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.
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!"