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    Joseph & the embalming – Vayyechi

    Embalming Joseph's body, from the 1890 Holman Bible

    B’reshit ends with the death of Joseph.

    His body is embalmed and put in a coffin (Gen. 50:26). Generations later, say the sages, this enables the Israelites to find Joseph’s remains and take them back to the land of Canaan for burial.

    In other cases embalming was performed as a routine Egyptian practice, but in relation to Joseph it was done to keep the body in a fit state to be able to be carried up to the Holy Land.

    A similar comment is made concerning the earlier embalming of Joseph’s father Jacob (Gen. 50:2), which was also done in order to preserve the patriarch’s remains so they could be brought to the Cave of Machpelah for burial.

    These rabbinic explanations reflect the difficulty our ancestors had with the impropriety they associated with the methods of embalming. Later halachic thinking severely restricted the occasions when embalming could be performed.

    The occasional need to take a body for burial a long way away, e.g. in Israel, is recognised. But there must be no nivvul ha-met, desecration of the dead, e.g. by means of incisions over the major arteries or removal of the blood from the body.

    All the more so must so-called cosmetic procedures be avoided, e.g. injecting a coloured dye, adding rouge to the face or puffing out the cheeks.

    The halachah requires rabbinic approval in every case (see F. Rosner and M. D. Tendler, Practical Medical Halacha, 1980, p. 70).

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