Is anybody home? (18a-18b)

We read one of the sweetest dafs of the Talmud when we read 18a-18b. Among other things it is about the dead – how we respect them and how we are to take care of them.

We read that a “dead body seizes the four amos surrounding it”. In other words it occupies physical space “insofar as prohibiting reciting Sh’ma”.

But even more poignant is the emotional and spiritual space that the dead occupy. We read “R’ Chiya and R’ Yonatan were walking in a cemetery and R’ Yonatan’s tzitzis  were dragging over the graves.Whereupon R’ Chiya said to him: ‘Lift up your garment lest the dead say Tomorrow they will be joining us and now they mock us!” By his statement R’ Chiya asserts that the dead are aware of what is going on around them. R’ Yonatan disagrees and brings as a proof text Kohelet 9:5: “the dead know nothing at all!”

So what do the dead know? And what do the dead not know?

We read further that a certain pious man gave a dinar to a poor man who decides to spend a night in the cemetery where he overhears the musings of two deceased children who discuss the weather and its impact on the following years’ crops. The man follows their predictions and his crops come out well while others’ crops do not. He must explain to his wife how he knows all this and he tells here about the conversations by the dead that he has overheard. (R’ Yonatan is subsequently convinced and changes his view. The dead do know something after all!)

But the point is not that the living overhear the conversations of the dead! The point it seems to me is that the dead themselves are aware that the living overhear them and from that point on cease to converse in such a way that they can be heard! The Gemara states: “Apparently the dead do know what is spoken by the living…”

Perhaps the reader thinks this is all nonsense … and yet aren’t we all sensitive to the dead in our own ways? Mindful  how the dead might see a situation or chide us if they were physically present? Whether internal in our hearts alone or external in the rustle of the wind … perhaps the dead are not as far away as we might initially think.

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One Response to Is anybody home? (18a-18b)

  1. neillitt says:

    The dead are exactly as far away as we put them. Through inattention, we increase the distance. When Rabbi Hiya’s sons fail to remember their father’s teaching, they have already walked an irrevocable distance from him, inadvertently “mocking the pauper.” This source from Psalms comes to warn us not to recite the Shema before the body because the corpse is unable to recite the Shema and will be diminished by the reminder that he is then and forever incapable of ever hearing “oh Israel!” proclaimed again. It is never “proved” to the satisfaction of all the Sages that the dead are aware, but even if they are not, their dignity must be preserved. We are directed to treat a Torah as if it is a living body, and we are directed to treat the dead as if the corpse is a Torah.

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