Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer at Diaspora Yeshiva, is not only a popular speaker and teacher, but also a dynamic thinker and writer. A student of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Harav Gedalia Schorr, Rabbi Sprecher was granted smicha (rabbinical ordination) by Torah Vodaath Yeshiva. Prior to his current position, Rabbi Sprecher was a professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in New York. In addition to his duties at Diaspora Yeshiva, Rabbi Sprecher writes a regular column on various Judaic topics in the Jewish Press, and lectures regularly at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.
Are the Dead Aware of the Living?
Published: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 08:08:05 PM
Number of views: 3390

In memory of my student Baruch Naim ז"ל

When we visit a cemetery or remember a loved one on a Yahrzeit, we may find ourselves wondering whether the deceased are aware of us. Do they know what we are thinking about, what we are feeling? Do they empathize with our travails? Do they see our actions? Our Talmudic sages are divided over the question: What do the dead know? They offer three approaches (B. Berachot 18a-19a).

The first approach, ascribed to Rabbi Hiyya, holds that the deceased know everything that is going on in this world. Thus Rabbi Hiyya berated his colleague Rabbi Yonaton for walking in the cemetery with his tzitzit dragging over the graves: "Lift up your garment, lest the deceased say- 'Tomorrow they'll be joining us and now they mock us!'"

Therefore, we are instructed not to enter the cemetery wearing teffilin or reading from a Torah scroll. According to some Poskim, it is not even permitted to enter a graveyard carrying a Torah scroll, even if this scroll is totally covered (Shulhan Aruch YD 242:4). Elsewhere a similar restriction is cited regarding the reading of Shema in a cemetery (B. Sotah 43b). Likewise, we are enjoined to speak solely of matters that pertain to the deceased and avoid Torah discourse in the presence of the dead (B. Berachot 3b).

The restrictions fall under the verse: "One who mocks the poor affronts his Maker" (Proverbs 17:5). Brazenly displaying the opportunities we have for fulfilling the Divine Will mocks the enforced inaction imposed by death.

Thus the deceased are aware of their surroundings and may even feel insulted, envious, and perhaps even spiteful.

Rabbi Yonaton, walking through the cemetery with his tzitzit flowing behind him, was of a different opinion. He felt that the finality of death precluded any knowledge of worldly matters. Citing scriptural support, Rabbi Yonaton did not entertain that the deceased would feel any affront- or for that matter, anything at all- by his blatant tzitzit. The dead- he held- are unaware of the living. Later in the passage, however, we are told that Rabbi Yonaton retracted his original position accepting the view that the dead could be cognizant of this world.

Rabbi Yonaton's initial approach may be the thrust of the declaration of another sage: "Disparaging the deceased is akin to disparaging a stone," perhaps implying that the dead know nothing of our deeds, though possibly indicating that they merely do not care.

A middle position arises from an episode with the sons of Rabbi Hiyya, who traveled to their estates in distant villages. They stayed so long that they forgot the Torah they had studied and subsequently took pains to recall it.

Bemoaning their unfortunate plight, one brother turned to his sibling: "Does our deceased father, Rabbi Hiyya, know about our anguish?"

Despite having forgotten his learning, the other brother replied: "It is written 'His sons may attain honor and he- the deceased- will not know it' No, our father is unaware of our distress."

The first brother countered: "Yet it is written 'But his flesh will pain him and his spirit will mourn for him' (Job 14:22) and sages have noted that the worm is as painful to the dead as a needle is to living flesh. The dead, it seems, do sense the mortification of their bodies. Surely our father must perceive our predicament."

The Talmud balances these texts: The deceased know of their own suffering, but are unaware of the pain of others. Further in the passage other exceptions are offered: Though the dead might not be fully informed of worldly goings-on, they may be updated by the recently deceased. Alternatively, Duma, the angel appointed over the souls of the departed, can announce to the deceased who will be joining them.

Thus considering Rabbi Yonaton's retraction of his initial position, our passage seems to conclude that indeed the deceased are aware of at least certain worldly events.

Until our dying day we may never know for sure. Yet the great rabbinic leader, Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschuetz (18th century, central Europe), offers an appealing solution to the problem.

He begins by citing the classic Bat Kol (Heavenly voice), "These and those are the words of the living God" (B. Eiruvin 13 b; B. Gittin 6b), referring to conflicting Talmudic opinions and implying that even in an argument all positions of the Sages reflect the Divine in some way. Building on this premise, Rabbi Eybeschuetz suggests that both opinions are true in that they are referring to two different kinds of people: Some of the deceased are aware of what is occurring in this world, while others are not.

Rabbi Eybeschuetz illustrates these two types: There are righteous people who live their lives caring for others, looking out for their neighbors and generally being interested in the public good and society around them. Such people continue after life to be aware of the physical world, as they were in their lifetime.

There are people, however righteous in private they may be, who distance themselves from others during their lifetime. Such people find no time to consider the plight of those around them, the welfare of others or be involved in communal ventures. In death, they continue to be unaware of the physical world, disconnected from this earthly world as they always were.

Rabbi Eybeschuetz avoids any value judgment between these two personalities; both may be righteous people with altruistic goals. Their worldly demeanor, however, reverberates after their death.

As we go about our daily lives, it may be worth considering the proposition that our earthly conduct and interaction with our fellow man, may one day define and determine our post-death existence.

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