Thursday, May 24, 2018

"I Did It Because Of Him"

In previous posts, and in my essay on the subject, I argued that learning Torah is only a credit for a person if they were your parent or had an otherwise formative influence on you. As Rav Sherira Gaon says, "A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds. Even if all the righteous people in the world were to seek mercy for him, and all the righteous acts were to be done in his merit, it would be of no help to him." A large number of people had the same objection to this: If you learn on behalf of someone who died, then even if he was a random stranger, the fact is that you are only learning because of him. Surely, then, he should receive the credit for it!

In order to understand why this is problematic, let me ask you this: Because of whom does this blog exist?
Is it just because of me, or is it also because of other people?
Is it because of my father, who bequeathed to me an inquisitive mind, and a trait of speaking up for what you believe to be the truth even if it's unpopular?
Is it because of the Gedolim, who banned my books and drove me to want to expose the problems with charedi theology and society?
Is it because of the Kannaim, who manipulated the Gedolim into doing this?
Is it because of the people who created computers which made blogs possible?
Is it because of Pyra Labs, who developed the Blogger software?
Is it because of the people who read the blog, thereby giving me an audience to write for?

You could describe all kinds of people as being responsible, in some way, for the existence of this blog. But some are more meaningfully responsible, and others less so.
Now consider the following situation. Avraham Goldberg dies, and his son Yitzchak wants to arrange people to learn Mishnayos for him. And so the gabbai of the shul, Yankel, posts a sign for people to take masechtos. And the people who sign up include not only friends of Avraham but also Elisha Smith, who doesn't know either Avraham or Yitzchak, but recently joined the shul because his wife Ivanka likes the sisterhood and he's a nice guy who wants to be a part of the community. Who gets the credit for Elisha's learning? Avraham? Yitzchak? Yankel? Ivanka? Elisha's parents, who raised him to be a good Jew that does things for others? Elisha's teachers, who taught him how to learn? Elisha?

(And let's not forget about Shmeryl. Shmeryl is a mean guy who gets his kicks when people die. He goes out and punches people to celebrate. When he heard that Avraham Goldberg died, he went out and punched a little old lady. So does Avraham receive the de-merit for being the cause of Shmeryl punching someone?)
I think it's reasonable to say that while this particular learning session by Elisha was sparked in order to do something for Avraham, Avraham himself is only very minimally responsible for Elisha doing a good deed. He was the situational trigger by dying. There is nothing more than that. Elisha's good deed is much more a result of those who exerted a formative influence on him (and his own character).

Does this minimal share in the causation mean that Avraham should be credited for it? In human, earthly terms, it cannot be reasonably said that this is a credit to Avraham in any kind of meaningful sense. Nobody would say, "Wow, what a guy Avraham was - Elisha learned Mishnayos for him even though he had no idea who he was and only did it because he wanted to be part of the shul community and likes to do things for his community!" 

But what about in Heaven? Is there credit to his neshamah? Obviously, none of us can really know that. The best we can do is to talk about what classical Judaism says about such things. And the fact is that in Chazal, you never see such a thing. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, encountering a person who was suffering in the afterlife, wasn't himself able to do anything directly to help him - all he could do was find the person's son and convince the son to do mitzvos. And the Gaonim and Rishonim and early Acharonim who discuss these sorts of things, by and large, stress that there is only a concept of bra mezake aba, a child provides merit for the parent, and that this does not apply to other people. Extending this to teachers and others who, like a parent, exert a formative influence, is reasonable. Extending it beyond that, to a person whose share in your doing a mitzvah is just that he triggered it by dying, is much more problematic.

There are other benefits, however, to a Mishnayos siyum, which I overlooked in my previous post, and which were pointed out by a reader; I will discuss them in the next post.


  1. "In human, earthly terms, it cannot be reasonably said that this is a credit to Avraham in any kind of meaningful sense. Nobody would say, "Wow, what a guy Avraham was - Elisha learned Mishnayos for him even though he had no idea who he was and only did it because he wanted to be part of the shul community and likes to do things for his community!"

    Avraham doesn't have to be an inspirational figure in his lifetime to receive credit for Elisha's mishnayos. But yes, I think even in human terms, Avraham's death was the **primary** cause for the new learning of mishnayos to occur, just as your desire to spread your perception of truth is the **primary** cause for this blog.

    You're also making an extreme case to bring out your point, of an ADD Elisha eager to jump on any chesed opportunity that comes his way. From personal experience, I'm not super eager to do mishnayos for someone, but when I see a sign for a niftar, I try to sign up to help out another neshama who has more more chances to help himself. His need for merit is the motive for my learning.

    1. Considering that you are not super eager to learn Mishnayos, the fact that you nevertheless do so means that you are a very nice person. It's a great credit you and to those who made you what you are.

    2. Yes - Them as well. Let's not lose the forest in the trees though. The printer manufacturer doesn't come into the main lens for sign-up sheet credit. It's me, those who influenced me, and the need of the niftar.

      פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) רות פרק ב
      תני בשם ר' יהושע יותר ממה שבעל הבית עושה עם העני, העני עושה עם הבעל הבית, לפי שמזכהו לחיי העולם הבא.

