Bo: Honoring the Departed in their Presence

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10 Jan 2008

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 Bach adds that in the immediate presence of the departed, even commonplace conversation is forbidden if it is not for their needs. He writes that even this type of speech has a certain aspect of “mocking the poor”; evidently the reason is that the dead are also now prevented from everyday conversation.

The source for this law is the following passage in Berakhot (3b):

“Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said, In the presence of the dead we say only things which are the needs of the dead. Rebbe Abba bar Kahana said, This refers only to words of Torah, but everyday matters are not included. And some say Rebbe Abba bar Kahana said, this refers to words of Torah, and so much the more are everyday matters included.”

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.

The second version of Rebbe Abba bar Kahana therefore states: We need to refrain from words of Torah, which relate to the body’s future perfection; so much the more do we need to refrain from mundane matters which already in the past were a means to its perfection.

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.

(Based on Ein Ayah, Berakhot 3b.)

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.