The Jewish Link in Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of Isaac

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Rembrandt's The Sacrifice of Isaac

The Sacrifice of Isaac (Akeidat Yitzhak in Hebrew), one of the most transcendental moments in the Torah which defined monotheism and abolished child sacrifice in ancient pagan societies is brilliantly depicted by Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) in one of his many Biblical-themed oil paintings circa seventeenth century. The Sacrifice of Isaac freezes the exact moment in time (approx. 1933 B.C.E) when Abraham is about to ritually slaughter his beloved son Yitzhak on Mount Moriah following this command from Hashem:

“Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzhak, and go to the land of Moriah, bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Bereishit 22:2).

The Torah is careful in the Divine instruction to Abraham which is “to bring up” his son Yitzhak, not to kill him, which Rembrandt captures in all its glory as he paints the three Biblical characters in his classic baroque style mixed with light and darkness just as Hashem did in the narrative of creation. In The Sacrifice, Abraham is at the center holding a sizable knife, his son Yitzhak willingly stretching his neck is below him, ready to be sacrificed; and the angel is above Abraham, fulfilling his Divine mission to stop him just as he is about to sink the knife into Yitzhak’s neck.

“Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Bereishit 22:12)

Rembrandt’s scene is replete with spiritual symbolism. Abraham’s faith in Hashem collides two worlds, the Heavens and the Earth, into a meaningful moment in time. The tension will release a teachable moment for humanity which will be recorded in the Torah (Instruction in Hebrew), a Divine book with 613 laws to create, sustain, and preserve life. Life is at the center of the Akeidat Yitzhak as it will create an eternal bond of faith with the One G-d who will reward Abraham by making him the Patriarch of a multitude of nations (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). It will “bind” the past, present, and future Jewish people together through Abraham’s model of perfect obedience of G-d’s commandments. It will preserve the lives of children who were killed at the altars of idols. Ultimately, Abraham did not go to Mount Moriah to kill Yitzhak, but to obliterate Mankind’s false ideas of powerless false gods and proclaim the truth about the One G-d.

Rembrandt’s faithfulness to the biblical text is remarkably Jewish. Scholars have long speculated that his Jewish friends influenced his art through rabbinic interpretations and by introducing him to Josephus’ Antiquities when he lived in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarters (1633-1658). Two Sephardic Jews in particular, Ephraim Hezekiah Bueno and Menasseh ben Israel —who were immortalized by Rembrandt in two separate portraits—, enriched his biblical iconography. The Sacrifice of Isaac likely has its source in Menasseh ben Israel, who published his most influential work Conciliador, in Spanish in 1632, translated into Latin in 1633, two years before Rembrandt painted the 1635 Sacrifice of Isaac. In Conciliador, Menasseh cited a commentary on the Akeidat Yitzhak by Rabbis Isaac Arama and Don Isaac Abarbanel (a Minister of Finance who was expelled along with all Jews from Spain in 1492): “Do you think, Abraham, that it was actually necessary to sacrifice your son to confirm you as a man who fears G-d? You deceived yourself; lay not a hand upon the youth, for I knew you were a G-d fearer, without putting it into execution.”

This hypothesis is palpable in The Sacrifice of Isaac’s depiction of Abraham as a 127-year-old father and Yitzhak as a 37-year-old son. Their ages are hermeneutically elucidated by our Sages in Midrash Genesis Rabbah, something only Talmudic Jews would know. Furthermore, Rembrandt’s knowledge of shechita laws (slaughtering laws from the Torah and explained in detail in the Talmud designed to lessen the pain of animals and teach humans compassion towards all living beings) is also imprinted in this scene. Abraham’s holding of Yitzhak’s neck with his left (weaker) hand and the right (stronger) hand lifting the knife is the manner in which a shochet (kosher butcher) cuts the animal’s jugular to cut sensation of pain in the brain. Rembrandt’s knife is identical to the shochet’s knife which has to be big and sharp with no indentations that could tear up the muscle causing pain and rendering the animal treif (torn) and therefore, not kosher. As it is written in Shemot 22:30, “Do not eat meat from an animal torn in the field.” Therefore, the Torah prohibits Jews from eating meat from an animal that was torn, mortally wounded or not slaughtered according to shechita laws.

While  Rembrandt positions Yitzhak as a lamb to the slaughter by portraying Abraham’s knowledge of shechita laws to avoid his son any pain if he indeed were to slaughter him, there is still a hint in the Torah that Abraham believed G-d in all his mercy will not let him go through with this command.

