Don’t Say Goodbye

Culturally, goodbye is a foreign word for Jews.
December 22, 2023
Siegfried Layda/Getty Images

An old Jewish joke begins with the question: “What’s the difference between a Jew and a Frenchman at a party?”. The answer is: “A Frenchman leaves and never says goodbye; a Jew says goodbye and never leaves.” In my experience, this joke is true to life; at weddings, when people get up from the table and announce that they are leaving, you can still catch them in the hallway a half an hour later chatting on their way out.

Culturally, goodbye is a foreign word for Jews. During the years of the Soviet Union, visitors from abroad would come to meet with Jewish dissidents. When they would leave, they made a point of not saying “shalom,” (goodbye); instead, they would say “l’hitraot,” which roughly means “see you later.” Separation is an unavoidable reality; but at the very least, one can make clear, (to paraphrase the words of the Midrash,) that it is “too difficult to say goodbye”.

This ambivalence about saying goodbye has its roots in the Talmud, which records of practice of “levaya,” accompanying guests after they leave the host’s home. The primary purpose of this practice is to ensure that the guest doesn’t get lost, which was far more dangerous in ancient times. The Talmud declares that if the host does not accompany the guest, (or even if the guest refuses to be accompanied,) it is as if one has shed blood; walking without clear directions in a sparsely inhabited area can expose one to multiple hazards. Maimonides adds that each community should appoint representatives to accompany visitors who are passing through their town.

The practice of “levaya” is connected by the Talmud to the ritual of Eglah Arufah. This ritual is performed when a person is found murdered near a city, and there is no witness to the crime; a calf is taken to a dry valley and sacrificed, and the elders wash their hands and proclaim; “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.” This declaration is strange; the Talmud wonders “Would we have imagined that the Elders of the court are murderers?” The leaders of the city are certainly not suspects in this death! The Talmud answers that it is because the Elders might have been guilty of the crime of neglect; they proclaim that they did not fail to perform levaya, and that they did not see the victim embark unaccompanied and unfed. Leaving a stranger unaccompanied is a matter of life and death.

However, the practice of accompanying guests goes beyond safety. Other passages in the Talmud suggest that levaya evolved, and became a ritual of expressing honor. For example, a student has to accompany a teacher for a longer distance than a teacher has to accompany a student. This implies it is also an expression of respect; the longer you walk, the more respect you show. But it is still notable that even teachers have to accompany their students; no one should be given a quick goodbye.

Later rabbinic authors debate why the practice of accompanying guests fell out of favor; but this was already the case in the mid-1500s, when Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote “that nowadays this is not our custom”; walking the guest a symbolic distance of six or seven feet is enough. Even so, many today continue to walk their guests a few feet past the door to continue this ancient practice.

It is intriguing that Rabbinic literature associates the practice of levaya with our Torah reading. After Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, he sends them back home with wagons to bring his father and the rest of the family down to Egypt. From the context it is clear that these wagons are of great significance; they are mentioned four times. This might be to highlight, as some commentaries explain, that royal wagons are difficult to obtain, and offer the protection of the Egyptian empire, much like a diplomatic passport. Certainly, they offer greater comfort for the traveling family.

Rashi cites a Midrash which offers a poetic reading of this text. Using a play on words, it explains that the wagons are meant to remind Jacob of the last Torah topic he had studied with Joseph, that of the Eglah Arufah. The explanation is based on a play of words; wagons are “agalot” in Hebrew, which is similar to the Hebrew word for calf, eglah.

Midrashim are products of poetry; even so, this comment seems strange. What could be the meaning of this connection? Rabbi Isaiah Di Trani quotes a tradition from the Talmud Yerushalmi which offers further detail, and better explains this connection. On the fateful day that Jacob sent Joseph to meet his brothers (and Joseph was later sold into slavery,) Jacob accompanied Joseph, fulfilling the practice of accompanying someone on their way. Joseph turned to Jacob along the way and begged him to return home, not wanting to burden his father. Jacob responded by teaching Joseph about the ritual of Eglah Arufah and the importance of accompanying guests.

The Zohar (11:116) offers a dramatic interpretation which is the polar opposite of the one offered by the Yerushalmi. It writes that:

Joseph, when he left his father, was sent away without being accompanied and without food; what happened happened. And when Jacob cried ‘Joseph my son has been torn apart’ and said ‘I will I will go down mourning to the grave,’ Jacob was saying it was his fault. Furthermore, Jacob knew that the brothers hated Joseph, and sent him anyway. And this is the hint that Joseph is giving Jacob (with these wagons, and the connection to Eglah Arufah.)

In other words, the wagons are a bitter reminder of Joseph being sent away unaccompanied into obvious danger. The lesson of the Eglah Arufah was ignored.

The meaning of Rashi is now much clearer; it comes to compare how Joseph was once sent away by Jacob, and how Joseph now sends off Jacob on his journey.  While the Yerushalmi and Zohar disagree on whether this is meant to indict Jacob or exonerate him, they both agree that Joseph’s wagons represent an ideal of how to send someone away on a journey.

This insight is profound. The practice of accompanying others is fundamental to this next stage of Jewish history. Jacob’s sons had more or less lived their own lives until now; they may have been compassionate towards each other, but they didn’t share a deep connection. They could still say a quick goodbye, or even leave without saying goodbye.

But Joseph’s wagons represent a turning point. Now, the connection remains even when people are far apart geographically. Goodbye becomes too difficult to say; a new sense of solidarity demands that Jews declare I will never leave you, and will see you later.

In recent weeks, American Jews have been organizing a multitude of missions to Israel; KJ organized one in November, and is in the process of organizing two more. During our first mission, we were thanked at every stop for visiting Israel; we were thanked by soldiers, politicians, volunteers, and even bereaved families. We were overwhelmed. We couldn’t understand why they are thanking us, a group of visiting Americans, when they are sacrificing so much more themselves? But what they were saying to us is that they don’t want to be alone. That’s why we came to accompany them.

Jews never say goodbye, they just say l’hitraot, we will see you soon. And now’s the time to see our brothers and sisters in Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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