Monday, October 7, 2013

What Is The Best Aliyah for a Neshamah?

A month ago, I introduced the topic of how the mitzvah of Talmud Torah has dramatically changed over the last few centuries, in both function and emphasis - and not in a good way. In this post, I will give an example of this phenomenon.

I recently came across a book entitled The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah, which discusses how one can benefit the soul of someone who passed away. The book has been very thoughtfully put together, including plenty of web-links and practical suggestions for different projects. Overall, it's a terrific idea.

But the book doesn't simply list all the different ways of giving an aliyah for a neshamah. After all, this might be confusing for someone (and people who are in mourning tend to be very easily confused and overwhelmed). Instead, it gives an explicit order of priorities, based on a nineteenth-century work entitled Sukas Shalom. And here's where things become problematic.

The author of The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah places Torah study in the first position. He writes that "There appears to be universal agreement among the poskim throughout the centuries that Torah study is the greatest source of merit for the departed soul."

But in the footnote to this claim, the earliest source that he cites is a work called Yosef Ometz, from the sixteenth century. And this work does not say that Torah study is the greatest source of merit - just that it is a greater merit than Kaddish and prayer (which is no great chiddush; Sukas Shalom says the same about resisting sin). The earliest source to state that Torah study is the greatest merit is Sukas Shalom, which only dates back to the 19th century. And the evidence that Sukas Shalom gives for this is very unclear. For example, he refers to Chazal's statement that Talmud Torah k'neged kulam. But as have discussed, Chazal also say that living in Eretz Yisrael, Shabbos, Bris Milah, Tzitzis, and Gemilas Chasadim are equal to all other mitzvos. And Rambam says that Talmud Torah k'neged kulam only insofar as that it leads to one fulfilling other mitzvos.

Furthermore, even if we do say that Talmud Torah is a great or the greatest mitzvah, it does not follow that it is the greatest merit for the deceased. After all, in the prayers of the Yamim Nora'im, we say that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah remove the evil decree, and we do not mention Talmud Torah as doing this. Clearly, even if Talmud Torah is effective for some things, it is not so effective for others.

Thus, the earliest source for Torah being the greatest source of merit is in the nineteenth century. Conversely, we have (as the book quotes) Rabbeinu Yonah, a Rishon, speaking in broad terms about providing a merit for one's deceased parent with the fear of Heaven, toiling in Torah and performing mitzvos (and not in any mystical sense, but rather by thereby demonstrating positive results of one's parents' efforts). And if we look at Chazal, the only source discussing merits for the deceased is the Midrash Tanchuma, which only makes mention of charity, and nothing else - even though the Midrash is specifically discussing what one can do to help the deceased. This Midrash is the basis for yizkor, which dates back around a thousand years, and which is fundamentally about pledging charity in order to benefit the deceased, while saying nothing about Torah.

I wrote all this to the author, who graciously responded. The gist of his reply was that many recent Gedolim said that Torah is the greatest merit for the deceased, and they must surely be reflecting the timeless tradition from Chazal. To this I responded that there are all kinds of topics in which we see that the Acharonim (especially the late Acharonim) had a very different view of a topic than the Rishonim, such as shiluach hakein, Chazal's knowledge of science, etc., etc. I haven't yet heard back from him.

Here, then, is an example of what I'm talking about. Chazal only mention benefiting the deceased by giving charity. The notion of benefiting them via studying Torah first receives mention by Rabbeinu Yonah, and only as a general part of being a good person, along with other mitzvos, which thereby shows that one's parent did a good job. Torah study is first elevated to providing a special benefit in the sixteenth century, and by the time we reach the nineteenth century, it has overtaken charity to become the very greatest benefit of all for the deceased. That is giving a very different role to studying Torah than Chazal and the Rishonim ever imagined - and yet this is claimed to be "the universal view throughout the centuries!"


  1. Of course the earliest mention of Torah study being the chief merit for the deceased would date from the nineteenth century. That is when Charedism first developed.

  2. Mishna = Neshama... duh!

  3. classic slifkin. well done

  4. The Toronto ConnectionOctober 8, 2013 at 12:17 AM

    True Story:

    One Shabbos a member of the shul tells the gabbai he has yartzeit. He is called up for an aliyah, but not one of the “prominent” ones. (I never really understood that idea.) He is visibly miffed, and even makes some comments on his way to the bimah. On his way back to his seat, a fellow mispallel extended his hand, and said “Sh’koyach! The neshama should have a better aliyah than you did.” Cue the laughter.

  5. Why stop there?
    If the earliest makor for doing anything for the neshama is the Tanchumah, that raises the obvious question: where did the Tanchumah get the idea that you can benefit the deceased altogether?

    In other words, if you believe in Judaism at any given stage in history you have to believe in some process of development of Judaism, (even Moshe rabeinu took forty years to get his message across!) and if you believe in any process of development of Judaism, why are you stopping at the rishonim? Judaism is dynamic and constantly evolving.

