Some Perplexing Mourning-related Minhagim

Learning Mishna

Is there a connection between mourning and learning chapters of the Mishna? I’m not sure. But popular Jewish practice certainly assumes that there’s something going on. There’s no escaping advice to recite carefully chosen chapters during the course of shiva, and then to gather participants in an effort to complete larger segments before key subsequent milestones.

But why? Some will note that the words נשמה and משנה share the same letters. But then, so do השמן and מנשה (not to mention the verb “meshaneh” – to change). Others will quote “ספרים הקדושים” extolling the power such study has in positively improving one’s status in the next world. The only specific references I came across pointed to titles (אלף המגן ,יוסף אומץ ,תורה אור etc.) that could each refer to multiple lesser-known and relatively modern books. Gesher Hachaim mentions the custom but, uncharacteristically, quotes no sources.

How, exactly, are these chapters meant to be recited? There’s apparently a highly ritualized process involved: the name of the departed soul is to be verbally mentioned before study (but not necessary after). The chapters chosen for each day of the shiva should begin with the corresponding letter of the departed soul’s name. Entire chapters should, ideally, be recited – optimally during the break between mincha and ma’ariv.

Of course, since the mourner himself is not allowed to learn Torah during shiva, he’s required to ignore the study. So it can’t be about delivering value to the dead through the merit of his son’s actions. Perhaps, it could be argued, there’s value in performing mitzvos at the site where the departed died – or at least in the location where he last lived. But these days, it’s rare for a shiva to take place in such places. And, in any case, how on earth could we know such things (pun very much intended)?

So again: why do it?

Lighting Candles

Somewhere, there’s a small factory devoted to the exclusive production of candles for the shiva market that burn for seven full days. I’m glad that people are able to earn an honest living this way but, like the learning of mishna, I’m not sure what it’s all about.

Of course, as Gesher Hachaim (20:1) points out, it’s not difficult to understand how candles are a fitting metaphor for life and, indeed, for the close relationship all humans enjoy with God Himself. And there’s no lack of ancient and powerful sources formalizing that connection – “A man’s soul is a candle of God” (Mishlei 20:27). So adding a candle to a shiva house has the potential to add substance to the serious and introspective mood.

But why, ideally, must the candle burn specifically in the room where the death occurred? And why should we prefer a candle that burns olive oil? This suggests of magical thinking; where there’s an expectation that performing an approved ritual will somehow force God’s hand to deliver benefits we’d otherwise miss.

Is there any source for this in traditional Torah literature?

The Gesher Hachaim notes the custom and quotes unnamed “acharonim” associating it with a Gemara in Kesuvos 103a. I’ll assume he’s referring to Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz, who indeed writes that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s deathbed request for a candle to be lit in his place might have inspired the modern shiva custom. Of course, as Rabbi Eybeschutz subtly acknowledges, in its simple reading, that request would have specifically applied only to the rabbi’s plans to return home each Friday evening after his death, and not to the week following that death.

Any ideas?

derush segula Yerushalmi

Shemira: Why Protect the Dead?

As Rabbi Michal notes on his Kotzk Blog, many of the customs currently associated with death in Judaism were formalized only in the last few centuries. Reading that article got me thinking about some specific practises and their origins.

The first of those that came to mind was the protection (shemira) we insist in providing bodies before they reach burial. Besides the obvious fact that it’s perverse and cruel to just abandon a human body – especially that of a loved one – to its fate, is there any reason to continue watching it even once it’s safely reached, say, a hospital or funeral home morgue?

In the modern world, the place to begin such a discussion is with Rabbi Yechiel Tukaccinsky and his brilliant and popular compendium of the laws and philosophy of death and mourning, Gesher Hachaim.

