“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years, making the days of Jacob, the years of his life, 147 years” Genesis 47:28


Parashat Vayechi is a fitting summary for Genesis as we read about the last days of Jacob. In typically Torah fashion, the text makes sure to give an exact number of years for Jacob’s life: 147. In doing so, it uses a strangely repetitive turn of phrase: “the days of Jacob, the years of his life, 147 years”.

The sages, as they so often do, found this unnecessary elaboration to be indicative of something else — after all, nothing in the Torah is superfluous, every word and every letter has some meaning. This led at least one midrash to read the second of our two phrases shnei chayav not as “the years of his life” but rather as “his two lives”.

The text could indeed be read either way, although to understand the verse as describing Jacob’s “two lives” doesn’t make immediate and obvious sense. For the rabbinic imagination however, it suited the backstory perfectly. 

There’s an old midrashic tradition that Jacob, in fact, never died. Like the Shia Imam, the tradition teaches that Jacob instead was hidden away. The key is a rather literal reading of the next verse which begins, “When the time approached for Israel to die”. If we accept the re-reading as “two lives” and take literally the notion that it was only Israel who died, then we get a slightly different message to our story. 

Most of us live many lives in the course of our one lifetime. Jacob certainly did — not only gaining a new name, but indeed a whole different identity. Perhaps we can take away from this bit of rabbinic gymnastics the notion that some parts of us die while others never do. 

If we live two, or three, or 147 “lives”, what will be preserved and remembered, and what will be forgotten and dwindle away? Perhaps Jacob’s two lives and his one death can help us to consider what parts of ourselves live on after us, and to ensure that our descendants who call themselves by our name honour the lives we’ve lived. 

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