Thursday, May 17, 2018

BOOYAH!!!

Booyah!!! Or, to use the more traditional terminology, Baruch shekivanti.

I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, due to two things that happened.

First was regarding the article that I published in England's Jewish Chronicle, in which I criticized those who were condemning Israel's action on the Gaza border. My particular target was an article by Daniel Sugarman which had appeared in that newspaper the previous day. Several people had said that I was wasting my time writing such things, since Israel-haters are not going to be swayed by any arguments. But I felt that some people criticizing Israel were not haters, but simply misinformed and ignorant of the situation. Well, today, Daniel Sugarman retracted and apologized, citing the arguments that I had made as one of his reasons! This shows that it is indeed worthwhile putting in effort to publicly defend Israel.

The second thing that happened relates to a topic that I have been busy with for some time. A few years ago, I grew suspicious of the popular notion that you can learn Torah l'iluy nishmas whoever you name, and transfer spiritual benefit to them. It seemed to me that there was no framework for such a notion in classical Judaism, which only allowed for this to work for one's ancestors and teachers. In an article that I published on this topic, What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?, I posited that organizations such as Chevra Lomdei Mishnah, and books such as The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah, were distorting the true picture, notwithstanding their marketing themselves as Torah scholars.

Of course, there were people who dismissed this as typical Slifkin apikorsus. And even I myself was wondering why nobody else was pointing this out. (Although I did suspect that this was because this fabricated concept is an excellent source of income for yeshivas and kollels.)

Then a friend told me that when he was studying in the yeshivah of the famous Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky in Jerusalem, a student once asked if Rav Kushlevsky could dedicate that day’s lecture to elevate the soul of his grandmother. Rav Kushlevsky replied that this was impossible; while his delivering the lecture would be a credit to his own grandmother, there was simply no way by which to transfer that credit to someone else’s grandmother, who had no role in enabling the lecture to take place.

Yesterday, something else came to light. Reader Yonason Rosman showed me that yet another distinguished rabbinic authority stated this - none other than Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz"l! Here is the quote, from Mesoras Moshe, a work compiled by his grandson and reviewed by R. Shmuel Fuerst:
Rabbi Rivlin requested that I ask our Rabbi if there is an advantage to declare, when fulfilling a mitzvah, that the mitzvah is in memory of the soul of one's parents, or if there is indeed any such notion of expanding upon the principle that "a son provides merit for his father."
And our Rabbi responded that this is a very difficult thing to know. For how is it relevant to sell, to transfer the merit for a mitzvah that one does, to someone else? And simply speaking, that which we say, when learning Mishnayos in memory of someone, that it is for their merit, does not refer to the actual [reward for the] mitzvah, for the actual reward is received by the one doing the studying. Rather, it is that since this [deceased] person is the cause that this person is studying, then he receives credit for it. And this is the standard concept which exists with a child, that all his deeds are the consequence of his parents - and thus it does not appear possible to add to this reality. But this is not a clear matter - perhaps there is a concept within Kabbalah regarding this, and it requires further investigation.

In other words, there is no such thing as doing a mitzvah on behalf of someone else. The most that you can say is that if the person is the cause of your doing a mitzvah - such as with a parent, who is the cause of your existence and education - then they receive credit for being the cause. Beyond that, there is no way to transfer the reward or credit for a mitzvah to somebody else. Unless there is some sort of unknown kabbalistic concept - which would go against normative rabbinic and logical thought.

It's nice to see that other people have reached the same conclusion as me. But don't expect to see this quote from Rav Moshe Feinstein appear on the website of Chevra Lomdei Mishnah, or in the next edition of The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah. It's not good for business.

Meanwhile, the lesson is, strive for truth, and when you have sufficient reason to think you've found it, don't be afraid to say so - and if you have indeed discovered the truth, then you're probably not the first to do so!

62 comments:

  1. Sammy Finkelman quoted the following, in Rabbi Slifkin's recent post:

    The New York Times wrote: "At 5:30 p.m., shortly after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza, organizers who had been urging people toward the fence all day suddenly began shooing them away, and the day’s action quickly subsided."

    They should have bombed something in Gaza that hamas cared about from the beginning."

    Does anyone have any reliable information as to what brought such an abrupt stop to all the rioting along the Gaza border? It doesn't seem it would be just due to Hamas achieving their aims of making Israel look bad, or being persuaded to stop by Egypt.