Now I should emphasise how the warm feelings I harbour for Gesher Hachaim go back many years. R’ Tukaccinsky’s penetrating insights and broad scholarship have long inspired many elements of my thinking. But that doesn’t mean I understand everything he writes. And I’m afraid I simply have no way forward when it comes to what he writes about shemira. Here (from Section 5, Chapter 4 of Gesher Hachaim) are his words:

שמירת המת היא מב’ טעמים האחד: משום כבודו שאם יניחוהו לבדו הר”ז כאלו עזבוהו ככלי אין חפץ עוד בו ומוטל לבזיון (ראה ירושלמי ברכות פ”ג ותוס’ רפ”ג ות”ה המובא ברמ”א שם). שנית: שהגוף נרתיק קדוש שהורקה הנשמה ממנו שלפמ”ש המקובלים שואפים אז יצורי דמסאבותא לחדור אל תוכו…וכמ”ש בזוהר (אמור פ”ח:)…(וראה גם במעבר יבוק מ”ב ט’ ומ”ג סוף ט’)

“Shemira of a body comes from one of two reasons. The first is concerned with honoring the dead, for if we would leave him on his own it’s like we’ve abandoned him like an unwanted object, cast out and degraded…

We’ll return to the second reason a bit later. As a source for this one, however, R’ Tukaccinsky points us to the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 3:1) and the Tosafos (Berachos 17: דה”מ ואינו מברך). The problem, as you’ll soon see, is that neither of those two sources seems to be discussing anything connected to shemira.

We’ll begin by noting that Rashi commented on the gemara’s ruling that the “onen” – the close relative of an unburied Jew – does not make blessings on food. In Rashi’s understanding, “does not” means “is not required.” Tosafos, on the other hand, based on the Jerusalem Talmud, insists that “does not” really means “may not.”

Here’s the original text of the Jerusalem Talmud:

תני אם רצה להחמיר על עצמו אין שומעין לו למה מפני כבודו של מת או משום שאין לו מי שישא משואו מה נפיק מביניהן היה לו מי שישא משואו ואין תימר מפני כבודו של מת אסור ואם תאמר מפני שאין לו מי שישא משואו הרי יש לו מי שישא משואו

“It was taught: if (an onen) wants to insist (on reciting a blessing) we don’t allow it. Why? To honor the dead. Or (perhaps) because (if the relative is busy making blessings) there will be no one available to (prepare for the burial). What’s the difference between them? A case where there are others available for preparations. If you say (the reason) is to honor the dead, blessings are still forbidden. But if you say that it’s because there might not be anyone left free to prepare for burial, in this case there are others.”

I think it’s clear that both the Talmud and Tosafos would be perfectly comfortable with leaving a body alone in a safe location as long as appropriate burial preparations are being made and/or relatives aren’t distracting themselves and ignoring their loss. And Rashi would apparently go further and even permit at least some distractions (i.e., making blessings).

So what did the Gesher Hachaim mean by quoting the Jerusalem Talmud and Tosafos in support of the shemira custom?

What about the second source? Here’s that part of the Gesher Hachaim translated:

“The body is a holy container from which the soul has poured out. According to writings of the kabbalists, impure creations now seek to enter (in place of the soul)…based on the Zohar.”

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (the “Ben Ish Chai” – Sefer Rav Poalim Vol 1, Responsum 56) maintained that the Zohar text has no simple meaning. It’s not that there’s a risk of misinterpreting its words, it’s that interpreting them properly is impossible. So, in the view of at least one pre-eminent kabbalistic authority, it simply makes no sense to use Zohar as a proof text.

But if a positive source for the custom of shemira within traditional Torah sources (like the Jerusalem Talmud) is doubtful, the Zoharic source is obscure and ambiguous, and the practical connection between spending time in rooms adjacent to hospital or funeral home morgues and demonic possession is unclear, is there really much point in shemira?

4 minim Materialism segula

What if You Never Get to Use Your Own Esrog?

Many people spend a great deal of time and money each year in their search for the perfect esrog. Sure, we’re supposed to seek hiddurim in our four minim, but is it so obvious what those hiddurim actually are?