    Parenthetically, I once told someone that I believe in evolution in some form. and my biggest proof is observing the evolution in Torah and yidishkeit!

    bottom line is, if you want a rationalist approach to Torah... how can you subscribe to the tanoim and the amorim's way of interpreting the Torah shebichsav???

    eloh mai, at some stage you take it on faith! if so take it on faith that the roshei bnei yisroel of each generation adapt the message of the religion to the needs of the generation and if it is niskabel then you know it is part of the kavonoh ho'elyona.

  6. Reb akiva eiger left in his tzavah that ifhis sons do not learn torah on his yartziet (or hire someone to do so in their stead) they should not bother saying kaddish or giving charity

  7. then you know it is part of the kavonoh ho'elyona

    Ploni, I like your comment, but I'll put the question to you: "Why stop there?" I agree that Torah/Judaism has been evolving from its inception, but where do we get the idea that there's a "kavonoh ho'elyona" directing it - and that all the evolution isn't simply taking place organically within Klal Yisrael?

  8. See, it's fine to say, "in our generation we feel that the best aliyah for a Neshama is Torah learning, and b"h Am Yisrael is capable of splitting up a Shas Mishnayos even if they're not the biggest talmidei chachamim and there's a web site for it and everything"


    "... and that's how it's always been".

    BTW, is an aliya for a neshama of a woman also Talmud Torah? If Talmud Torah is the best Aliya, what is a woman supposed to do? In our generation, Pirkei Avos, no problem. But before us?

    Tzedaka, everyone can do.

    On that note, I would appreciate it if people would visit my weekly blog on the Haftarot, - le'iluy nishmat avi mori.

  9. Rationalists believe in a soul? In an aliyah? Why and Why?

  10. Once upon a time when I lived in Jerusalem, I had a roomate that didn't have a Day school educational background in Judaism. In honor of his father's Yartziet, he decided to walk all through Jerusalem the length of a marathon. Being that some people believe that every step or some say every Daled Amot walked in Eretz Yisrael is a mitztva, I am certain that his thousands of footsteps in honor of his father gave his Neshama an extraordinary Aliya.

  11. I would hypothesize the following: in certain time-bound Jewish cultures, a family might place a priority on talmud torah lishmah that is so out-of-proportion high as to make the value system upon which the family bases itself very unstable. Fathers-in-law, fathers, national education funds, international schnorring, and most impactfully....wives and children ... are captive to the overly high value of talmud torah lishmah. The instability of such a disorder of priorities makes the participants overly sensitive to even the most mild critiques. This is because the high-unstable status of the lifestyle can easily crumble causing the exposure of families and communities to a period of reordered priorities that will have a profound effect on the fundamental functioning of many loved ones. One of the central pillars for the high-unstable committment to torah lishmah is the idea that torah lishmah has magical and mystical powers that nobody can even imagine. For example, a dead person has his/her "status" [whatever that means...I'm not sure] affected by the assignation of zechut for torah lishmah. This would be just one example of endless permutations of magical-thinking that help the high-unstable family/community to avoid the real, painful consequences of realistically critiquing the value of torah lishmah.

    I think that works like that described are designed to form a compassionate basis for an ultimately unsupportable lifestyle.

    Gary Goldwater

  12. The Rabbeinu Yonah on the Torah ( Noach) discusses 15 traits required for someone to be a Tzadik. Not one of them is Learning Torah!

    Libby Ba'Mizrach

  13. You can blame universal education. Today, due to government rules, mass education has produced an educational establishment. There's alot of money there. In the Jewish world it has produced an ecclesiastical class which makes it's living off of schooling. They need you in yeshiva so they can make a living. Hence, a philosophy of Torah study as everything has developed.

