Akeidas Yitzchak Q&A’s


Moshe Ben-Chaim





Ibn Ezra (Exod. 20.1)

“...The second category (of commandments) are commands which are hidden, and there is not explained why they were commanded. And G-d forbid, G-d forbid that there should be any one of these commands which goes against human intelligence. Rather, we are obligated to perform all that G-d commands, be it revealed to us the underlying “Sode” (principle), be it hidden from us. And if we find any of them, which contradict human intelligence, it isn’t proper that we should understand it as implied. But we should consult the books of the wise men of blessed memory, to determine if such a command is a metaphor. And if we find nothing written (by them) we (must) search out and seek with all our ability, perhaps we can fix it (determine the command). If we can’t, then we abandon that mitzvah as it is, and admit we are ignorant of it”.


Reader: According to Ibn Ezra you quoted, “abandon that mitzvah as it is”, refers to commands, which do not comply with human reason. My question is why Abraham accepted the command of slaughtering his only son. Isn’t this in opposition to human reason? To kill your own child? This question is strengthened, as the Ibn Ezra’s very example of incomprehensible laws is the command “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts”. This is a matter of killing as well, but here, Ibn Ezra says it is impossible that we should take this literally, i.e., to cut out our hearts. If this is so impossible on the literal level, what made Abraham so willing to sacrifice his son? Shouldn’t he abandon the command from G-d, just as Ibn Ezra says we should?
Mesora: Your question is very good. There is one distinction I would make. Regarding the Ibn Ezra, if a command FOR ALL JEWS would exist as literally “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts”, this would cause the end of Jewish people, a direct contradiction to G-d’s will that Jewish people should exist. Additionally, the second half of that verse reads, “and your necks shall no longer be stiff”. This means that the command of “circumcising the foreskins of your hearts” must result in an improvement in man’s nature, where he is no longer stubborn. Clearly, the command of “circumcising the foreskins of your hearts” is not a directive to kill ourselves, but rather to improve our ethics - to eradicate our stubborn nature in connection with Torah adherence.




Reader: That is not the reason that the Ibn Ezra says though. He doesn’t mention the last part of the verse or anything about it contradicting another part of the Torah, namely that the Jewish people should exists to perfect themselves.
Mesora: But that last half of the verse does in fact exist, and is divinely connected with the first half. We do not require all to be written by Ibn Ezra. You must learn the Ibn Ezra, not simply read him, and you must use reasoning. If G-d placed two ideas in one verse, they are inherently intertwined and related.



Reader: Ibn Ezra says, “does He (Hashem) wish to murder us like a cruel person?” In other words there would be no benefit what so ever in taking the commandment literally, just the opposite; it is totally destructive and makes no sense, and so it goes against reason. It is for this reason alone that he mentions the example of “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts”. He doesn’t say that if one commandment goes against another part of the Torah that we have to reinterpret it. He says if it goes against “reason” we can’t take it literally. That is his point.

Mesora: But isn’t that which opposes another part of the Torah something which you consider going against reason”? Of course. So we must look at the entire verse, and the entire Torah.



Reader: So my question on the Akeida stands. Forget about the example of “Umaltem”. The fact is the Ibn Ezra (and not just him, Rav Saadia Gaon as well as many others mention this) says that if our understanding of a Mitzva goes against reason “it is not proper to believe it literally”. So my question on the Akeida stands.
Mesora: A command to Abraham to slay his son doesn’t contradict anything. It is not unreasonable for him to kill his son at G-d’s command. He is only killing one person, and not the entire nation. A Rabbi taught, Abraham questioned G-d upon His decision to destroy Sodom. Why did Abraham question G-d on Sodom, but at the command to kill his own son, Abraham did not question? The Rabbi answered that in terms of determining G-d’s justice, man may investigate and arrive at reasons. What G-d administers to man must be appreciated in man’s terms of justice. But how killing Isaac would perfect Abraham, here, Abraham felt, “G-d may have a method unknown to me just how this will benefit me. If G-d commands me in this act, it must have a perfection somewhere, although I may not be able to see it. My ignorance does not remove the perfection of this act.” Punishment is a different story; it is meted to man as a result of his actions, as a lesson to man or mankind. As such, “lesson” means that there is comprehension - there is understanding. Therefore, Abraham inquired about areas of justice - Sodom’s destruction - but did not inquire into the command to kill Isaac. A command is G-d’s knowledge, far beyond that which mortal man comprehends.


Again, nothing in the act of killing Isaac contradicted reason - but wiping out the entire nation by taking literally “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts” is unreasonable, and must be interpreted. We do not allow our ignorance to question G-d’s commands. However, contradictions are different, and that which is contradictory cannot be followed. G-d gave us a mind to lead our actions, This means, by definition, that contradiction goes against G-d’s wish for man’s actions. Abraham slaughtering Isaac presented no contradiction. Jews following a command literally of “circumcising the foreskins of our hearts” is a contradiction to G-d’s plan that mankind endures.