For years I’ve wondered if there’s any benefit in all the effort for those of us who can’t necessarily tell the difference between esrogim costing $100 and $300. (And after speaking with many people in the industry, I’m not completely convinced there actually are any differences.) Does just spending the money improve the quality of the mitzva?

But I was recently thinking about this mishna in the fourth perek of Succah:

מצות לולב כיצד כל העם מוליכין את לולביהן להר הבית והחזנין מקבלין מידם וסודרין אותן על גג האיצטווה והזקנים מניחין את שלהם בלשכה ומלמדין אותן לומר כל מי שהגיע לולבי בידו הרי הוא לו במתנה ולמוחרת היו משכימין ובאים והחזנין מזרקין לפניהם

How was the mitzva of lulav performed (in the mikdash when the first day of yom tov fell on Shabbos)? Everyone would take their lulavim to the Temple Mount (before Shabbos) which the officials would take from their hands and arrange along the bleachers…(the officials) would teach everyone to say ‘I present my lulav as a gift to whoever receives it.’ The next morning, they would all come early and the officials would (randomly) throw (lulavim) before them.

While, as the mishna later makes clear, this procedure didn’t continue for long, it was the way Chazal would have preferred we do this mitzva (at least when the first day of yom tov fell on Shabbos, when carrying our lulavim to the mikdash was impossible).

Which means that we were expected to go to the trouble of purchasing and preparing our four minim with the full knowledge that we wouldn’t ever get to use them! After all, they would end up wherever the officials threw them that first morning.

Now, if you knew that you’d never get to use it yourself, would you spend as much money and energy getting it? For myself, at least, I’m not sure how I would answer that question.

derush Updates

What Does Modeh Ani Really Mean?

This post is the latest addition to my Finding Tradition project.

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתך

Those 12 words mark the start of each day for many Jews. It’s a beautiful prayer and an expression of the many debts we owe to God. But three of those words might, on reflection, represent a significant theological innovation.

Here’s the whole thing translated:

“I acknowledge before you, the living, eternal God, that you returned to me my soul, with grace and good faith.”

The three words in question are: שהחזרת בי נשמתי – “that you returned to me my soul.” Where’s the innovation in that?

Well for God to have returned our souls first thing each morning, He would have had to have first taken them. And, while relevant but ambiguous language can be found in a few midrashim (see עיון תפילה לספר אוצר התפילות) I’m not sure we should be so quick to assume that death and rebirth is what literally happens each night.

A similar prayer is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 4:1 – 29b in the Vilna print):

בשחר צריך לאדם לומר מודה אני לפניך ה’ אלקי ואלקי אבותי שהוצאתני מאפילה לאורה

“In the morning a man must say: I acknowledge before you G-d…that You took me out from darkness to light”

But that makes no mention of the soul and its travels.

So where did the idea come from? As far as I have seen, the first reference to the text of מודה אני itself would appear to be ספר סדר היום, written by the 16th Century kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe ben Makir of Tzfas. As Tzfas during that time was famous for its culture of innovation, it would seem reasonable to assume that Rabbi Moshe himself is the prayer’s author.

But isn’t the idea that our souls are taken each night itself common in traditional Torah literature? Not that I’ve seen. In fact, The Bais Yosef himself (אורח חיים ד), while quoting a Zohar on the subject of washing hands in the morning, testifies that it’s “not found in halachic sources (פוסקים).”

Here’s the Zohar itself (1:184b):

הכא דלית בר נש בעלמא דלא טעים טעמא דמותא בליליא ורוחא מסאבא שריא על ההוא גופא. מאי טעמא? בגין דנשמתא קדישא איסתלקת מיניה דבר נש ונפקת מניה, ועל דנשמתא קדישא נפקת ואסתלקת מניה שריא רוחא מסאבא על ההוא גופא. וכד אהדרת נשמתא לגופא אתעברת ההוא זוהמא…

“There is no man on earth who doesn’t taste the taste of death at night, (as) an impure spirit rests on his body. Why? Because his holy soul …leaves a man and because his holy soul has left, an impure spirit rests on his body. And when his soul returns to his body, the impurity is removed.”