“G-d will see a lamb for himself,” (Bereishit 22:8)

Did Abraham prophesize the exchange of Yitzhak for a ram (an adult sheep with horns that are the source of the Shofar, blown during Rosh Hashanah, in remembrance of Abraham’s Akeidat Yitzhak) in the sacrificial deed? In Midrash Genesis Rabbah our Sages depict Abraham’s journey from paganism to monotheism through his study of the sciences. He was the Einstein of his time in his birthplace Ur Kasdim (Iraq). His inquisitive mind led him to conduct scientific experiments of all kinds to find the source of all Creation. In his time, pagans worshipped objects in the sky and on the ground. They built gods out of mud and wood to represent them. They prayed to them and performed child sacrifice to appease them. Abraham sought to know the truth about these idols’ powers. He smashed them, observing if they reassembled themselves. He concluded they held no power and he sought the truth elsewhere. Who or what is the Origin of all existence? Through his intellect he reasoned that there’s only one Being who emanated a Universe in which he placed Mankind, his climax of creation. By finding the One True G-d, Abraham founded monotheism at Mount Moriah and he sought to proclaim this knowledge to the world for all time.

“And Abraham called the name of the place Adonai Yireh —the Lord will see—” Bereishit 22:14

Midrash Rabbah Bereishit LVI:10 (below) explains how the place surrounding Akeidat Yitzhak (Mount Moriah) was named Jerusalem—Yerushalayim (from the merging of two words: Yireh (to see), and Shalem, Salem, Shalom (peace) which marks (Zion, a mark) the place from where the First and Second Temples stood and one day —may it be soon— Hashem will “see peace” in the World to Come when he will send his Messiah to establish a world or peace, harmony, and knowledge of the One G-d among all nations.

“R. Bibi Rabbah said in R. Johanan’s name: He said to Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! When Thou didst order me, “Take now thy son, thine only son” I could have answered, “Yesterday Thou didst promise me, For in Yitzhak shall seed be called to thee, and now Thou sayest, ‘ Take now thy son.’ Yet Heaven forfend! I did not do this, but suppressed my feelings of compassion in order to do Thy will. Even so it may be Thy will, Oh Lord our God, that when Yitzhak’s children are in trouble, Thou wilt remember that binding in their favour and be filled with compassion for them. And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai Yireh. Shem (son of Noah) called it Salem [Shalem]; And Melchizedek king of Salem said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘If I call it Yireh as did Abraham, then Shem, a righteous man, will resent it; while if I call it Salem as did Shem, Abraham, the righteous man, will resent it. Hence I will call it Yerushalayim, including both names, Yireh Shalem.’ 

Monotheism is such a transcendental message for Mankind that Hashem had to test Abraham ten times to teach him the correct concepts of the Oneness of G-d and to make his faith total and unwavering when faced with false idols and prophets. How can one contain the infinite, eternal G-d into the limited boundaries of a wood, stone, mud idol? Passing all tests, including Akeidat Yitzhak, elevated Abraham to a closer relationship to G-d for him and his descendants which Jews have remembered for thousands of generations from antiquity to modernity. As a result, Jews resisted assimilation and conversion to other religions even in the face of wars, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms, genocides, and other anti-semitic forces for over two millennia.

“Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image.” (Shemos 20:4)

Rembrandt’s rendition of Akeidat Yitzhak has inspired a flood of rabbinic Drashas and D’varim Torah since he painted it. Here in New York City, many Rabbanim use Rembrandt’s masterpiece each year during the reading of Bereishit after our High Holidays (September-October). Jews find Rembrandt’s philo-semitism refreshing and worthy of commentary and emulation not only in our homiletics but also in art which Jews did not start creating until the eighteenth-century Emancipation of Jews by European nations to remove legal disabilities and provide equal citizenship rights aimed to their integration into social and economic sectors of society. Until then, European Jewish identity was purely based on religion and ghettoization. Only non-Jewish artists like Rembrandt created representations of Biblical passages that excited the Jewish imagination which unleashed a modern Jewish identity merging tradition and acculturation.

Rembrandt paved the way for future Jewish artists such Pisarro, Modigliani, Chagall, and Dutch painter Jozef Israels (1824-1911) who was hailed as “the second Rembrandt,” to honor the man who chose to live amidst Jews in the Jewish quarter, made friendships with Jews when it was frowned upon by society, learned Jewish religious literature, and prolifically painted paramount passages from our Torah, our Prophets, our Writings passages as if his hands were Divinely-guided. A word to Rembrandt: Dankje our friend. 

About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).
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