding you to kill your son. You might love your son more, but that has no bearing on the rightness/wrongness of killing him.

    1. So you think religion - our religion in this case - has no relationship to right and wrong, but rather is based on rules set out by G-d that to our eyes are essentially arbitrary? That is a very strange view of religion.

  76. Maybe I'm missing something, but doesn't the Torah's stating "Hashem nisa et Avraham" tell us clearly that this was a nisayon, and never intended by HKBH to be carried out?

    We can debate the morality/fairness of the test, but it was 'only' a test.

  77. Thanks to Rabbi Slifkin for this topic, since it has troubled me for a very long time. We were taught that Avraham and Yitzchak were happy to go on this mission, to do Hashem`s will. This always struck me as deeply wrong. It was a man killing his son, how could either of them be happy?

    In fact, my rebbe, Rabbi Leib BAron, zt`l, brought down a medrash ( Yalkut Shimoni) That said that both were crying. And that had Avraham not cried, he would have been a simple murderer.

    I read a lot of history books, and what I find was that child sacrifice was very common in pagan times. Also, they would leave undersized children to the elements-expose them, in the terms used. So, for Hashem to ask Avraham to go on a long journey-at least three days- to bring Yitzchok as a sacrifice would be a very public way of repudiating that practice. Compare it to a prominent person , with everbody watching, almost entering some institution and then turning his back on it.To my mind, that was the major break Hashem made between us and the rest of the world.

    If you say that Hashem really wanted this to go through, then it would have been as if He had said ` Everything I told you is false, I`m the same as all the others.`

    It would have been a perversion of everything that went before, and everything that followed.

  78. Avinoam, Abravanel begins saying נסה means "raised" (as in "like a banner") because Avraham gad nothing more to prove in his relationship with God. Abravanel's deconstruction, extremely lengthy, is worth going through. I've personally found a cross between his approach and Ralbag's (though he doesn't quite agree with Ralbag) to bring the Akedah to a satisfactory conclusion (though we're never really satisfied with this tale, are we?). I do believe the text is rich with parallels and chiasms that paints a entirely different picture than any classic interpretation. Avraham was sent to a mountain top to raise Yitzchak up, to give him his own לך לך experience, and to find the ram that was waiting for him there to be brought as a Korban. It's a lengthy analysis, much more to be said. But this should whet the appetite.

  79. The Sefardi piyyut sung before tekias shofar on Rosh Hashana, "Et Sha'arei Ratzon" has a beautiful line about Avraham: "Ayin Bemar Boche Ve'lev Sameach" - The eye cries with bitterness and the heart is joyous".

    That is the depth of the Akeidah, that Avraham was only human - he felt the tremendous pain of his action - and yet he was happy to be able to do the will of the Creator.

  80. We know that Hashem does not want child sacrifice because it didn't happen at the Akeidah, and now it is impossible of course, since it is against halacha and we don't listen to prophets (if prophecy were to return) if what they say contradicts halacha. The Torah is a path of life, pleasantness and peace. Avraham knew this (and there are hints of this in the next, such as his statement to Yitzhok that God will provide the sacrifice.)

    However, we absolutely must be willing to take actions which are in effect the same thing as sacrificing our children -- sending our sons to war when necessary to protect the Jewish people, raising our children to be observant Jews even when this means likely suffering and/or death (such as in Chanukah-era Greek oppression or Soviet Communism). Avraham's example teaches us this. From the beginning, the difficulties of oppression and war were made known to Avraham (Hashem tells him about the exile), and from the beginning, the great spirit of self-sacrifice and dedication is there, that would enable Jews to survive.

  81. Brooklyn Refugee SheygitzNovember 16, 2014 at 7:55 PM

    Why is "avraham avinu" in the accompanying picture wearing a bekishe and a shtreimel?
    quite incongruous for the middle east at the time.

  82. " If it is entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, doesn't this mean that Avraham failed to understand what serving God was all about?"

    Or, he (at first) failed to understand, but then, at the end, he figured it out.

