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.


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.