Originally published in the Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 2 (1972), pp. 480-4.
AKEDAH (‘Aqedah; Heb. עקדה, lit. “binding (of Isaac)”), the Pentateuchal narrative (Gen. 22: 1-19) describing God’s command to Abraham to offer Isaac, the son of his old age, as a sacrifice. Obedient to the command, Abraham takes Isaac to the place of sacrifice and binds him (va-ya’akod, Gen. 22: 9, a word found nowhere else in the Bible in the active, conjugative form) on the altar. The angel of the Lord then bids Abraham to stay his hand and a ram is offered in Isaac’s stead. The Akedah became in Jewish thought the supreme example of self-sacrifice in obedience to God’s will and the symbol of Jewish martyrdom throughout the ages.
Critical View. The Akedah narrative is generally attributed to source E (which uses ‘Elohim as the Divine Name) with glosses by the Redactor (R, hence also the use of the Tetragrammaton); or to source J (in which the Divine Name is the Tetragrammaton) which may have made use of E material (Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (1962), 193). The original intent of the narrative has been understood by the critics either as an etiological legend explaining why the custom of child sacrifice was modified in a certain sanctuary by the substitution of a ram (Gunkel), or as a protest against human sacrifice (ICC, Genesis (1910), 331-2). The name Morial (“land of Moriah,” Gen. 22: 2) occurs elsewhere (II Chron. 3. 1) as the name of the Temple site; hence the Jewish tradition that the Temple was built on the spot at which the Akedah took place. There is no further reference to the Akedah in the Bible.
The Akedah influenced both Christian and Islamic thought. In early Christian doctrine, the sacrifice of Isaac is used as a type for the sacrifice of Jesus (see Tertullian, Versus Marcionem, 3: 18; Clement of Alexandria, Paedogogica. 1:5, 1; Schoeps, in: JBL, 65 (1946), 385-92). In Islam, the Akedah is held up for admiration (Koran 37: 97-111), but the more accepted opinion is that it was Ishmael, Abraham’s other son and the progenitor of the Arabs, who was bound on the altar and that the whole episode took place before Isaac’s birth. The Akedah has been a favorite theme in religious art for centuries.
In Jewish Life and Literature. In the early rabbinic period, reference was made to Abraham’s sacrifice in prayers of intercession. The Mishnah (Ta’an. 2: 4) records that on public fast days the reader recited: “May He that answered Abraham our father on Mount Moriah answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.” The Mishnah also states (Ta’an. 2: 1) that on fast days, ashes were placed on the Ark and on the heads of the nasi and the av bet din; a later teacher explained (Ta’an. 16a) that this was a reminder of the “ashes of Isaac.” In the Zikhronot (“Remembrance”) prayers of Rosh Ha-Shanah, there is an appeal to God to remember the Akedah: “Remember unto us, O Lord our God, the covenant and the lovingkindness and the oath which Thou swore unto Abraham our father on Mount Moriah: and consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Thy will with a perfect heart. So may Thy compassion overbear Thine anger against us; in Thy great goodness may Thy great wrath turn aside from Thy people, Thy city, and Thine inheritance.” One of the explanations given for the sounding of the shofar (“ram’s horn”) on Rosh Ha-Shanah is as a reminder of the ram substituted for Isaac (RH 16a). The story of the Akedah is the Pentateuchal reading on the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah (Meg. 31a). During the Middle Ages, a number of penitential hymns took the Akedah for their theme and indeed a whole style of piyyut is known by this name. Pious Jews recited the Akedah passage daily (Tur. OH. 1) and, following this custom, the passage is printed in many prayer books as part of the early morning service.
In Rabbinic Literature. The Akedah was spoken of as the last of the ten trials to which Abraham was subjected (Avot 5: 3; Ginzberg, Legends, 5 (1925), 218, note 52) and was considered as the prototype of the readiness for martyrdom. “Support me with fires” (homiletical interpretation of Songs, 2: 5) is said to refer to the fire of Abraham and that of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Dan. 3: 12-23, PdRK, 101b); this particular association is probably due to the fact that both cases illustrate not actual martyrdom but the readiness for it. On the other hand, numerous instances of real martyrdom were also compared to the Akedah, sometimes to the disadvantage of the latter. Thus in the story of the “Woman and her Seven Sons,” every one of whom suffered death by torture rather than how to the idol, the widow enjoins her sons: “Go and tell Father Abraham; Let not your heart swell with pride! You built one altar, but I have built seven altars and on them have offered up my seven sons. What is more: Yours was a trial; mine was an accomplished fact!” (Yal. Deut. 26). In the parallel passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Git. 57b), the widow’s admonition is softened through the omission of the second half of the first sentence and the last sentence.
