Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Biblical Immortals

In Rabbinic literature, several Biblical characters are depicted as “not having died” a natural death. Of these, two such non-deaths are mentioned directly in the Torah: Elijah the prophet and Hanoch (Adam’s great-great-great-great grandson and Noah’s great grandfather). Elijah’s end is described in Kings II 2:11, while Hanoch’s is a bit more obscure in Genesis 5:24, though it is elaborated upon in the Talmud and Midrash.

In Elijah’s case, we commemorate his “presence” on earth with an appearance at the Passover seder and at every brit milah (cirumcision ceremony). (We’ll talk about the connections between those another time.) Hanoch’s legacy is not generally celebrated.

The Talmud makes reference to a number of people who were so righteous they would not have died had death not been brought upon the world through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Elijah and Hanoch “did not die” because they were extremely righteous. Additionally, Jewish law requires two witnesses to attest to the truth of an idea, and Elijah and Hanoch serve as witnesses that human beings would have been immortal were it not for Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.


Jewish Treats said...

In the article Biblical Immortals it seems you are implying that there is original sin, the sin of Adam & Chava that trickled down to all humanity. I did not think this was a Jewish concept. Please clairfy . Thanks

(sent by e-mail to Jewishtreats@njop.org)

Jewish Treats said...

Dear Ms. Sadove,

Thank you for your excellent question. In order to answer it, we must first define "original sin."

As we understand it, "Original Sin" is a Christian concept that specifically refers to an alteration in the nature of humankind's soul based on the eating of the fruit in the garden. Because Adam and Eve sinned, all people are born stained with sin.

Judaism, on the other hand, believes that all people are born pure and innocent. (One of the morning blessing specifically says "G-d the soul which You gave me is pure...). Death is connected to the physical, not the spiritual. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, humankind's ability to live both physically and spiritually was diminished...blurred is perhaps a better way to understand this.

Hanoch and Elijah were exceptions in their being granted immortality, and these cases were miracles--alterations of the laws of nature. It did not have to do with their level of sin. There are those, the Talmud note, who were completely sin-free and were taken by death only because this is the state of humankind. A person is born, a person dies. In Judaism, what is important is what a person does with all that time in-between.

Thank you for being part of Jewish Treats. We hope you continue to enjoy these Juicy Bites of Judaism, Daily.

(Responded by JewishTreats)

Jewish Treats said...

I am still feeling that your article said if Adam & Chava did not sin they would not have died and thes passed this "defect" on to all humanity. If they did not sin then does that mean humans would be born and not die ?

(Second e-mail to Jewishtreats@njop.org)

Jewish Treats said...

Adam and Eve are the extreme mother and father. The choices that they make in their lives effected all of their children. Unfortunately, the best example that I could give in the 21st century is, G-d Forbid, HIV. When a person becomes infected with this dreadful disease, they pass it onto their children, who would pass it on to their children etc. There is no way out of this cycle. If the parent had not done x which infected them, then their children would not have had the disease.

In the Garden of Eden there were lots of plants and trees. However, in the center of the Garden were two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. The only Tree from which Adam was commanded NOT to eat was the Tree of Knowledge. Now, according to the midrash, Adam and Eve did not actually dwell in the Garden for very long. They were created on the Sixth Day (Friday) and were expelled before Shabbat. They made a choice to listen to the voice of the snake and to eat that fruit. Eating the fruit made them perceive the world in a whole new way, a way that made it impossible for them to stay in the Garden. That was the result of that sin, not mortality. We are not immortal because they did not choose to eat of the Tree of Life and then they were cut off from it.

Would there be death in the world if Adam and Eve had not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge? Well, we cannot say anything definite about a past that did not happen. Is this a defect that they passed on to all of humanity...it could be seen that way, or it could be seen as a decision just as any decision we make effects our children and our children's children.

Response from Jewish Treats