Monday, February 10, 2014

What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?

When someone passes away, there are often calls to learn Torah or do mitzvos on their behalf. But can anyone do this on their behalf, or only certain people? And does this actually benefit them - and if so, in what way?

In a memorial lecture that I delivered in New York two weeks ago for my mother-in-law, Anne Samson ע"ה, I dealt with this topic. It is a topic which strongly relates to the differences between rationalism and mysticism, and has other serious ramifications, which I shall discuss in future posts. You can download a write-up of the lecture in PDF format at this link. Comments are welcome.


  1. 1)Nice to see the author of Sefer Hasidim drafted as a rationalist on this issue but I don't think he will make the cut.

    2)Rambam does not know of the mourner's Kaddish; in his time it was developing in France and Germany.


  2. I didn't say that Sefer Chassidim was a rationalist. You don't have to be a rationalist to reject the notion that reward for mitzvos can be arbitrarily transferred to any person. Before the 19th century, that was the universal view.

    (Also, please use a pseudonym when posting comments, if you don't want to use your real name for some strange reason.)

  3. Your lecture was very beautifully and clearly presented. For another "rationalist" opinion on the subject, here is what Shadal had to say:

    "The dead are not prayed for, because it is believed that God rewards or punishes everyone according to his actions, not according to those of any other person. I can pray for my sick child, because his death or illness affects me as well; it is not so for my deceased father, because he must be treated according to his own merits, and his punishments that are unknown to me do not affect me. Nevertheless, some ancient
    Rabbis taught that leaving behind a well-raised and pious child is
    ascribed by God to the parent’s merit, and thus the prayers and
    good works of the child are of benefit to the parent’s soul. And this doctrine is most praiseworthy for its salutary effects." (From a letter to Giuseppe Almeda, 1839; my translation as published in Hakirah vol. 10.)

  4. Informative and interesting

  5. I think what this essay represents yet another reason to dump the rationalist vs. mysticism dichotomy as an organising principle of Jewish intellectual history.

    Half an hour ago I was hungry, so I made a sandwich. I did so because I have found sandwiches to satisfy my hunger in the past and this accords with my understand of human nutritional needs. You could say I take a "rationalist" approach to eating, I would say I am just a normalish kind of person. On the other hand, if, upon noticing I was hungry, I muttered some incantation and rubbed a lucky charm, I think it would be correct to label me not as a mystic, but as an idiot or, giving me a bit more credit, a witch.

    That's what the dichotomy is really about Judaism vs. idiocy and witchcraft. Mysticism is about training the mind to experience the divine, it has nothing to do with segulah wines and made-up angelic names. The mass Jewish apostacy since the age of the Rambam is an interesting historical phenomenon to trace, and this essay represents one piece of the puzzlem but it has nothing to do with mysticism vs. rationalism.

  6. In the mishnayos distributed in houses of mourners, ל"ע, (the visitors take one volume and learn it, to finish mishnayos by the shloshim) I notice that Rav Eliyahu Gutmacher's "Sukkat Shalom" is cited at the end, as saying that it is important to state before learning the mishanyos that you're doing it in merit of the deceased.

    Another point: Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Siman 26:22) brings the Zohar, in support of saying that the children of the deceased honor their parents by going in the proper path. I guess that's another non-rationalist text supporting the rationalist approach.

  7. Very interesting but noteworthy for the fact that Kaddish for the deceased - which cuts across all "party" lines is not mentioned

    Moishe A

  8. Kaddish is not related to doing something for the deceased. It's about the mourner accepting God's justice.

  9. Granted - but it has metamorphosised in people's minds and hearts- and not just the ignorant- to the point where aveilim fear that they are doing untold harm to the deceased if they miss a Kaddish

    Moishe A

  10. The saying of Kaddish is understood as doing something for the dead person based on the story told about Rabbi Akiva. As a child couldn't daven for the amud, an orphan was given the oppurtunity to say the kaddish after Aleinu as it was an extra kaddish. The custom spread from amongst the ashkenazim to most of the jewish communities today. To the point that it has turned into the focus of mourning. On the other hand, there is no Mourner's kaddish among the Yemenites who still follow the yemenite tradition.

  11. Perhaps the best thing we can do is wish them speed on their journey

    Beyond the flood Someone draws near
    Who always loved you more than I.
    Then go to greater joy, my dear
    Don't wait for me when you die.

  12. You could have hammered home the point about descendants only by quoting the entire maamer chazal.

    ברא מזכה אבא

    ואין אבא מזכה ברא

  13. When a person dies all that is left is the soul, there is no physical body remaining. The soul therefore does everything through thought.