Now, you might say it contradicts G-d’s very promise to make Abraham’s seed as numerous as the stars and the sands. Perhaps Abraham thought there were new considerations to which G-d reacted, altering His original plan.



Reader: How can Hashem change his mind? First He tells Abraham to bring his son as a sacrifice, then He tells him not to. Either Hashem changed his mind or, G-d forbid, one of the commands was not true, since contradictory statements cannot both be true! (Even Hashem can’t do that, that’s not possible). Many commentaries ask this question.

Mesora: G-d altered His plan to have man live forever. But this is not a “change in His mind”. After the first sin, man caused his death to become a reality. Why cannot G-d alter His plan, as “part” of His plan? G-d knows the future! Ibn Ezra teaches that G-d initially desired the firstborns to serve in the Temple, but were exchanged for the Levites subsequent to their sin of the Golden Calf. G-d knew this was to happen. He did not change His mind. Here too G-d changed His plan. In reality, G-d never intended that Isaac die, only that Abraham be tried by G-d’s command. Once Abraham prevailed, just before cutting Isaac’s throat, G-d told Abraham the truth, that Isaac is not to be killed, but that it was a trial. G-d knows all future events. Based on this reality, we cannot say He has changed His mind, as His “mind” is never ignorant, therefore, no changes are required to compensate for unforeseen events.



Reader: Another question could be asked. If Hashem came to you and asked you directly to sacrifice your son would you be able to refuse? What was such a great test that Abraham went through?
Mesora: Jona refused G-d’s command, anyone can refuse. The greatness of Abraham is that he didn’t refuse, and was willing to sacrifice his beloved son.

Reader: The Ralbag points out that really there can be two understandings of Hashem’s initial command to Abraham. 1) Bring him as a sacrifice. 2) To bring him up the mountain to bring a sacrifice with him, to educate him in bringing sacrifices.

Using this insight of the Ralbag I would suggest that Abraham was in a dramatic dilemma. Should he interpret Hashem’s words literally and go against his reason? Or should he use his reason to reinterpret Hashem’s words? Abraham simply did not know what to do! Don’t forget, for the first period of his life Abraham discovered G-d using his intellect alone as the Rambam so beautifully describes. Then he merited prophecy later in life. But now these two “chords” that attached him close to Hashem contradicted each other! What should he do?

Now Abraham could have taken the easy way out. He could have reinterpreted Hashem’ command to fit with reason. But he didn’t! This was Abraham’s great test! He figured that, if in doubt, he should show the maximum sacrifice to Hashem. This shows Abraham’s Yiras HaShem.
Mesora: The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) presents the story of Abraham traveling to the mountain to kill Isaac. Satan - a metaphor for Abraham’s own instincts - is recorded as trying to convince Abraham to abandon G-d’s command, now that following G-d will prove to be the death of Isaac. What was the Satan (Abraham’s instincts) saying? He was saying a principle we hear so often, “Why serve G-d when things go bad?” Satan was saying that adherence to G-d is worthless unless life is 100% good. But we know this life cannot be 100% good, as G-d gave all mankind free will. At some point in life we must be confronted with the harmful effects of corrupt individuals using their free will to harm others. But this is exactly what King David said in Psalms, “Many evils befall the righteous, but they are saved from them all”. This means that although due to free will, many evils must exist, nonetheless, G-d will remove their harmful effects from reaching the righteous. G-d does not alter the free will of the evildoers - this cannot be. But G-d does protect the righteous.

So Satan (Abraham’s emotions) was attempting to avoid killing his precious son. However, Abraham prevailed over Satan’s arguments.


Abraham struggles further with his instincts, and posed another possibility to himself, as you suggest, (the Talmud continues), “Satan said, ‘I heard behind the curtain (in heaven) “the sheep for a sacrifice, and not Isaac”. Again this illustrates what Abraham was feeling inside himself. That perhaps he is to merely sacrifice an animal, and not Isaac. It seems the Talmud entertains the idea that Abraham was unsure whether he was to actually kill Isaac, or a sheep. What was Abraham’s response? “This is the punishment of a liar, that even when he tells the truth, he is not listened to.” Abraham actually considered killing the sheep to be a very real possibility of the command’s intent. But when he said to Satan (to himself) “that even when Satan tells the truth, he is not listened to”, Abraham was saying that since this idea came from his instincts, its veracity is inconsequential. As this thought originated from the instincts, it is not trusted. Abraham completely denied any value his emotions presented through these rationalizations to spare Isaac. Abraham prevailed over Satan - over his strong emotions.


Another thought: When faced with the emotional appeal that an animal was to be killed and not Isaac, Abraham reasoned, “It is purposeless that G-d would make a statement so vague, allowing me to be doubtful as to which one I shall slaughter. If He wished an animal, He would say so clearly.” Perhaps Abraham saw that his confusion is just the workings of the emotions, and he did not heed to his emotions. This is what is meant by, “that even when Satan tells the truth, he is not listened to”, that is, “even when my emotions say rational possibilities, I cannot follow them (the emotions).”