Jacob and Shema
Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)
Jacob goes to meet his long-lost son, Joseph. Their meeting is quite emotional, as we would
have expected.
Genesis 46:29
“Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to meet his father, to Goshen, and he appeared
before him, he fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck for a long time.”
And he wept on his neck for a long time – RASHI: This means ‘profuse weeping…’ Here, too, he
(Joseph) wept a great deal – more than usual. But Jacob did not fall on Joseph’s neck, nor did
he kiss him. Our Rabbis said that this was because he was saying the ‘Shema’.
The subject of the various pronouns in this verse (“He appeared”, “he fell”, “he wept”) are clear.
Rashi assumes that Joseph is the subject of these verses, since the beginning of the verse
names Joseph as the subject. Joseph harnessed his chariot, Joseph appeared to Jacob (and
not vice versa), and Joseph wept on Jacob’s neck (and not vice versa) – because it does not
say “and they wept” (as it says when Jacob greets Esau, see Genesis 33:4). Also supporting
this idea that all this refers to Joseph is the fact that the next verse (46:30) begins with “And
Israel said…” implying that until now Joseph, not Israel, was the subject. (The Ramban learns
A Question: Jacob’s non-reaction is certainly strange behavior on his part. After mourning his
beloved son for 22 years, thinking he was dead, he now sees him alive and well and the master
of all Egypt. And instead of breaking out in joyous tears, he allows his reciting the morning
Shema to take place just when they meet. Knowing he was about to meet his son, couldn’t
Jacob say his prayers earlier and be free when he meets his son? He had the whole journey
from Canaan to Egypt to say the Shema. Why now, of all times, must he say it?
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Can you explain this?
Your Answer:
An Answer: The Shema tells us that one must serve Hashem with “all one’s heart, soul and
might.” This is interpreted to mean that one must reserve one’s greatest emotions exclusively
for Hashem. Thus, when Jacob experienced undoubtedly one of the most emotional moments
in his emotionally-packed life, he felt it most appropriate to turn to Hashem and direct that
emotion toward God. Saying the Shema reminded him that his joy was a gift from Hashem,
therefore it should be directed to Him. He had undoubtedly already said his morning Shema;
now he was saying his “after-mourning Shema.” So it was neither coincidence nor bad timing
that Jacob recited the Shema precisely at that moment when his joy was at its peak. This is
what Rashi is referring to.
The Ramban also tries to figure out whom the pronouns refer to. Who fell on whose neck, who
cried, who remained silent? He comes up with a different interpretation, based on a
psychological understanding of the relationship between father and son. In the process of
searching for a solution he asks a good question. His question: What do the words “And he
appeared before him” mean? Of course, if one fell on the other’s neck, he certainly saw him first
and so he appeared to him – obviously. Why the need for the Torah to write this?
Ramban says Jacob was an old man, and his sight was going. Joseph came to this meeting
wearing all his royal regalia, his uniform. As part of his royal garb he also wore a veil, with only
his eyes showing. The Ramban says this was the custom in those days. So when he
approached his father, Jacob could not recognize him (as his brothers hadn’t earlier). Then
Joseph removed the veil, then “And he (Joseph) appeared before him (Jacob).”
Then the Ramban explains – between these two individuals, Joseph the young, very
successful, ruler and Jacob the old, bereaved father – who would be the one most likely to
show explosive emotion? Jacob, of course, seeing his beloved son after he had mourned for
him for 22 years. It would also not be respectful, Ramban says, for the son to fall on the
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father’s neck. He would show more reserve in his father’s presence, as we see later when
Joseph takes his own sons to see Jacob before his death (Genesis 48:12). There he bows
down before his father but does not embrace him.
The Ramban shows much psychological insight throughout his Torah commentary. This is but
one example.
Shabbat Shalom,
Avigdor Bonchek