In a Bind – Rav Shames
Unquestionably the most gripping story in our parsha, and quite possibly the entire Tanach, is that of the Akeida. The human drama, the philosophical issues and the purpose of the whole episode have provided material for commentaries for thousands of years. I would like to investigate an aspect that, as far as I can tell, has been overlooked- the title- Akeida.
We all refer to the story as the Akieda and even as far back as the Anshe Kenesset Hagdolah, the composers of our tefilot, it is labeled the Akeida. On Rosh Hashana we conclude the bracha of Zichronot with reference to the “Akieda”. In every Gemara and Midrash and later in Medieval Jewish Poetry this is the one and only label for the story. As a matter of fact, by this stage I am sure you are saying to yourself “of course it is called the Akeida, what else could it be?”
If we think about it for a moment it is a strange label for the story. The label does not appear as such in the actual text of the Torah. The verb “Vayaakode” is there as a description of one of Avraham’s actions but it is one of many such verbs (in the same very passuk there are no less than three other “candidates” – “Vayeeven”, “Vayaaroch”, “Vayasem”) and in the adjacent pessukim there are even more. How did Akeidah become the trademark?
The most obvious method of investigating this would be to understand the meaning of the word, which we will do in just a moment. But first I think it is critical to point out that “akeidah” is an extremely rare word, as are its possible conjugations. We find it in our parsha and in only one other place in the Torah, in a different form – when Yaakov was negotiating his salary with Lavan the text refers to “akudim”. Other than that, we find it in Melachim in a very cryptic reference to the name of a place “Beit akade haroeh”. That’s it.
I think that the choice of the term akeidah in our case may be due to the rarity of the word. We needed a term that could capture the unique nature of the event, one that would never be confused with any other. We could never imagine hearing the question “which akeida?” The events in our story are so special and unique that we needed, and found, a trademark with absolutely no competition. Of course, it could be simply that we had a more technical problem as we could not refer to it as the “sacrifice” of Yitzchak as in the end of the day this did not happen.
Let us now try to define the word, akeidah. The most common understanding is “binding”. This is how Rashi interprets akeidah and explains that the reference, in Yaakov’s case, is related to the same issue – the sheep that Yaakov was referring to, when bound, had an identifiable feature, hence the name akudim.
This is the understanding of the many Midrashim in the graphic descriptions of the event. The Midrashim try to answer the unwritten question of why binding was necessary. For the most part, the answer is that Yitzchak is the one who initiated the binding because he feared that he might not be able to calmly stand up to the task of offering his own life. He tells his father that human nature is such that resistance to being slaughtered is instinctive and he asked to be bound, hard, in order not to disqualify the act. (Interestingly, this forms one of the pillars upon which the debate as to the age of Yitzchak stands. Did Avraham bind him against his will or was it Yitzchak’s idea? Did Avraham have the physical ability to bind his son at the age of 13 or possibly at the age of 37? See Torah Shlema for a full discussion of this issue).
This understanding of akeida = binding seems to be the simple understanding of the Mishna in two places. In Shabbat 5:3 we find the term “akud” used to describe a method of tying sheep. In Tamid 4:1, the Mishna tells us, concerning the Korban Tamid, that they would not tie it, “kafut”, but rather they would bind it, “akud”. We are taught that they had a specific method of binding the Korban Tamid and the Gemara offers two explanations for this. According to one, it is to show respect to the Korban. As opposed to the slaughter of an animal under normal circumstances, where one would tie all four legs, when it comes to a Korban the front and hind leg were tied to each other but the two sets (right and left) were not tied together. The second explanation is that we are interested in distinguishing our sacrifices from pagan ones which seem to have been done in the manner of “kafut” (all four limbs together).
If you are still reading at this point I thank you for your patience, because, so far, all we have done is establish that akeidah means binding and the reason was to avoid Yitzchak’s moving and ruining the korban. All of this is obvious in Rashi. (This also seems to be the definition of the word in other Semitic languages, thank you to Dr. Michael Segal for helping me on this point.)
However the Rambam seems to have had a very different reading of the Mishna in Tamid and I think it sheds a new light on the story of the akeidah.
The Rambam writes (Tmidim Umusafim 1:10):
“The manner that the Tamid of the morning was brought is the same manner that the Tamid in the afternoon was brought and it was all done according to the rules of the Olah that we have already described…they would not tie up the sheep in order not to imitate the pagans rather they would hold the hands and legs in their own hands…”
The Rambam understood “kafut” to mean tie up, which was not done to the Tamid, as we read in the Mishna, rather it had to be “akud” which he reads as “held in their own hands”!! The Tamid must be treated with special respect and not to be tied in any fashion, rather it is “hand made”.
(I think it is fascinating that this is not a general rule applied to all of the korbanot. The Rambam does not list it in the standard procedure of all sacrifices but, rather, it is reserved for the Tamid. This special Korban patterns itself after the prototype of all Korbanot – akeidat Yitzchak. This idea needs to be expanded at a different point but let us just note for now that the location of the altar in the Bet Hamikdash is the exact location of the akeida!)
This of course means the there was no actual binding at all in the akeida! I think we can safely say that the Rambam read the passuk in our parsha as follows: “They came to the place that God told them, and Avraham built the altar there and he arranged the wood and he held him on the altar on top of the wood.”
I think the translation should be “held” and not “held down”. Avraham’s akeidah of his son was a gesture of support and admiration. The scene and many of the subliminal messages, when read this way, are very different. Yitzchak is not tied up at all. He is not limited in his ability to move, and his commitment remains steadfast throughout, despite the instinctive human nature. Avraham is holding his son, in what I think represents an expression of his love for him even in this most absurd position for a loving father to be in.
I leave it up to you to complete the picture and think about how you see the Rambam’s reading differently than that of Rashi and the Midrashim. Let me know what you think.
Shabbat Shalom Rav Shames (firstname.lastname@example.org)