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  2. Actually, Rav Moshe's answer is a little more subtle. You can't give away the merit for the underlying mitzvah. But there is merit in causing someone else to do a Mitzvah, so if you are learning specifically because that other person motivated you do so, then that secondary merit is attributed to them and this is the real meaning of the words "This learning in for the merit of Ploni". (I think that you had something similar in your monograph, but I wanted to point out the subtlety here).

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    1. If you're learning specifically due to the influence of the deceased, then I think you would be correct. I think Rabbi Slifkin is referring to common cases where learning is done for someone unknown to the one studying. e.g. You sign up to learn Mishnayot during Shloshim. Sometimes you sign up because you're friends with the deceased's children or grandchildren, sometimes just because you learn mishnayot anyway so you can help out, sometimes because the list is public and you don't want to be seen as not participating.

      It would seem that in cases above, saying the learning you're about to do is l'iloy nishmat .... is pointless.

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    2. Ri-i-ight, but Rav Moshe's comment does not seem to distinguish between a relative/teacher who influenced the surviving person to be one who learns to a random person who "causes" someone to learn merely by being dead. If someone has a clearer understanding of this, I apologize, and please let me know!

      Regardless, even in this understanding, there is a distinction: learning mishnayos for a specific Shloshim WOULD potentially "work" to accord merit to the decedent since this learning would not have happened otherwise. Dedicating a day's learning in yeshiva/kollel that one was going to do anyway would NOT "work" as there is no causal connection at all between the decedent and the learning.

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    3. Oops - it looks like this very distinction is discussed in the subthread a little lower on the screen...

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  3. I enjoyed the last line. This sounds like one of the traditional Litvishe responses to Kabbalah: there is something there, but it is not my area.

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  4. Well, good that he retracted, I suppose, though no one really cares what this person said in the first place. What he should really be ashamed of is his putting his trust in terrorists. His chief reason for apologizing was because Hamas admitted most of the people killed were terrorist operatives. And if they didn't admit it, he wouldn't have believed it? He needs Hamas to validate the IDF? Now that's something to be ashamed of.

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  5. In my opinion, you've totally misunderstood what R' Moshe was saying. He clearly states that learning l'ilui nishmas a niftar who is not a parent is a z'chus for the niftar since he is now the cause for this learning to have taken place. His understanding of the z'chus is as a cause for the mitzvoh being done but not the actual s'char of the mitzvah itself. This will apply to one other than his own parents as well. He therefore states that this concept always applies to a child who performs a mitzvah and therefore there is no reason to specifically say L'ilui nishmaso. Read the paragraph over and you will see that that is the intent.
    (The original question was only whether or not there is any added benefit by explicitly saying that this is L'ilui Nishmaso. Rav Moshe states that it is difficult to say that there is benefit added by that declaration since the s'char for the actual learning is not what is being transferred rather the z'chus of causing this to be learned and this causitive s'char is there regardless of it being said or not.)

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    1. No. The question (as can also be seen from the title of the section), was about whether you can do a mitzvah on behalf of your parents, i.e. make it as though they did it and they get the reward. And the answer is that no, there is no such thing as doing a mitzvah on behalf of someone else; there is only a notion that if someone is the cause of you doing the mitzvah, they have the merit of having caused it. Which exists with parents, and possibly also with other people who had a formative influence. But you can't stam transfer a merit to anyone.

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    2. I would also add that, from Rav Moshe's response, it seems that if the Shiur was going to take place anyway, there is no additional merit being generated for being the cause of the learning, and thus, just stating "l'ilui nishmas..." at the beginning really does nothing.

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    3. Alternative AngleMay 17, 2018 at 8:46 PM

      I'm with unknown. Read the paragraph; don't stop with the heading (which R' Moshe probably didn't write anyway). Zehus for others is a result of being gorem not on the etzem mitzva.

      What interests me more, though, is what "classical Judaism" is and what makes it definitive. Do you really still believe that Judaism of 3000 years ago, 2000, years ago, and 1000 years ago are all the same and "classical" but whatever people happen to believe today is somehow new and illegitimate? Such a charedi view of the development of religion from such a rationalist!