So it’s certainly true that the Zohar associates the concept of a departing soul with the laws of washing hands in the morning. But it’s equally true that, according to the Bais Yosef at least, it’s not an association that finds an easy home within the halachic tradition

Indeed, the traditional explanations for hand washing in the morning make no mention of our souls. The Rosh (ברכות פרק ט סימן כג) wrote that we should wash because:

לפי שידים של אדם עסקניות הם ואי אפשר שלא ליגע בבשר המטונף בלילה

“A man’s hands are busy (i.e., always moving) and it’s impossible that they didn’t touch unclean parts of his body during the night.”

And the Rashba (שו”ת הרשב”א א סימן קצא) attributed the rule to our need to recognize the spiritual rebirth we have just experienced:

בשחר אחר השנה אנו נעשים כבריה חדשה

“In the morning, after sleep, we become like a new creation.”

…None of which hints to any association between sleep with death. Now, as I’m sure you’re already wondering, the Gemara (Berachos 57b) does state that “sleep is one sixtieth of death.” But it would be hard to see a connection between such a general comparison and the claim that our souls leave our bodies when we sleep.

In fact, as I’ve written on more than one occasion, drawing logical or legal proofs from aggadic sources is virtually impossible: their language and context is just too ambiguous. This would most certainly apply to a passage in that most ambiguous source of all: Zohar.

Just how difficult is it to understand the meaning of the Zohar by reading its words? Let’s see what one of the undisputed giants of Kabbala, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad (the Ben Ish Chai), wrote in his halachic work, Rav Poalim (Vol 1, Responsum 56). He was explaining why one should never translate Idra or other Zoharic works into Arabic or any other language. It’s fine, he wrote, to translate the Tanach (even though no translation can capture the full, inner meaning), because the Tanach also has a simple meaning…

משא”כ דברי האדרא וזוה”ק אין להם פשט כלל ובעל המאמר לא כיון לפשט הדברים כלל ועיקר ויש מקומות שהפשט יהיה חירוף וגידוף ואם אתה מתרגם הדברים ללשון אחר נמצא אתה עושה הפשט אמת כי התרגום הוא יהיה כפי הפשט ולפי האמת אין הפשט של דברים אלו אמת…

“Which is not true of the Idra and the Zohar: they have no simple meaning at all. And the author never intended a simple meaning for the words at all. And there are passages where the simple meaning is pure heresy! And if you would translate these words to another language, you will have elevated the simple meaning to ‘truth,’ because a translation is (assumed to be) true. But in truth, the simple meaning of these words is not true.”

The bottom line is, that we really can’t know exactly what the Zohar meant. But we should hesitate before taking this fairly modern prayer as a literal expression of mainstream Jewish belief.

Materialism Unexpected

How Poor Is Poor Enough?

Who, according to halacha, is eligible for charity? The question is practical, since halacha seems to present a clear threshold and only individuals living beneath the threshold may receive charity.

What, exactly, is that threshold? Here’s what the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 253:1) rules:

מי שיש לו מזון שתי סעודות, לא יטול מהתמחוי. מזון י”ד סעודות, לא יטול מהקופה. ואם יש לו ר’ זוז ואינו נושא ונותן בהם, או שיש לו חמשים זוז והוא נושא ונותן בהם, לא יטול צדקה

Someone with enough food for two meals may not take from the ‘tamchui,’ food for 14 meals may not take from the ‘kupa.’ If he has 200 zuz that he’s using for his business, or 50 zuz that is not being used for business, he may not take charity.”

I suspect that, these days, 200 zuz would be worth a few thousand dollars. So it would seem that anyone with more than a thousand dollars or so in liquid cash – or a few thousand in, say, retirement savings – should not be taking charity.

That, of course, leaves many other questions unanswered. Has the precise definition of charity changed? Where do social welfare programs and other government entitlements fit in? Are tuition scholarships considered charity?

