Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Dead and the Ghosts - Berakhot 18

In some cultures, the afterlife is so important that the dead body itself is comparatively irrelevant – an empty shell without the spirit. Not so in Rabbinic Judaism, where the body and spirit are intimately connected and treated with respect. In the context of determining who in death and mourning is exempt from Shema recital, today’s page presents some basic rabbinic beliefs about death. And some of them may be surprising to those raised to believe that all of Judaism was rational and modern.

The respect paid to the dead body is immediately obvious – watching (the Hebrew root shamar can also mean “guarding”) the body is so important that it takes precedence over the Shema and eating, even if one is not personally related to the body being watched. The same is true for visiting a cemetery, and failing to join a funeral procession is like mocking the poor (and by extension God). Even if one is righteous and called “living” even if dead, as the memory of one’s good deeds lives, death in Talmudic Judaism is real and the dead deserve respect.

We discover here, however, that they deserve respect not only for who they were, but also because they are still listening to us and talking to each other! We read a fascinating “ghost story” set the evening before the New Year: a pious man scolded by his wife for giving charity in a drought year must spend the night in a cemetery. While there, he overhears two spirits, one able to wander the world but the other restricted by her manner of burial. The wanderer discovers when the agricultural disaster will strike, and relates it to her fellow ghost. Thus the pious man is able to avert personal disaster, and again the same way the next year. However, his wife asks what his secret is, he tells her the whole story, and the next year the spirits know they’ve been overheard. This page also tells of voices from beyond the grave helping to find hidden money or predicting imminent death for someone else.

In the middle of these ghost stories, we do find a small beauty – money for orphans hidden by Abba ben Abba father of Samuel (because there are too many Abbas or Abba ben Abbas to find the right one more simply) is covered on top and bottom by his own money. If there are thieves, they will take his; if there is an earthquake, it will take his. But the orphans’ money will be safe. If every ghost story had such a moral, we might be much less afraid of them.

Rabbi Adam Chalom