The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.
This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan
Mo’ed Katan 27
Many traditional Jewish funeral customs to which we have become accustomed actually developed over time. The Gemara relates a series of traditions that were representative of divisions between the upper and lower classes, all of which were changed in order that poor people would not be embarrassed. Among those traditions were:
- The seudat havra’ah – the meal that is traditionally brought to the house of mourning by neighbors. Wealthy people brought the meal in baskets of gold and silver, while poor people brought it in simple woven baskets. Everyone was instructed to use simple woven baskets.
- The wine that accompanied the meal. Wealthy people drank out of white glass, while poor people drank from colored glass, which was less expensive. Everyone was instructed to drink the wine from colored glasses.
- The way the deceased was laid out. A wealthy person’s face was left exposed when he was being buried, while a poor person’s was covered up because his face was dark from famine. The decision was made to cover up everyone’s faces.
Rabbeinu Yehonatan points out that there are two possible explanations for the concern expressed by the Gemara that poor people were embarrassed. It could mean that cheaper things were brought to the home of the poor mourner, which was an embarrassment, or alternatively it might be a concern for the person who came to comfort someone and was embarrassed by the meager contribution that he was making to the meal.
The Gemara concludes with the comment that burial customs became so lavish that the dead person’s relatives found the burial to be more difficult than the death itself – to the extent that people would abandon the body and flee – leaving the burial to the community. Rabban Gamliel put an end to this by insisting that his funeral be a simple one, and he was buried in a simple linen shroud, which led the people to give up expensive funerals. Rabban Gamliel’s statement was seen as an important decision, and in the time of the Talmud when there was a custom to drink a series of cups of wine at the home of the mourner, one of the cups was dedicated to Rabban Gamliel for having established this new custom.
Mo’ed Katan 28
One of the more severe punishments meted out by the Torah for certain misdeeds is the punishment of karet. A person who eats on Yom Kippur, for example, would be liable for that punishment. It is interesting that the Torah never chooses to define what exactly karet entails, and the baraita in our Gemara distinguishes between karet and mitah be-yedei shamayim (a death penalty as carried out by the heavenly court) by saying that someone who dies at age 50 has received karet, while mitah be-yedei shamayim is when someone dies at age 60. Rabbah argues that karet actually is defined by death between the ages of 50 and 60, but the baraita does not emphasize that because it wants to honor the prophet Shmuel who passed away when he was 52.
To emphasize this point, the Gemara relates that Rav Yosef threw a party for the Sages when he turned 60, celebrating the fact that he has succeeded in living beyond the stage in life that would have indicated the punishment of karet.
The Talmud Yerushalmi brings a proof-text for the idea that karet is indicated by death at the age of 50 from the passage (Bamidbar 4:18) where the Torah expresses concern for the lives of the Levi’im, who work in close proximity with the mishkan and its utensils – a closeness that can potentially bring death to the person who comes into contact with those things inappropriately. In expressing this concern, the Torah uses the expression al tachritu – do not allow them to suffer karet. Given that the work of the Levi’im in the mishkan ends at age 50, the implication is that anyone who dies before that age may have succumbed to the punishment of karet.
The Ran suggests that the underlying reason for this is that we assume that a normal life-span is 80 years (see, for example, Tehillim 90:10). For the first 20 years, heaven does not hold an individual liable for his actions. A person who does not live past 50 has not succeeded in living even half of the remaining 60 years, which indicates that he is in the category of those evil people described in Tehillim 55:24.
Mo’ed Katan 29
In the closing discussion of Masechet Mo’ed Katan Rabbi Levi teaches that a person who walks out of the bet ha-knesset (a synagogue) and goes immediately to the bet midrash (the study hall) – and vice versa – will merit to welcome penei ha-Shekhinah (the Heavenly countenance). That is to say, someone whose central activities are to go from prayer to Torah study and back effectively illustrates that his life is centered around religious devotions, even as he must also involve himself in mundane activities. Someone like this deserves to welcome penei ha-Shekhinah.
This statement is followed up by a statement of Rabbi Hiyya bar Ashi in the name of Rav who teaches that even in the World-to-Come the Sages have no rest, as they continue their spiritual growth and development even there. The proof-text for this idea is the passage in Tehillim (84:8), which teaches that the individual who believes in God goes “from strength to strength” appearing before God in Zion – which is understood to refer to the World-to-Come.
In his Yad David, Rabbi Yosef David Zintzheim suggests that this continuing movement is the natural consequence of the activities of the Torah Sages in this world, where they traveled from the Beit HaKnesset to the bet ha-midrash and back again. This is further explained by the Tosafot ha-Rosh who points out that this concept is based on an idea that appears often in the Gemara, that even in the afterworld righteous souls continue their Torah study and their quest for a deeper understanding of the Creator. One of the greatest proponents of this approach was the Rambam in his Sefer ha-Mada, who understood the reward of the World-to-Come as a place where souls, unburdened from their physical forms, would be able to devote themselves to a joyous comprehension of God that goes beyond anything imaginable while they were alive in their physical bodies (see, for example, Hilkhot Teshuva, chapter 8).
In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.