Aqedat Yitshak: A Knotty Inquest

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

In a few short days, Jews around the world will gather in the synagogue – in person and virtually – to participate in the prayer services and rituals of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah portion for the second day of the holiday comes from the twenty-second chapter of Genesis: Aqedat Yitshak, or The Binding of Isaac. How did this Biblical event gain such prominence and come to be an integral part of the day’s ritual?

Those familiar with the story may point to the dramatic episode’s closing scene – Abraham finding the ram caught by its horns in the bushes and the animal serving as replacement for Isaac’s sacrifice. As we know, the shofar, the ram’s horn, is deeply entrenched in the liturgy of the day. Not only is it blown throughout the Musaf prayers, but the section on “Zichronot” (Remembrances) specifically beseeches God to recall the Binding of Isaac, and for God’s rachamim (mercy) in suppressing his wrath towards us the same way Abraham suppressed his feelings of rachamim in order to do God’s will. Of course, the traditional services of both High Holidays highlight the importance of the animal sacrifices, which were the focus of these holidays both in the Bible and during the Temple period.

With all of these significant connections, it may be surprising to learn that the earliest retellings of the Aqedah actually date this event to the 15th of Nissan, Passover. The first such example is in the Book of Jubilees, from the 1st or 2nd century BCE. However, with the advent of Rabbinic Judaism following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, we begin to see a shift in the writings and midrashim, which during that period place the Aqedah on Rosh Hashanah. As the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah was codified, Rabbinic writings placed more and more emphasis on the Rosh Hashanah themes in the narrative and highlighted the test of Abraham, making him the main figure in the story, rather than Isaac.

Interestingly, during the same period, Christian writers began describing parallels between Jesus and Isaac, whom they saw as the story’s protagonist. Both figures willingly go to sacrifice themselves for the good of their people, placing great significance on the sacrifice’s blood. These writers make the Aqedah coincide with the time of Jesus’ resurrection. It is entirely possible that in this dynamic environment, the rabbis sought to shift the narrative’s focus and reclaim this history. If the Christians would read these verses on Easter, the Jews would change course and read them on Rosh Hashanah.

The discussion is complicated by the imprecise information available to us regarding the dating of various important writings. The 4th century Midrash Rabbah on Exodus retains the Passover dating, as do various Targumim. These could represent oral traditions passed down for generations and simply recorded in the 4th century, or they could represent an unconscious absorption of contemporary Christian thinking. Some scholars claim the Jubilee reference, which does not mention Passover explicitly but only the month and date, is somewhat coincidental, and that the relation of the story to Passover was entirely the device of Christian leaders, who in turn influenced Jewish Rabbinic writings.

Our posts in our recent Instagram series on the Aqedah highlight how complicated the traditions are surrounding this important story. As you browse through the manuscripts and prints below, note the similarities and differences between the depictions. There are common elements, such as the characters and their accouterment, as well as important differences, including the age of Isaac, his position, and his prominence. These similarities and differences may at times reflect the biblical interpretations familiar to the artist or the religious doctrine of his time.

Wishing you and yours a Shanah Tovah!

ancient art ancient art ancient scripture

ancient art ancient art ancient scripture

ancient art ancient scripture ancient art

Contributed by Jason Schapera, Digitization Specialist

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