    When one does mitzvos/good deeds as an expression of love for the benefit of a departed loved one, because of the bond and love they have for each other, that departed soul can and will share the thoughts of the mitzvos performed on its behalf.

    It has been said that God gives reward for even only the performance of a mitzvo in thought, even if the mitzvo was not physical performed.

  14. Personal note:
    That is part of a poem my wife wrote when I was diagnosed with a very advanced tumor. Thank G-d it was cured. Reading the piece is still...daunting.

  15. (Wishing you good health, Dan)

    R' Natan, this is very timely, as this week I am preparing a public Dvar Torah for my father's yahrtzeit.

    I suppose that according to this, the Torah that I put together and that other people learn does accrue to him ... whether it is honor, or memory, or some form of Nachas in Olam HaEmet. We can call it "iluy nishmat" without accepting the technical mystical ideas of being able to influence the status of a soul after death. Hanistarot laHashem Elokeinu, but learning Torah is a good thing, and if people learn a little more Torah because they wish to remember and honor a person they held dear, then all the better...

  16. Personal note:
    That is part of a poem my wife wrote when I was diagnosed with a very advanced tumor. Thank G-d it was cured. Reading the piece is still...daunting.

    May you re-read in good health until 120, thank God.

  17. Very informative -- thank you for this article!

    Here's another way to think about this issue. The Gemara includes exampels of praying for the dead, so that should establish that praying for the deceased can have a positive effect on them.

    But is there a special limit to what kinds of prayers Hashem can answer? For example, let us say I recite some tehillim or do a mitzvah, and then I pray to Hashem, asking him to transfer the merit of that act to a deceased person.

    Who is to say that, in Hashem's great compassion, He cannot and never would answer such a selfless request? We cannot transfer our sins to others (as one of the sources you cite says), but that is different -- because it would be selfish, and inconsistent with G-d's attributes of justice and mercy.

  18. "Who is to say that, in Hashem's great compassion, He cannot and never would answer such a selfless request?"

    "Who is to say it"? The Geonim and Rishonim said it. You can ask Hashem to have compassion on the person. But you can't ask Him to transfer your relationship with Him to someone else. That's a logical impossibility.

  19. It's not a logical impossibility -- any more than the belief that the death of a tzaddik atones for a generation is (Moed Katan 28a; Yoma 42a). The nation does not deserve atonement for its own acts, but somehow receives it from the death of a worthy person.

    If one person's suffering (or even that of the scapegoat in Vayikra 16) can atone for that of another under some circumstances, then why couldn't one's mitzvah spiritually benefit another person?

    In any case, I see no logical or hashkafic proof that Hashem absolutely cannot regard merits as fungible and transfer them from one person to another, as an act of mercy or in response to prayer.

    Also, isn't Hashem more likely to answer the prayers of a righteous person? (Succah 14a). So if doing a particular mitzvah increases that's person's righteousness in G-d's eyes, then perhaps it could improve the person's ability to have his prayer (for compassion on the deceased person) granted? This is an alternative mechanism, I suppose, for the merit of one person to transfer to another, if the compassion Hashem has on the person is increased by the amount the mitzvah increase the prayer's righteousness.

  20. I hear what you are saying, but the Geonim and Rishonim were clear as to their views.

  21. Another thought: what about the phrase "may his merit protect us," said after mentioned a tzaddik? Is this a recent invention? If not, this seems like additional evidence that one can person can benefit from another's relationship with G-d.

    I reviewed the prayers for before and after saying tehillim in the Artscroll Tehillim. Interestingly, although the prayers invoke the merit of King David (as in "may his merit protect us"), the prayers do not explicitly say, may you heal so-and-so or give a neshama an aliyah in the merit of these tehillim. Perhaps the ideas about transferring merit were not popular yet when that prayer was written -- further evidence for your thesis.

  22. Death as an atonement is not what is being discussed.

    I have been known to respond tartly to people who tell me "the neshomo should have an aliya" on my father's yohrzeit, or to ask them what they think they mean by that. I haven't had much by way of credible responses. In any event, if everybody "moves up a level" on the anniversary of their death, what precisely have they gained?

  23. It's not a logical impossibility -- any more than the belief that the death of a tzaddik atones for a generation is (Moed Katan 28a; Yoma 42a). The nation does not deserve atonement for its own acts, but somehow receives it from the death of a worthy person.