But the very next section in Shulchan Aruch (253:2) turns everything upside down:

יש אומרים שלא נאמרו השיעורים הללו אלא בימיהם, אבל בזמן הזה יכול ליטול עד שיהיה לו קרן כדי שיתפרנס הוא ובני ביתו מהריוח. ודברים של טעם הם

“Some say that those thresholds applied only in those times, but these days, one may receive charity unless he has sufficient capital to provide his family’s needs from the profits alone. And these are reasonable words.”

Assuming mortgage/rent and private school tuition payments count as “family needs,” which of us can live off profits without dipping into core revenues and savings? Are we all עניים in the eyes of the Shulchan Aruch?

Core basics Uncategorized

Property Values

I’m 57 years old and I still have no clue what עידית זיבורית ובינונית are all about (see Bava Kama 6b and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 102). How embarrassing is that? 

Here’s the problem: How can two properties that have the exact same market value (equal to each of the multiple חובות the individual faces) have different objective worths? In other words, a 50×100 lot in a safe and pleasant residential community might be worth $2,000,000 while a property that’ll sell for that same $2,000,000 in northern Ontario would probably have to be around twenty acres.

But in which way is the residential property “better” (עידית) or “worse” (זיבורית) than the distant, regional property? It all depends on what you plan to do with it. A mining company might be more interested in northern Ontario while a young, growing family would be more interested in a house. It’s really subjective.

So wouldn’t it have made more sense, rather than creating עידית זיבורית ובינונית categories, to simply say something like:

יד ניזק על העליונה

Meaning that the creditor with the strongest claim gets to choose whichever of the properties (of equal value) that he wants.

Update: I asked around and heard a couple of useful insights:

Efraim Stulberg, my (former) talmid (who is in the corporate asset evaluation business), suggested that markets do sometimes separate sale price from value. His example was in how liquidity can be a significant differentiator even when two businesses are selling for the same price.

And Menachem Rosenzweig, my (permanent) son-in-law, (who is in the commercial mortgage brokerage business) noted how higher cash flows can similarly impact the salability of commercial properties without impacting the price. 

Having said all that, Efraim pointed out that, in halachic terms, the Rambam follows the sugya in Bava Kama 6b, where מיטב שדהו refers exclusively to מטלטלין and not קרקע, since מטלטלין are easy to resell at high prices (i.e., they’re liquid).


Another Site Update

I’ve added a nice long chapter to my Finding Tradition project: How We Choose What We Observe. It’s about some gaps between halachic ideals and our real-world halachic performance.

All Torah communities work hard addressing challenges, but none of us is perfect. Halacha is a complex system, the Jews are a complex people and we live in a madly complex world. If we value truth and aspire to improve, it’s important to recognize and understand those gaps.

Take a look for yourself and share your thoughts.

4 minim Unexpected Yerushalmi

The Four Species: waved but never shaken

The נענועים are an integral part of the mitzva of lulav (see Mesechte Sukkah 37b). But how is that waving supposed to be done? As anyone who’s ever been in a shul over Sukkos knows, the question seems to inspire a wide range of answers. The gemara’s conceptual source is the waving associated with the מלואים (see שמות כט:כז). There, the הנפה and הרמה referenced by the verse suggest to ר’ יוחנן that we should move the four species outwards and inwards, and then up and down.

One popular interpretation involves shaking the lulav with each movement. The source for this seems to be the Rema (תרנא:ט) who wrote:

ומכסכס הלולב בכל נענוע

The popular translation of כסכס is “shake.” However, from the Yerushalmi to Sukkah (פרק ג הלכה ח) this would not seem to be correct:

תני צריך לנענע ג’ פעמים ר’ זעירה בעי הכין חד והכין חד או הכין והכין חד או הכין הכין חד

One must wave (the lulav) three times. Rabbi Zeira asks: this way is one and this way is one, or this way and this way is one? (i.e., are those three waves made up of three sets of “in and out” movements, or one inward movement, one outward, and a third inward).