In legal literature, the Akedah served as a paradigm for the right of a prophet to demand the temporal suspension of a law. Isaac obeyed his father and made ready to become the victim of what would normally have been considered a murder, but Abraham, as an established prophet, could be relied upon that this was really God’s will (Sanh. 89b). The opinion is found in the Midrash (Gen. R. 56: 8) that Isaac was 37 years old at the time of the Akedah. Abraham ibn Ezra (commentary on Gen. 22: 4) rejects this as contrary to the plain meaning of the narrative in which Isaac is old enough to carry the wood but young enough to be docile. Ibn Ezra (commentary on Gen. 22: 19) also quotes an opinion that Abraham actually did kill Isaac (hence there is no reference to Isaac returning home with his father), and he was later resurrected from the dead. Ibn Ezra rejects this as completely contrary to the biblical text. Shalom Spiegel has demonstrated, however, that such views enjoyed a wide circulation and occasionally found expression in medieval writings, possibly in order to deny that the sacrifice of Isaac was in any way less than that of Jesus; or as a reflection of actual conditions in the Middle Ages when the real martyrdom of Jewish communities demanded a more tragic model than that of a mere intended sacrifice. It was known in those days for parents to kill their children, and then themselves, when threatened by the Crusaders. Geiger (JZWL, 10 (1872), 166ff.) suggests that interpretations of Isaac’s sacrifice as a means of atonement for his descendants were influenced by Christian doctrine. In rabbinic literature, tensions can be generally observed between the need to emphasize the significance of the Akedah and, at the same time, to preserve the prophetic protest against human sacrifice. Thus, on Jeremiah 19: 5 the comment is made: “which I commanded not”: this refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab (II Kings 3: 27); “nor spake it”: this refers to the daughter of Jephthah (Judg. 11: 31); “neither came it to my mind”: this refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham (Ta’an. 4a).
In Religious Thought. A theme of such dramatic power as the Akedah has attracted a rich variety of comment. Philo (De Ahrahamo, 177-99) defends the greatness of Abraham against hostile criticism that would belittle his achievement. These critics point out that many others in the history of mankind have offered themselves and their children for a cause in which they believed—the barbarians, for instance, whose Moloch worship was explicitly forbidden by Moses, and Indian women who gladly practice Suttee. Philo argues, however, that Abraham’s sacrifice was unprecedented in that he was not governed by motives of custom, honor, or fear, but solely by the love of God. Philo (ibid., 200-7) also gives an allegorical interpretation of the incident: Isaac means “laughter”; and the devout soul feels a duty to offer up its joy which belongs to God. God, however in His mercy, refuses to allow the surrender to be complete and allows the soul to retain its joy. Worship is the most perfect expression of that joy.
Medieval thinkers were disturbed at the idea of God’s testing Abraham, as if the purpose of the Akedah were to provide God with information He did not previously possess. According to Maimonides (Guide 3: 24), the words “God tested Abraham” do not mean that God put him through a test but that He made the example of Abraham serve as a test case of the extreme limits of the love and fear of God. “For now I know that you fear God” (Gen. 22: 12) means that God has made known to all men how far man is obliged to go in fearing Him. According to Nabmanides, (ed. by C. B. Chavel, 1 (1959), 125-6), implications in the Akedah focus the difficult problem of reconciling belief in God’s foreknowledge with human free will. God knew how Abraham would behave, but from Abraham’s point of view, the test was real since he had to be rewarded not only for his potential willingness to obey, but for actually complying. Sforno’s elaboration of this thought (commentary to Gen. 22: 1) is that Abraham had to transcend his own love of God by converting it from the potential to the actual, in order to resemble God whose goodness is always actual, the aim of creation being that man imitates his Creator.