  14. “ For example, he refers to Chazal's statement that Talmud Torah k'neged kulam. But as have discussed, Chazal also say that living in Eretz Yisrael, Shabbos, Bris Milah, Tzitzis, and Gemilas Chasadim are equal to all other mitzvos.”
    Without getting nitty-gritty: unlike the others, throughout there’s a plethora of Mamarei Chazal about Talmud Torah transcending other mitzvos.
    "Furthermore, even if we do say that Talmud Torah is a great or the greatest mitzvah, it does not follow that it is the greatest merit for the deceased. After all, in the prayers of the Yamim Nora'im, we say that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah remove the evil decree, and we do not mention Talmud Torah as doing this."
    This Piyutt (like man other piyutei Yannai) is based on the Chazal in R”H 16b (See Maharsha and Aruch Lener who clearly understand this a the source):
    וא"ר יצחק ד' [ג' – ע' גליון הש"ס] דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם אלו הן צדקה צעקה שינוי השם ושינוי מעשה צדקה דכתיב וכו'
    However 3 pages later it says the following:
    דאמר רב שמואל בר אמי ואמרי לה אמר רב שמואל בר נחמני אמר רב יונתן מנין לגזר דין שיש עמו שבועה שאינו נקרע שנאמר לכן נשבעתי לבית עלי אם יתכפר עון בית עלי בזבח ובמנחה אמר רבא בזבח ובמנחה אינו מתכפר אבל מתכפר בתורה אביי אמר בזבח ומנחה אינו מתכפר אבל מתכפר בתורה ובגמילות חסדים
    “And if we look at Chazal, the only source discussing merits for the deceased is the Midrash Tanchuma, which only makes mention of charity, and nothing else “
    See מס' כלה פ"ב:
    איבעיא להו, מכפרין עון אבות או לא, תא שמע דרבי עקיבא נפק לההוא אתרא, אשכחיה לההוא גברא דהוי דרי טונא אכתפיה ולא הוה מצי לסגויי ביה, והה צווח ומתאנח, אמר ליה מאי עבידתיך, אמר לי הלא שבקנא איסורא דלא עבידנא בההיא עלמא, ועכשיו איכא נטורין עילוון ולא שבקין לי דאינוח, אמר ליה רבי עקיבא שבקת ברא, אמר ליה בחייך לא תשלין דדחילנא ממלאכי דמחי לי בפולסי דנורא... אמר ליה אימא ליה דקא ניחותך, אמר ליה שבקית אתתא מעברתא. אזל רבי עקיבא עאל לההיא מדינתא אמר להו בריה דפלוני היכא, אמרו ליה יעקר זכרו דההוא שחיק עצמות, אמר להו אמאי, אמרו ליה ההוא לסטים אכל אינשי ומצער ברייתא, ולא עוד אלא שבא על נערה המאורסה ביום הכפורים. אזל לביתיה אשכח התתיה מעוברתא, נטרה עד דילדא, אזל מהליה, לכי גדל אוקמי בבי כנישתא לברוכי בקהלא, לימים אזל רבי עקיבא לההוא אתרא איתחזי ליה, אמר ליה תנוח דעתך שהנחת את דעתי
    Also see תנא דבי אליהו זוטא סו"פ י"ז:
    הנחתי אשתי מעוברת ויודע אני שזכר הוא, בבקשה ממך הוי זהיר בו משעה שנולד עד שיהיה בן חמש שנים, הוליכהו לבית רבו למקרא, בשעה שהוא אומר ברכו את ה' המבורך מעלין אותי מדינה של גיהנם.
    In addition, the long-winded
    הוליכהו לבית רבו למקרא, בשעה שהוא אומר ברכו את ה' המבורך מעלין אותי מדינה של גיהנם
    Is suggestive it’s referring to the ברכו of קריאת התורה, which is very significant as in Nedarim 81a:
    דאמר רב יהודה אמר רב [...על מה אבדה הארץ שאין מברכין בתורה תחלה
    And see Ran there:
    ומצאתי במגילת סתרים של ה"ר יונה ז"ל דקרא הכי דייק דעל שלא ברכו בתורה תחילה אבדה הארץ דאם איתא על עזבם את תורתי כפשטא משמע שעזבו את התורה ולא היו עוסקין בה, כשנשאל לחכמים ולנביאים למה לא פרשוהו? והלא דבר גלוי היה וקל לפרש! אלא ודאי עוסקין היו בתורה תמיד ולפיכך היו חכמים ונביאים תמהים על מה אבדה הארץ עד שפרשו הקב"ה בעצמו שהוא יודע מעמקי הלב שלא היו מברכין בתורה תחלה, כלומר שלא היתה התורה חשובה בעיניהם כ"כ שיהא ראוי לברך עליה שלא היו עוסקים בה לשמה ומתוך כך היו מזלזלין בברכתה והיינו לא הלכו בה כלומר בכונתה ולשמה אלו דברי הרב החסיד ז"ל והם נאים ראויין למי שאמרם.
    The source of Birchas Hatorah is כי שם ה' אקרא הבו גודל לאלוקינו thus ברכו את ד' המבורך is בכלל.

    I also think it’s important to point out here the above Ran’s/R”Y’s statement
    " שלא היתה התורה חשובה בעיניהם כ"כ שיהא ראוי לברך עליה"
    is the reason for the Churban, is, I think, against the spirit of the above blog post.

  15. Unlike some other religions, ours has no fixed doctrines concerning what happens to us after death. We do believe in reward and punishment, but the details are unknown and unknowable to the living. Hence the entire concept of a neshama's "aliya," and certainly the mechanics of this supposed process and what drives it, are matters of speculation. We can agree that learning Torah is good, and that a bereaved person's learning Torah reflects well on his or her deceased forebears, but individual Jews ought to be free to choose just how much further, if any, to take these concepts.

