MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's commentary Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
LEAVING A CEMETERY
There is an ancient custom that on leaving a cemetery after a funeral we do three things: take a handful of dirt, and pluck some foliage, and wash the hands. (SA YD 376:4.)
The Tur relates this custom to the water and dust which are part of the ordeal of the sota: “It is said that this custom reminds us of the formation of man, as it is said in an aggada ‘And the Kohen takes holy water in a clay vessel and from the dust” – why water and dirt? Because her formation was from water and her end is dust, therefore she is tried with water and dirt: if she is pure, she remains as she was formed; if not, she returns to dust.’” [See Yerushalmi Sota 2:2.] Likewise, the water and the dirt are a symbol of formation and death, and the foliage a symbol of the resurrection, as it is said (Tehillim 72:16) “And they shall sprout of the town like the foliage of the earth”. (Tur YD 376.)
The Ramban, on the other hand, relates this custom to the process of purifying someone from defilement, as we learn in our parsha: “I heard a tradition from one of my teachers that this hints at the purification from defilement, as if to say that this defilement is not purified without these three things: water, and the ashes of the red heifer, and hyssop.” (Torat HaAdam p. 156, cited in Beit Yosef YD 376.)
The comparison of these two explanations is suggestive. For one thing, the Tur in effect presents us with a symbolic explanation of the elements of the purification process: conception, death, and resurrection.
According to this explanation, the need for hyssop in the purifying waters seems to hint that the possibility for purification from contact with the dead is in itself dependent on the fact that death is itself is not permanent, and that the departed are destined to return to life. As we experience this sprinkling, we recall that we were conceived in purity, then defiled by contact with death; but just as the dead are destined to rise, so we too are able to purify ourselves of the defilement which they bring.
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Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own questions, at www.jewishethicist.com or at www.aish.com.