The mystics add their own ideas to the Akedah theme. In the Zohar (Gen. 119b), the patriarchs on earth represent the various potencies (sefirot) in the divine realm; Abraham the Divine Lovingkindness, Isaac the Divine Power, and Jacob the harmonizing principle. Abraham is obliged to display severity in being willing to sacrifice his son, contrary to his own special nature as the “pillar of lovingkindness,” and thus set in motion the process by which fire is united with water, mercy with judgment, so that the way can be paved for the emergence of complete harmony between the two in Jacob. This mirrors the processes in the divine realm by which God’s mercy is united with His judgment so that the world can endure. The Hasidim have read various subtleties of their own into the ancient story. One version states that Abraham and Isaac knew, in their heart of hearts, that the actual sacrifice would not be demanded but they went through the motions to demonstrate that they would have done it if this had been God’s will (Elimelech of Ryzhansk, No’am Elimelech on Gen. 22: 7). The true lover of God carries out even those religious obligations which are personally pleasant to him solely out of the love of God. Abraham obeyed the second command not to kill Isaac solely for this and for no other reason (Levi Isaac b. Meir, Kedushat Levi on Gen. 22: 6). Another version is that when God wishes to test a man, He must first remove from him the light of full comprehension of the Divine, otherwise the trial will be incomplete. Abraham was ready to obey even in this state of “dryness of soul” (Israel b. Shabbetai of Kozienice in the Gazetteer, Avodat Yisrael on Gen. 22: 14). The lesser Divine Name Elohim is, therefore, used at the beginning of the narrative, and not the Tetragrammaton, to denote that the vision in which the command was given was lacking in clarity. Abraham’s greatness consisted in his refusal to allow his natural love for his son to permit him to interpret the ambiguous command as other than a command to sacrifice (Mordecai Joseph b. Jacob Leiner of Izbica, Mei ha-Shilo’ah on Gen. 22: 7).
The Akedah to the moralists was a fertile text for the inculcation of religious and ethical values. Typical is the observation of Isaiah Horowitz (Shenei Luhot ha-Berit, Va-Year, end) that the Akedah teaches that everything must be sacrificed to God, if needs be; how much more, then, must man be willing to give up his lusts for God. Moreover, whenever man has an opportunity of doing good, or refraining from evil, he should reflect that perhaps God is testing him at that moment as He tested Abraham.
The best-known treatment of the Akedah theme in general literature is that of Soren Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling, 1941). Kierkegaard sees Abraham as the “knight of faith” who differs from the “ethical man”; for the latter the moral law is universal and it has a categorical claim to obedience; the “knight of faith,” however, knows also of the higher obligation laid upon him as a free individual in his relationship to his God and this may involve him in a “ideological suspension of the ethical.” Abraham is called upon to renounce for God all that he holds precious, including the ethical ideal to which he subscribes and which he has constantly taught. Abraham is an “ethical man” as well as a “knight of faith” and faith, in any event, is not something won once and for all times, but must be striven for again and again. Consequently, Abraham does not really know whether the command he accepts in faith is really from God. He is torn between his obligation to obey if God really wants this terrible thing, and the possibility that he may be stifling his parental love in order to commit an unnatural act of sheer murder. He goes to perform the dread deed in “fear and trembling.” Milton Steinberg (Anatomy of Faith (1960), 147), in rejecting Kierkegaard, wrote: “What Kierkegaard asserts to be the glory of God is Jewishly regarded as unmitigated sacrilege. Which indeed is the true point of the Akedah, missed so perversely by Kierkegaard. While it was a merit in Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his only son to his God, it was God’s nature and merit that He would not accept an immoral tribute. And it was His purpose, among other things, to establish that truth.” Other thinkers such as J. B. Soloveitchik (J. B. Agus: Guideposts in Modern Judaism (1954), 37-38) have found the Kierkegaardian insights fully compatible with Judaism. Ernst Simon (in Conservative Judaism, 12 (spring 1958), 15-19) believes that a middle position between the two is possible. Judaism is an ethical religion and would never in fact demand a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham is, therefore, ordered to stay his hand. The original command to sacrifice Isaac is a warning against too complete an identification of religion with naturalistic ethics. [L.J.]