      Regarding Mr. Sugarman, I'm sure you've learned from your disagreements with charedim that it's a good sign of intellectual honesty when someone retracts a claim. Only fundamentalists and ignoramuses never change their minds. As an experiment for yourself, try to find some examples of people defending Israel suddenly discovering they were wrong about something.

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    4. "Do you really still believe that Judaism of 3000 years ago, 2000, years ago, and 1000 years ago are all the same and "classical" but whatever people happen to believe today is somehow new and illegitimate?"

      No, of course not. But things that are new should not be claimed as being traditional. And this thing is particularly pernicious, because it used to manipulate people out of their money (and out of doing genuinely meaningful things).

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    5. @Alternative

      Obviously Rabbi Slifkin should have written something like:

      The most that you can say is that if the person is the cause of your doing a mitzvah - such as with a parent, who is the cause of your existence and education - then they receive credit for being the cause.

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    6. R.S., I wrote the "Unknown" comment above. The title in this case reflects an area of interest within the Teshuva that the author saw as being if interest to the k'lal. His basic understanding is that you cannot perform a mitzva such as shaking a lulav or learning and transfer that to someone else. However the question that was posed in stated clearly in the first couple of lines. The question was whether there's any benefit or anything added in saying "Lzecher Nishmas.." or is it not necessary. He answers that in his understanding of the inyan it would not be necessary since the z'chus is due to being the cause which exists regardless. He's clearly not dismissing and even seems to be agreeing that there is a z'chus for the niftar, even if not his parents, if the learning or mitzvah is being done specifically for their z'chus since they are the cause of the learning. This Rav Moshe would strongly imply not like your stand that there is zero benefit to the niftar. I ask anyone to read the two paragraphs and judge for themselves but it's very clear and is distorting its meaning to say otherwise.

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    7. I'm not saying that there is no benefit to the niftar! I'm saying that the benefit is only when the niftar is the cause of the action.

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    8. And I looked at the words again, and again, and while I see how the terminology can be a little misleading, the focus is nevertheless on the kiyum hamitzvah. Can you be mekayem a mitzvah on behalf of someone else? No. You can only demonstrate that they have a merit, in being the cause of you doing it. Which is relevant to a parent, but to a random unconnected person.

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    9. Alternative AngleMay 17, 2018 at 10:12 PM

      Yes, but the point is that R' Moshe believes there IS zechus to a neshama when you learn mishnayos on its behalf. It's possible your personal belief that this is untrue leads you to believe R' Moshe is speaking specifically about a parent but he seems to be referencing the general minhag of learning lizecher nishmas.

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    10. "but the point is that R' Moshe believes there IS zechus to a neshama when you learn mishnayos on its behalf." NO! He believes that there IS zechus to a neshama when the neshamah is the CAUSE of you learning!

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    11. Alternative AngleMay 17, 2018 at 10:24 PM

      What's "manipulating" and what's "genuinely meaningful?" Who decides? You know it costs six figures a year in the states to live in an Orthodox neighborhood, keep kosher, and send your kids to an Orthodox school. Are we all manipulated? Or is that genuinely meaningful? Who decides - "classical Judaism?"

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    12. Alternative AngleMay 17, 2018 at 10:27 PM

      "NO! He believes that there IS zechus to a neshama when the neshamah is the CAUSE of you learning!"

      Yes, like the general minhag of learning mishnayos "lizecher mishehu."

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    13. Obviously I meant that you are saying that there is zero benefit to someone else other than a parent or teacher. But Rav Moshe is clearly saying to the contrary. Your position is based on the assumption that only an absolute gorem (cause) like a parent could be a beneficiary. But the basic and accepted understanding for being a gorem is much broader and includes learning being done as a merit for someone else, since he is now the cause of my current learning.
      You state with much conviction that there is no mechanism for benefiting an unrelated niftar. While that may be true in the case of transferring over the s'char of a mitzvah as though someone else performed it, which would be the same for parents as with unrelated people, the mechanism of a gorem which works for parents as a z'chus is the same mechanism that works for unrelated people if they now become the gorem of someones learning. Your entire point boils down to the definition of a gorem. But you have no sources to back your narrower definition as opposed to the accepted broader definition.

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    14. Exactly the problem. Frummies (broadly speaking) constantly expand the meanings of religious concepts until they come to mean something they never did and go from being good to being bad.
      Example: limmud Torah as a relatively limited original command becomes an all consuming occupation for all, resulting in society wide social ills.

