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 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’.

Unexpected Yerushalmi

Who Wants to Learn?

You’re probably familiar with the mishna in the third perek of Eiruvin:

…אם בא חכם מן המזרח עירובי למזרח בא מן המערב עירובי למערב

(A person may make an eruv techum – extending the distance he may travel outside his town on Shabbos – conditional, saying:) “If a wise man will come from the east, my eruv will (extend my techum) in the east (so I can go to meet him). If the wise man will come from the west, my eruv will be in the west.”

But you may not be aware of an alternate reading quoted in the Yerushalmi (עירובין פרק ו הלכה ג):

אית תניי תני במערב מאן דמר במזרח באילין חכימי’ מאן דמר במערב ברגיל

“There is a tana who taught: ‘(regarding the wise man who comes from the east, that he wants his eruv in the) west. The one who would say (his eruv should be in) the east refers a to (true) wise man. The one who says (his eruv should be in) the west refers to a wise man (who only teaches things everybody already knows).

The scenario presented by the alternate version gives us a man whose motivation for setting an eruv techum is to escape from the chochom, presumably so he wouldn’t need to sit through his lecture.

But this gets more interesting. Later in Eiruvin (פרק ח הלכה א), we find that one should only set an eruv techum for the purpose of a mitzva. Meaning that, according to the Yerushalmi’s version, not only is it reasonable for a person to wish to escape a chochom, but it can even be a mitzva!

derush Yerushalmi

Are We Incapable of Understanding Aggadita?

ירושלמי מעשרות יז-יח
דלמא רבי זעירא ורבי אבא בר כהנא ורבי לוי הוון יתבין והוה רבי זעירא מקנתר לאילין דאגדתא וצוח להון סיפרי קיסמי. אמר ליה רבי בא בר כהנא למה את מקנתר לון שאל ואינון מגיבין לך. אמר ליה מהו דין דכתיב (תהילים עו) כי חמת אדם תודך שארית חמות תחגור. אמר ליה כי חמת אדם תודך בעולם הזה שארית חמות תחגור לעולם הבא. אמר ליה או נימר כי חמת אדם תודך בעולם הבא שארית חמות תחגור בעולם הזה. אמר רבי לוי כשתעורר חמתך על הרשעים צדיקים רואין מה את עושה להן והן מודין לשמך. אמר רבי זעירא היא הפכה והיא מהפכה לא שמעינן מינה כלום. ירמיה בני אזל צור צור דוקניתא דהיא טבא מן כולם.

Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Abba bar Kahana and Rabbi Levi were sitting and Rabbi Zeira was criticising the others (for their) homiletics and screamed at them (accusing them of working with) “books of sorcery!” Rabbi (Abba) bar Kahana: “why are you accusing us? Ask, and we’ll (respond?)” He (Rabbi Zeira) replied “What is it that’s written (Tehilim 76:11) ‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude, the residue of anger will fortify’?” He (Rabbi Abba bar Kahana) replied: “‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude’ refers to this world and ‘the residue of anger will fortify’ refers to the next world.” He replied: “(Perhaps) you can say the opposite: ‘For a man’s fury is your gratitude’ refers to the next world and ‘the residue of anger will fortify’ refers to this world.” Rabbi Levi said “When You arouse Your fury on the evil, the righteous see what You will do with them, and they will acknowledge Your Name.”

According to the Pnei Moshe, Rabbi Levi’s response suggested that you could, in fact, find a way to interpret the verse either way. To which, Rabbi Zeira responded:

Rabbi Zeira said: “Interpret it this way or that way, but I don’t accept anything from you, but my son Yirmiya (who had previously asked about how many figs one can eat without first separating מעשר) is better than all of them.”

Rabbi Zeira is effectively saying that, since aggadic interpretations of Torah passages are so often ambiguous, for all intents and purposes, they’re meaningless. Is Rabbi Zeira (whose opinion is not challenged by the Yerushalmi) telling me to give up my search for clear meaning in much of Tanach and Chazal?

This is something I’ve struggled with for years. I’ve written about it in other places and will hopefully revisit it again here in the context of other Yerushalmis.

Any thoughts?