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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?

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