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    15. @dovmw1,

      Why do you continue to ignore the words Rabbi Slifkin wrote the post we are commenting on?

      The most that you can say is that if the person is the cause of your doing a mitzvah - such as with a parent, who is the cause of your existence and education - then they receive credit for being the cause.

      You are in violent agreement with Rabbi Slifkin. Give it a rest.

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    16. It's just extremely far-fetched to say that random deceased person is any meaningful way the cause of your learning. And it goes against the straightforward understanding of the Midrash about how suffering person says that he will only gain atonement when his son studies Torah and says Barchu, and Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai finds the man’s son and makes it happen, whereupon the man enters Heaven. It was not an option for Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai to study Torah and thereby save the man from his suffering. The concept is expressed in the Gemara with the phrase “a son can grant merit to the father.” A son, not any random person.

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    17. Alternative AngleMay 18, 2018 at 5:44 PM

      We understand what you believe, and you are more than welcome to disagree with R' Moshe.

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    18. To be sure, I would disagree with him if I felt that I had to. However, in this case, I am not disagreeing with him.

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    19. It was not an option for Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai to study Torah and thereby save the man from his suffering.

      Perhaps just that the son does a more perfect job?

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    20. Chaim This point of yours opens up the discussion to a wider but directly related issue. If you can transfer merits by doing a mitzvah, then why would it only be possible to transfer those merits to dead people? Why not to alive people too? Is it possibly because that might be measurable ('all that learning and person X still died...') and might therefore prove that rewards can't be transferred?
      But isn't it telling that for years we don't do half as much learning of mishnayot for those who are alive as for those who are sick? I mean, it does happen now and again, but every every every day you hear of learning "le'ilui nishmas..."

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    21. Fozzie, I'm not sure what it was that I said that
      opened the discussion to the other issue. Anyway, I think that those who believe you can transfer merit to the dead believe you can also transfer merit to the living. CLM certainly does and explicitly offers merit for parnassa, shiduchim etc.

      On a practical level it's less common, and traditionally Mishnayos was only for the dead. Since the dead are being judged, plus that they can't help themselves, there's more of a feeling of urgency toward them than towards the living. This might be how the focus on the dead came into being.

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  6. While I agree that there is no mechanism for transferring the merit of mitzvot or torah study between total strangers, you however also agree that for ones parents or teachers some merit does accrue to them since they are responsible in some measure for ones deeds.

    Surely, then, Chevra Lomdei Mishnah's idea isn't quite as irrational as you make out. If a persons parents or teachers educated them to appreciate and value the performance of mitzvot (which have cosmic mystical consequences in the chareidi view, as you have pointed out in the past) and the study of torah (the most important mitzvah of all in their view), to the point that they are willing to part with their hard-earned cash to support the learning of these scholars, then surely some merit for the enormous "tikkun" this learning generates will accrue to them!

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    1. Getting credit for the Tzedakkah that enabled learning is not at all the same as getting credit for the learning itself.

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    2. According to Chareidim, it's not so simple. They have a story of an unlearned supporter of Torah who passed away and then came to a famous Lithuanian Kabbalist in a dream -- we're looking at what Chareidim believe, right? -- and was fluent in all the Torah that he had supported.

      Had he used his Tzedeakah money to support other causes this wouldn't have happened.

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  7. ....."a parent, who is the cause of your existence and education - then they receive credit for being the cause."
    Does this mean if an aveira (sin) was done then we the parents (teachers?) are looked upon and receive demerits?

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    1. For sure. One must take the chaff along with the wheat. As stated in Makos 10, if the student kills someone, the teacher must go into exile with him. The teacher must accept responsibility for the student's actions.

      Mind you, you never actually hear anyone say this, and its not just among us. "Success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan."

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    2. certainly a father is responsible (to some extent) for the sins of his children as long as they are under his influence. that's why a father makes the brocho "baruch shepatrani" when his son becomes independent. a rebbe doesn't make the brocho, presumably because one never develops independence from his rebbe.

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    3. Anonymous, you have, very succintly, pointed out just how messed up the frum world has become with its obsession with learning. One becomes free of one's father's influence, but not from one's rebbe, indeed. Could you BE more dysfunctional?