The Yerushalmi answers via a proof from the laws of Niddah (found in the Bavli in Niddah 62a). There, the required steps for properly cleaning a stain involves כסכוס three times in each direction. Here’s how the Yerushalmi concludes:

תמן תנינן צריך לכסכס ג’ פעמים בין כל דבר ודבר ר’ זעירה בעי הכין חד והכין חד

Which would seem to clearly limit the Rema’s ומכסכס to simple outward/inward/upward/downward movements. And there seems to be no source for shaking.

Just sayin’.


New Content

For better or for worse, I’ve been unusually productive over the past few weeks. So here’s a brief overview of what’s new on the site (and beyond).

The article, “Some Older Changes,” from my Finding Tradition project, looks at the ideal way to divide up your Yom Tov days. Should a man devote the early hours of the morning to preparing the meal, or is it better to slip out of shul before the end so you can put up the roast? Believe it or not, key early poskim seem to discuss these questions. And did women typically attend shul a thousand years ago?

I’ve also combined some old content in “Other Modern Innovations” with a brand new analysis of the way we recite Selichos through Elul – despite the fact that few if any of us can fully understand what we’re saying. And what religious value is there is in encouraging boys to wear black hats?

Some of my essays have been appearing as guest posts on Rabbi Gavin Michal’s Kotzk Blog. Some of them, in fact, have proven quite popular. In particular, my How Are We Supposed to Pray article (also available in a slightly changed format on this site) has attracted a lot of attention and elicited a robust conversation in the comments.

I have a feeling that there’s more to come in the next little while, so check back for details.


Rosh Hashana Simanim

The gemara (Horiyus 11a) famously recommends using symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana as an introduction to the new year:

אמר אביי השתא דאמרת סימנא מילתא היא [לעולם] יהא רגיל למיחזי בריש שתא קרא ורוביא כרתי וסילקא ותמרי

The obvious problem is that this looks a lot like the kind of divination described as לא תנחשו that’s forbidden by the Torah (Vayikra 19:26).

My normal approach to such problems includes assessing the source and confirming that the popular or initial reading is actually justified.

In this case, the gemara begins with משיחת מלכים על המעיין (“Kings should be anointed near a wellspring”). This, in fact, doesn’t by any means have to mean that there’s a direct connection between the location they’re using and the success of the royal dynasty. Rather than assuming there’s some magical connection directing human events (for which there’s no source), it’s far simpler to say that a wellspring carries symbolic meaning helpful for impressing on everyone present the importance of, perhaps, maintaining a strong loyalty to the Eternal Source of a king’s legitimacy.

The gemara’s next cases involve actions meant to predict how particular events will turn out. Here, however, the gemara explicitly rejects the thought that the method of divination (lighting a candle in a dark room, monitoring a chicken’s growth, etc) has any actual impact on events:

ולאו מלתא היא דלמא חלשא דעתיה ומיתרע מזליה

“But (these methods are) not valid: (but) perhaps a person will be discouraged by (his interpretation of the result) and he’ll be weakened.”

According to Rashi, the method can’t predict anything, but there’s a genuine (and rational) fear that someone might give too much credibility to a negative outcome and give up hope.

Finally, the gemara says:

השתא דאמרת סימנא מילתא היא [לעולם] יהא רגיל למיחזי בריש שתא קרא ורוביא כרתי וסילקא ותמרי

“Now that you say symbols are legitimate, a person should show at the start of the year” these vegetables.”

These simanim are not more connected to the physical world than the others we’ve discussed. They’re just symbols that can, at best, be used to encourage us and point us towards appropriate behavior.

By contrast, ניחוש, according to R’ Hirsch, is the attempt to bypass the real world’s cause and effect requirements AND to bypass the influence of God on the world. It’s a way of reducing the world to a purely mechanical framework where blindly pushing the right buttons (or reading the right combinations of Torah texts) will force the universe to adjust so you can acquire all knowledge and get everything you want. ניחוש isn’t just about divining the future (which, on its own, can be a problem), but about controlling the future.