Genesis – 49:33 – When Yaacov finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet unto the bed; he expired and was brought in to his people.
Gemora: Taanit 5(b): What does it mean Yaacov “expired”? Thus said R.Yochanan: Yaacov our patriarch is not dead. He [R. Nahman] objected: Was it then for nought that he was bewailed and embalmed and buried?-The other replied: I derive this from a scriptural verse, as It is said, Therefore fear thou not, O Jacob, My servant, saith the Lord; neither be dismayed, O Israel,- for, lo, I will save thee from afar and thy seed from the land of their captivity.The verse likens him [Jacob] to his seed [Israel]; as his seed will then be alive so he too will be alive.
Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #46:
Rashi explains that just like G-d gathers Israel from the land of their captivity while they are still alive, so too will he gather in Yaacov while he is still alive. G-d will bring him back from exile in order to redeem his descendants. [validate this translation] But what about the fact that they embalmed him? It only appeared to them that he had died. <end quote of Rashi>
Also Tosafot write that Yaacov our father did not die. This is implied by the use of the term “expired” rather than “died”. We find similarly in Gemora Sota 13(a) that Yaacov opened his eyes before his burial and laughed because Esav was there.
However, were it not for the explanations of Rashi and Tosafot, I would explain it like what is written in the Gemora Bava Basra 116(a) where it explains that King David is not called ‘dead’ because he left a son behind who was as righteous as he. So too here, since Yaacov left behind sons who were righteous as he was, therefore it does not say that Yaacov died.
If one were to follow Rashi and Tosafot, though, one would need to keep in mind that this drasha is an old one with ancient hints. It is more understood through the category of Sod and Remez than the category of simple explanation. See also that this drasha of Yaacov not dying was astounding also to our rabbis. The degree to which this drasha was astounding to the rabbis can be seen from its context in the Gemora’s discussion before and after it. It seems appropriate to me to quote that discussion and explain it.
The discussion is as follows: Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchak were sitting down to eat a meal. Rav Nachman says to Rav Yitzchak, “Nu, let’s hear a dvar torah”. Rav Yitzchak responds quoting Rav Yochanan “ain m’sichin b’seudah” [DBS Note: this is generally taken to mean, “don’t talk during eating”.] Lest you get something stuck in your throat and choke.
After they finished eating Rav Yitzchak finally replied and said “Rav Yochanan also says that Yaacov our father never died.” To which Rav Nachman immediately responds, “didn’t they eulogize him and embalm him?” Rav Yitzchak then went and told him another drasha: Whoever says “Rahav Rahav” will immediately have a nocturnal emission. To which Rav Nachman replied, I did this and nothing happened to me. To which Rav Yitzchak replied “It’s talking about someone who personally knew Rahav and recognized her.”
It is possible to conclude a few thoughts from this. First, why did Rav Yitzchak choose exactly these two drashot to discuss after the meal with Rav Nachman? Also, it is difficult to understand the exact phrase of “ain m’sichin b’seudah” with the grammatical causative declension. [DBS Note: one should not cause others to talk during a meal.] It would be more proper, grammatically, to say “ain sochin b’seudah”, “don’t talk during a meal”. Additionally, don’t we find often that people do talk during a meal but they pause for a moment during eating [to chew]. We see this every day during any meal eaten with friends.
Therefore it seems that we have to conclude that for the one who is talking, he himself is not in danger if he talks during a meal. He can be careful to avoid a danger as we explained by pausing a moment during the meal to speak. But for the listener, sometimes there is an unavoidable danger. This is because sometimes he might hear something so outlandish and totally astounding that due to the impact of what he is hearing on his soul that he can’t wait until he finishes swallowing that which is in his throat. He won’t have the ability to wait and will respond even while the food is in his throat that he’ll ask or respond to that astounding or amazing thing that he just heard. In that case, certainly he might come into a place of danger.
This is what is happening in the story in the Gemora. Rav Yitzchak wanted to demonstrate to Rav Nachman in a tangible way. Therefore he chooses these two astounding and difficult to comprehend drashot to tell Rav Nachman after the meal. Indeed, Rav Nachman responded immediately to both. In the first case, “what, didn’t they embalm him?” In the second case, “what? I said Rahav Rahav and nothing happened to me!” It was by using these exact astounding drashot that Rav Yitzchak proved to Rav Nachman that one should not talk during a meal. Additionally the danger is not to the one who is talking but rather to the listener.
DBS Note: One point among the many that I enjoyed from this Torah Temimah is his use of the phrase “were it not for Rashi and Tosafot’s comments, I would say as follows…” Indeed, the Torah Temimah often uses that phrase. This standard phrase used also by other classic commentators shows both their humility in light of previous commentators but also their audacity and sense of permission to have a different opinion.