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.
Honoring the Departed in their Presence
The Shulchan Arukh rules that it is forbidden to speak on Torah matters in the presence of the departed, unless we are speaking of things which are for their needs (such as the details of the burial or the eulogy) or for their honor (as in the eulogy itself) (SA YD 344: 16-17).
The commentaries explain that the basis
for this prohibition is because of “loeg lerash”, “mocking the poor”. Just
as a wealthy person shouldn’t flaunt his wealth before a pauper, so the
living shouldn’t flaunt their ability to uphold the Torah before the dead
who are now exempt from the Torah.
The source for this law is the following
passage in Berakhot (3b):
The Rishonim rule according to the first understanding. The Shulchan Arukh understands that the prohibition on Torah discussion applies only in the immediate presence of the dead; whereas the Bach understands that the prohibition being discussed is beyond four paces, but closer in even everyday matters are forbidden.
Rav Kook explains that the the two versions of Rebbe Abba bar Kahana differ regarding a fundamental question: What is the reason that we honor and dignify the body after the soul has already departed? Is it because of the body’s glorious past, as the recent abode of the soul? It’s true that the body is mere debased matter, but it is still worthy of respect because of its recent noble inhabitant. Or perhaps the reason for honor is because of the body’s glorious future? In this world the body was base and coarse, but at the time of the resurrection the body will be restored in a spiritually refined state worthy of respect in and of itself.
If the reason for respect is due to the anticipated future state of the body, there is no reason to refrain from everyday matters. These have no relationship whatsoever to the future state of the body in the perfected world of the resurrection. However, we still need to refrain from words of Torah, which are not only a “mocking of the poor” regarding the past but also regarding the future. After all, the resurrection is only through the power of Torah; “one who used the light of Torah will live” (Ketubot 111b). Discussing Torah matters before the body reminds it that the time has not yet come when the power of Torah will restore it to life.
But if the reason for respect is on
account of the past, we should refrain even from everyday matters. For in
this world, even our most mundane affairs can be a means to spiritual
perfection, as we learn in Mishlei (3:6), “Know Him in all your ways”. Thus
we mock the body by engaging in matters which previously it engaged in to
advance the holy spirit it hosted.
While Rav Kook does not say so, this
understanding throws a new light on the differing interpretations of the
law. According to the Shulchan Arukh’s understanding, the conclusion of the
gemara is that the respect for the dead is mainly based on the potential for
resurrection. But according to the Bach, we respect the body also for its
role in the past as the abode of the spirit and its instrument of
perfection. But even in this world, the main path to perfection of the
spirit is Torah, not everyday matters; therefore the prohibition on these
discussions remains stricter.
Rabbi Meir has completed writing
a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents
the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. It will hopefully be published in
the near future.