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  8. I was wondering - according to those who believe that you can arbitrarily and artificially transfer the merit for your mitzvah to anyone you like, can you do the same for the punishment for your aveiros?

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    1. הגם שאול בצ**ים?!? :)May 17, 2018 at 10:59 PM

      זכין לאדם שלא בפניו ואין חבין לאדם אלא בפניו

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    2. הגם שאול בצ**ים?!? :)May 17, 2018 at 11:08 PM

      Another question: can *you *accept punishment for *his aveiros?

      Answer: for starters, see Kidushin 31b and Rashi and Gilyon Hashas
      הריני כפרח משכבו. עלי יבא
      כל רע הראוי לבא על נפשו:

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    3. Well, the whole business about "poked avon avod al banim" and how it is in opposition to the passuk in Yechezkel "Ben lo yisa ba'avon ha'av" and how it is explained to mean if the child continues in the bad ways of the parent, then the child gets some of the punishment of the parent but otherwise each individual is not affected by others. While the focus of this drasha (actually, this seems to be pshat in Yechezkel so IDK why there was a s'tirah to begin with BID) is parents to children, the passuk in Yechezkel ALSO says "v'av lo yisa ba'avon haben" raising the possibility that there were people who believed this to be possible and/or that there are situations when it is true!

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    4. Whatever rationalists might think of it, the concept of A transferring merit to B has plenty of sources in tradition. From Day 1, Adam was busy giving 70 years of his life to a future David. We Jews have always been mercantile, so I suppose it can be viewed as an Assignment. If I can deed over to X my right to collect a cash payment, why cant I do the same with a merit I earned by doing a mitzvah?

      Punishment is probably viewed the same. Royalty used to have "whipping boys" to take the correction in place of the guilty (as in Twain's Prince & Pauper.) And in the awful Cantonist days, at least some wealthy Jews paid poor Jews to have their sons get conscripted instead of their own. I don't see why retribution would be viewed any differently by Jews. The reference to Kiddushin 31b above is a good one. If one can accept the concept of trading futures in the Olam Haba market, it should work on both the creditor and the debtor side.

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    5. 1) The "whipping boy" example is entirely or almost entirely myth. Anyhow, Judaism has plenty of examples of key figures, including "royalty", being punished by God and no notion of a "whipping boy".

      2) The fact that you can bribe your way out of a bad consequence from a human regime is evidence that you reassign divine punishment?

      The Midrash about Adam and David does seem to go against he thesis of this post. That one is a good point.

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    6. The point is that men tend to view the divine system of credits and demerits in the same way they view the temporal system. Thus, as credits can be transferred between accounts, one can also avoid a fine or punishment if he can find someone willing to accept it for him.

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  9. There is a lengthy response from Maharam Alsheker in which he explains that commandments credits can not be transferred. I saw the responsa but unfortunately I don't remember the number. Gemara Sota explicitly says that credits can't be sold and buyed, Maharam Alsheker adds that they can not be transferred for free of charge too.
    However he speaks about live person. No one in that epoch could imagine that credits can be contributed to a dead.
    Meanwhile the real source of the "iluy neshama" is clear: this is widely known concept of Roman-Catolic Church. Those who are interested may google for "purgatorium".

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    1. Yes, I discussed the Maharam Alashker in my essay.

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    2. "People often donated money to Tifereth Jerusalem so that Mishnayos would be learned in memory of the deceased. As time went on, the membership of the Chevrah Mishnayos, which had always fulfilled such requests, dwindled. This prompted Reb Moshe to set aside more time each day for the study of Mishnayos, which he dedicated to the memory of those for whom money had been donated."
      Reb Moshe by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman first edition page 109.

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    3. Well there you have it. I don't have the book in front of me but based on what was quoted by Richmond, Reb Moshe had people learning mishnayos l'ilui nishmasam and he did it himself. I hope Rabbi Slifkin will acknowledge that he understood the Reb Moshe in the sefer incorrectly.

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    4. Now Richmond's quote here is interesting. If this is true, then either R' Moshe believed such mishnayos to be efficacious, or he was a con artist. I know which option is certainly untrue (the latter btw).