  83. Nearly everybody -- Jewish or Xian -- casts the Aqeida as a test whether one should choose Natural Morality, Abraham's internal conscience, or the Divine Command.


    Avraham was already told "ki miYitzchaq yiqarei lekha zara -- for it is those from Isaac who will be called your descendents". The nation carrying the eternal covenant, who would be uncountably many like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach, were all going to come from this son he was told to slaughter. BUT, Isaac didn't have any children yet!

    So, Avraham had reason to believe that Yitzchaq would somehow end up okay enough to have children. I don't know if he expected to be stopped in the last minute, sparing Yitzchaq physical pain. Or if he expected a resurrection -- after all Hashem already commanded an old man to circumcise himself and a number of other adult men, pain was a possible component of this. Or, as I feel is most likely, he suspended judgment, waiting to see how things would come to pass.

    So, the aqeida was not a major challenge to Avraham's natual morality, it was a challenge to his personal judgment. He was being checked to see if he would choose bitachon, trust in G-d, over rationalism.

  84. >Was this the inevitable ending? Is it actually entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication?

    I don't even understand this question. You only have ONE version of this story therefore of course this ending was inevitable. The only way you can ask this question is if you had a series of incidences before Avraham where God asked people to do the same thing. In some instances God allowed for the child to be sacrifice and in some others He did not. That way, when you get to Avraham, we would be sort of wondering which way God was leaning. But we don't have such incidences. Avraham is the only *control* test.

  85. I fail to understand R' Natan's apparent continuing struggle with the Akeida narrative. An appropriate answer, it seems to me, was given by me and possibly others in 2010 on this blog and now by Micha Berger. The answer to the subsequent question about a hypothetical later Divine demand should also be clear - it has never happened and will not happen in the future. It was a unique test for a unique individual who recognized the request as a test of his faithfulness. As stated by the two of us (at least), Avraham either believed that his hand would be stayed at the last moment or that his son would survive the sacrificial act. The fact that there is no recorded divine encounter after the Akeida can simply imply that nothing further was expected of Avraham who was to spend his last years quietly. It may also reflect one tragic outcome of the Akeida - the death of Sarah. She was not privy to the divinely inspired dream that precipitated the Akeida, but was, apparently, aware that her son was to be sacrificed. Such a possible lack of faith may be indicated by her death in Hebron while Avraham had to travel there to attend to her funeral arrangements.

    Y. Aharon

  86. No one except me seems to have a problem with this picture -- Avraham is depicted as a Chassid, and his son is a half-naked heathen?

    1. Temujin has no problem with this picture; he always appreciates a good laugh. Almost as good a kids' book illustration he saw of a skinny, pale yeshivishe-looking Moshe Rabeinu in a wide shtreyml and white knee socks somehow carrying huge thick tablets which must has weighed a wuarter ton each, even if they were of limestone.

  87. I remain of the view that Avraham failed the test and will cite 3 arguments to support my contention. When Avraham is instructed not to kill Yitzchak, it is no longer God who instructs him, but an angel of God. Indeed, God never directly speaks to Avraham ever again. If he passed the test then why did God deem him unworthy of a direct instruction? Likewise, Yitzchak never speaks to him again, and, of course, neither does Sarah. If, as you contend, he passed the test, then the price Avraham paid, seems to be extremely heavy.

    1. All you actually know is that the torch was passed to Yitzchaq, and Yitzchaq and G-d never again say anything to Avraham that advances the narrative. Not that such dialog never occurred. I do not see how it's possible to maintain that Abraham failed when the angel's response is to tell him that Hashem complemented Abraham's listening to Him by not withholding his son (22:16-18; tr. R Aryeh Kaplan):

      וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם ה כִּי יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידֶךָ. כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו. וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי.
      and said, "God declares, 'I have sworn by My own Essence, that because you performed this act, and did not hold back your only son, I will bless you greatly, and increase your offspring like the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring shall inherit their enemies' gate. All the nations of the world shall be blessed through your descendants - all because you obeyed My voice.'"

    2. Here's an interesting interpretation of the pasuk that explains why the test was indeed failed:


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