    Yishai - that's not so problematic. The mechanism seems fairly clear: the generation has suffered a grave loss - far more so than, for example, an individual's loss in getting into a car accident and totaling their car. Thus, the loss of a tzaddik is, essentially, yissurim for the entire generation, and yissurim are mechaper.

  24. Did Rambam mention that mourners shouldn't recite kaddish or he just doesn't mention it because the practice didn't exist in his time and place. If the latter he may not have a philosophical problem with it as a reflection on kiddush hashem which the mourner is in a unique position to lead the community in thinking about, and therefore would not be a source against those who have the custom today?

  25. Dan - that's some pretty powerful writing. Would you consider posting either the rest of that poem, or any other of your wife's work?

  26. I don't know if this has been mentioned before, but what about the gemara in brachos in which Shmuel ascends above and see the amora Levi sitting outside of the yeshiva shel maalah, being punished for all the years he didnt attend Rav Alfeis' yeshiva I believe, to which Shmuel responds to his father, if I am so great then let Levi into the yeshiva shel maalah. It would seem from this that the prayers for another do work even after their death.

  27. This topic was posted on the very day that Bais Yaakov in Baltimore announced a new program, in which one can dedicate that day's tefilot by the girls in honor or in memory of someone for a price, as (yet another) way to raise funds for the school.

    So the question is: if one "gives away" one's personal zechuyot on behalf of another by davening for that person, do we have the "right" and can we really "give away" the personal zechuyot of these girls who are told to dedicate that day's davening to ploni? I understand the concept if one is volunteering to do this on behalf of another, but what if the davener didn't volunteer?

  28. See Rashi on Succah 20a (d"h hareini kaparas).

    Besides, there is no reason that the notion that being the cause of good things creates merits ends when the soul leaves the body. And this applies whether the good deeds are done by a child, student, or other (although it could be argued that causing good deeds to be done automatically means being classified as "teacher").

  29. שראל שליסלMarch 2, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    א מחבר ספר סוכת שלום הוא לא רבי ישראל גוטמכר אלא אליהו, על שמו קיבוץ שדה אליהו. ב התשובה של רב הי גאון מדובר על מכירת זכיות וחלק בעוה"ב תמורת כסף בחיים ולא לעילוי נשמה.
    ג נראה שאדם עושה מצוה בגלל הנפטר זה זכות לנפטר ש'גרם' למצוה לכן אולי מועיל גם אם לא צאצאיו או תלמידו ישרות. ד יש סיפור על הט"ז, שחי לפני סוכת שלום, שבא אישה ובאמצע שיעור ובכתה שבנה חולה והוא ענה שמה יכול לעשות הרי אינו רופא? היא אמרה לא לך אני פונה אלא לתורה שבך. ענה הט"ז אם כן אני נותן לו את שכר הלימוד של השיעור ומיד הבריא. זה מובא בהרבה מקומות, לאחרונה ראיתי את זה בתוספות בסוף נפש החיים. ישר כח על פתיחת הנושא ללימוד. ישראל שליסל

  30. Excellent, fascinating article. Is it possible that the citation from the Sefer Chasidim (101) is an error? I can't seem to find that text in my copy; 101 is about kavod of a sefer Torah. Would love to see the text inside. Thanks!

  31. There's also the Gemara in Chagiga 15b that relates how the Rabbis couldn't help "Acher" after he died - despite really wanting to.

  32. Is a dead parent’s neshama like a pin ball?
    Or a glob of virtual matter in a computer game, that dislodges from a wall
    And moves a step higher at our click?
    Bounces to higher and higher numbers, setting off flashing lights?
    Each time their child learns with intent, makes a Kiddush, gives Tsedaka,
    Says Kaddish, performs a special mitzvah ---
    Does that cause that neshama to have an aliya?
    To reach impossible heights?
    Is it a trick?
    Do we have that control?
    Can we truly enhance the fate of that soul?
    Can we send that neshama mi-chayil el choyil?
    (Or, perhaps, if we fail, even cause it to fall? )
    It seems a bit strange, don’t you think
    That we can cause it to rise – and maybe to sink?
    That after all those years of parenting, of nurturing
    Their final ascent would be cast in our hands?
    How can we understand?
    Who gave us the right to fly that kite?

    Perhaps it is our own neshama that we guide
    Perhaps our parent’s neshama will choose to come along on that ride
    Perhaps a gentle soul smile will shine upon us in our deed
    For nurturing the blossom for which they planted the seed

    Our response is important, respect and devotion
    To honor our dear ones with deeds and emotion.
    We pray those neshamot will not float alone
    Ribono shel Olam, please welcome them home


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