      Although this quote seems to contradict Rabbi Slifkin's quote, the answer is simple, and supports what I said in my earlier comment. What R' Moshe says in Rabbi Slifkin's quote is that when learning mishnayos in the memory of "mishehu", meaning anybody even a stranger, they get some merit since their memory/inspiration or whatever, caused this torah to be learned. However, it is not the actual reward that is transfered, rather some merit for the causation. Therefore, concludes R' Moshe, it cannot be efficacious for just any mitzvah which one is required to have done anyway (except with regard to parents who caused ones entire existence). But he does NOT rule out the effectiveness of learning extra torah which would not otherwise have been learned, even for a stranger, since their memory is what caused it, or caused money to be donated for it, etc.

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    5. There is a difference between learning in memory of (l'zecher nishmas), and learning l'iluy nishmas. The former is applicable to anyone.

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    6. So please explain what learning "l'zecher nishmas" is supposed to achieve which learning "l'iluy nishmas" doesn't. And make sure it's a good enough explanation to justify R' Moshe taking money from people for it.

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    7. As I wrote in my essay:
      We can express our love towards them and honor their memory by creating a zecher, a remembrance, in this world. An honor in this world is not to be trivialized. God Himself, when addressing those who faithfully follow His will but are unable to conceive children, does not speak of their reward in the next world, but instead speaks of their yad vashem, monument and name, in this world:
      וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחוֹמֹתַי יָד וָשֵׁם טוֹב מִבָּנִים וּמִבָּנוֹת שֵׁם עוֹלָם אֶתֶּן לוֹ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִכָּרֵת: (ישעיה נו, ה)
      And I shall give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name, better than sons or daughters; I will give them an everlasting name, which shall not perish. (Isaiah 56:5)
      There are many different ways of remembering and honoring someone, but there are two aspects to providing the greatest honor. One is with regard to the objective value and extent of the honor. The second aspect is that the honor is made more meaningful if it is related in some way to the person who has passed away. Rashi refers to the Geonim as describing how on the anniversary of the passing of a great person, rabbis from all around would gather at his grave and give classes to the public. But instead of saying that this was done to elevate their souls, Rashi says that this was done to honor them.

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  10. It would logically follow that learning or giving tzedakah in the merit that someone, other than a parent, should have a refuah shelaimah is equally pointless, no?

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  11. Several years ago I was involved in planning my shul's Shavuot night learning program. In an effort to re-energize it, I decided that had to step up our food offerings through the night. To do that, we were going to need to raise some money. We divided the evening into 5 segments and sold 4 segments l'iloy nishmat, and 1 was bought by someone who wanted to dedicate it for a refuah shelaimah for his wife. The turnout that year was improved, and the advertised menu probably gets credit for some of that.

    Do the donors earn merit for their deceased parents only for having instilled their charitable nature? Does the mitzvot performed by others as result of the charitable giving they inspired in their own children have a residual return. (i.e. Without that inspired charitable giving the additional mitzvot would not have happened) How far would you logically extend the benefit of having caused a mitzvah?

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  12. But if you do a mitzvah to honor someone's memory or to help him spiritually, then that person IS the cause of you doing the mitzvah and thus should get spiritual credit, no?

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  13. Would this also apply for doing something for someones refuah?
    Because I seen people say do this or that for someone to get better

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  14. Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky is mentioned in your article. not sure what is new.

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  15. so he was not influenced by kemp. or maybe kemp was influenced by you !

    https://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/do-not-be-fooled-by-what-hamas-is-doing-gaza-israel-1.464324

    I was a soldier for 30 years, commanding troops in combat zones around the world. Watching the IDF in action I dug deep into my military knowledge and experience to find another answer to the horrific challenge they faced.

    There isn’t one that would work.

    And none of the politicians or armchair experts in human rights groups, the UN, EU or the media have come up with any viable solution despite their vehement criticism from air conditioned offices of the men facing the heat on the front line thousands of miles away.

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  16. another good source on gaza
    https://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/246157

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  17. You can only gain merit for someone else (to the extent that you can) if in fact the credit actually belongs to that other person.

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  18. I have not read all the comments but there seems to be a difference between learning something which you would not learn because of a deceased person and deciding that something you would be normally doing become a zechut for someone else. When it comes to parents a child automatically benefits them , he does not need to state this intention. Maybe you can't transfer the full benefits of the mitvah or learning itself , but for sure the deceased has been instrumental in you doing something positive

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