  16. @Libby Ba'Mizrach, do you have a link to that? Thank you.

  17. To add, l’aniyut da’ati:
    What is the best means for attaining an aliyat neshama for a loved one?
    What does it mean for a neshama to have an aliya?
    Where is it? What is it? And where does it go?
    What is it being, and how do we know?
    No clue. But here we are in this world,
    I love thexpression, “Yehi zichro baruch.” May his memory be a blessing.
    My sense is that each time we remember the deceased we bring them back into this world, into our realities, and thus they live on.
    Onexample. Sometimes when I sit at the kotel, I think about my great…grandfathers who (g’d knows how) luggedostones to build me a kotel. Who were they? What were their lives like? Does anyone remember them? But I just brought back their memories, by visualizing, acknowledging and appreciating their existence.
    Those of us who have had and lost loved ones know, that generally, like most people, their personas, and ourelationships withem were complex. When we take time to think abouthem after they are gone, to process who they were as a person, to think about their attributes, we can elevate them in our eyes, and thus in this world.
    When we do something, leiluy nishmat someone, we are consciously saying that we want to ‘raise their neshamemory, whatever that may mean. Perhaps as we have been saying, we can do that in any way that is significant to us, whether it be learning, giving tzedakah, whatever….the conversation about whether and how ‘talmud Toireh kneged kulam’ remains. This isimply one facet of it.
    We obviously continue to process who people are/were, after they are gone. Don’t we sense that our forefathers, tzaddikim, authors, artists, personas both great and evil continue to live on, not only in our memories, but in the existence we continue to give them?
    As we continue to reflect on who a person was in our minds and hearts, and objectively in this world, does that image not alter and change? Do we not shift perspective? Achieve healing? Do they continue on as the same entity? Have they changed in some way and grown?
    In addition, what has made us? Are we not a product of the nurture/nature of those before us? When we continue to perpetuate the good we have been taught or received genetically by others they live on. When we teshuva, tefilah, tzedakah, talmutorah, whatever, change in ourselves as their offspring, they live on ‘gooderer.’
    I guess in writing this I’m coming to see that, in my opinion, parts of aliyat neshama comes from continuing to accentuate and perpetuate the goodness of those who have lived before us. We do this by following in their ways…the good ones. We do this also by speaking about them, honestly, especially to the next generation who will thus literally carry on their memories in this world.
    And living Torah, kneged kulam.

  18. Parenthetically. David Ilan. Re the aliyathon.
    Since moving to Israel ten months ago, I feel I have been drinking in the land, absorbing it through my feet and pores, in my footsteps. Many people have ‘reminded’ me (especially after particular getting lost sprees,) that for every four steps I walk in Eretz Yisrael, I am “getting” a mitzvah. I don’t knowhat I am getting, but each time I am certain that they are not ‘getting’ it.
    Of course walking in EY is a mitzvah. Hashem told Avraham/us “kum hithalech ba’aretz…” “…kol ha’aretz asher atah roeh, lecha etnenah…” Whatchu see is whatchu ‘get.’ And I ‘get’ it each time I walk here.
    It IS a mitzvah. It’s not, you GET a mitzvah. It’s a being.
    I guess this ties back to the conversation at hand in that learning, mitzvah doing, thinking, remembering, perpetuating (pro and con), IS elevating to the dearly departed.
    It is not a Rube Goldberg machine. It’s an existence.

  19. Correction on 1 point:
    I wrote
    "In addition, the long-winded
    הוליכהו לבית רבו למקרא, בשעה שהוא אומר ברכו את ה' המבורך מעלין אותי מדינה של גיהנם
    Is suggestive it’s referring to the ברכו of קריאת התורה"

    That is obviously wrong as ברכו maybe always entailed reading afterwards, thus requiring הוליכהו לבית המקרא. Though it still doesn't preclude קריאת התורה as the custom was that the one who recites the blessing reads, as among Temanim today.

  20. AFA I recall, the earliest association of learning mishna for a neshama is the sidur attributed to the Ari z"l, R' Yitzchak Luria.

  21. For those who didn't see the Yosef Ometz inside, here is his loshon:
    ענין הקדישים וברכו ולמנצח וברכת המזון לאבלים ידוע שמעלים המה על ידי כן מגיהנם, ולהתפלל כל התפלה טוב יותר ויותר, אכן תיקון זה אינו רק לעמי הארצות אבל לימוד התורה מועיל שבעתיים מכל התפילה ועל ידי כן מכניסין המת לגן עדן, ואם הבן מחדש חדושי תורה אין ערך להכבוד שזוכה אביו על ידי כן בישיבה של מעלה, כן מוכח במדרש הנעלם דרות, לכן כל אבל על אב ואם יזדרז בהשתדלות גדול להרבות בלימוד כל מה דאפשר לו לפי חכמתו


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