    3. But it doesn't say that the עני gets Olam Haba when people give him tzedaka!

    4. אלשיך שופטים פרק א
      או יאמר, כי יהודה אמר אתה עושה צדקה עמי, לכן אתה הוא העולה בזכותך, אך רוח הקדש צווחת כי נהפוך הוא, כי רב ***זכות*** מקבל הטובה, על דרך מאמרם ז"ל על נותן לרש (משלי כח כז) כי יותר ממה שבעל הבית עושה עם העני העני עושה עם בעל הבית

  2. What event ever has just one cause? Your "Or"s create a false impression that identifying one cause eliminates another.

    If someone inspired me to learn Torah, then that is something he did in his lifetime that goes into who he was and how his soul was assessed.

    If someone inspired their son / student to not only learn, but to organize others to learn, if they inspired that son to be the kind of person other people would join in such an effort to make a siyum, that too is the products of who the niftar was, and would be zekhuyos in his soul's assessment.

    The necessary presence of other causes in order for the learning to have happened doesn't take away from this niftar having been the kind of person and had done the kind of things that created the causes they did.

    IOW, I don't think someone whose son learned in their memory is any better off than someone whose son didn't, through no fault of the niftar. But the son who relies on this "no fault of dad's" reasoning to cop out wasn't as inspired, and it could be implying the dad wasn't the same person as had he riased a son who didn't cop out. Or, maybe the difference in how the soul turned out was beyond the dad's control in reality.

    The same is no more nor any less true if they inspired me to do chessed. I didn't understand the prior post at all. The fungibility of zekhus implied by one is no less implied by the other.

    And neither require this fungibility as an explanation anyway.

  3. from this medrash we can see if you unintentionally cause a good deed it is a merit.

    According to classical rabbinical literature, because Judah had proposed that he should bear any blame forever, this ultimately led to his bones being rolled around his coffin without cease, while it was being carried during the Exodus, until Moses interceded with God, by arguing that Judah's confession (in regard to cohabiting with Tamar) had led to Reuben confessing his own incest.[24]

    1. I.e. Judah had been a source of inspiration for Reuben.

    2. yes you are right. (as usual!)

  4. You insistence on referring to "the credit" for learning is a tactic to make you detractors seems silly. No one has ever argued that when I learn, someone else will get "the credit." Of course the primary beneficiary of my learning is myself. The point that I, along with others, have made, is that there are sources that indicate there is SOME sort of benefit to someone who caused me to learn that Mishna. My parents benefit, my teachers, my wife, the grandson of the niftar that asked me to learn, and yes, the fellow that died. To use the legal term, they are all the "actual cause" of my learning. But-for each one of them, I would not have learned the mishnayos.

    Go look at the quote from RMF you posted the other day. This is the exact point he made.

  5. Suggestion: Yitzchak arranges the learning, and is thus מזכה את הרבים. Skipping the part about אין חטא בא על ידו, you get, paraphrasing Pirkei Avot, יצחק זיכה את הרבים, וזכות הרבים תלוי בו. So Yitzchak has done a great Mitzvah in driving all this Talmud Torah. Yitzchak is Avraham's son, and then you have bara mezakeh abba. This explanation supports your contention, Rabbi Slifkin, that the mechanism of zechut can only reflect on the parents through the child, and it also justifies the common custom according to it without needing to assert that unrelated people's mitzvot can in some way benefit a niftar.

  6. The answer is simple. Ivanka gets all of the credit. Bigly.

  7. I think that you're reading too much into why people learn mishnayot.

    I agree with you that when people pay total strangers in a kollel to learn for a relative, and the Kollel keep learning their regular seder, but add the name of the total stranger to the list at the back of the beit Midrash I don't understand the purpose of it (other than to raise money for the Yeshiva, which the family could have achieved by making a donation to the Yeshiva in Grandpa's memory and left the learning out of it).
    Same would be true hiring a total stranger to say Kaddish (as opposed to giving money to the institution in memory of someone, which I think is positive thing)

    However if I go to a shiva Minyan, particularly if I have a close relationship with the mourner ofR the deceased, and there is a sign up she for Mishnayot, I normally try to add my name to the list in memory of the departed.
    I have no idea why I do this, it never occurred to me that this action could CHANGE the fate of the Nishama Post-Mortem (even if I say something like Iloy Nishmat Yankel ben Shamkel before learning), rather I think it is a nice way to honour someone, it may also make the person sitting Shiva feel better to know that other people are thinking of him and are doing something in memory of his late father.

    I think that even if people use expressions like "May his Nishma have a Aliya" (which is an American expression which I never really understood) I don't think most people give it much thought or meaning, rather they just want to say the right thing and hope that it will make the mourner feel a little better knowing that others care.

  8. But we do find in Chazal censure of certain figures who (sinned and) caused others to sin. Chazal did place some responsibility on those who caused others to act in a certain way.

  9. Rabbi i feel like thease are things that are beyond us, how are we suppose to hashems calculation on who has influenced us in our life and what people have done for us/insipired us that *Directly* could have caused us to do our actions, that only hashem knows but i think its pretty safe to say that yes elisha's actions were to a pretty significant degree caused/inspired by avraham, i agree/understand that if elisha was going to read the mishnayot anyway because of other reasons and he said ok ill just do it leiluy nishmat avraham , that of course avraham didnt cause it, but what are you trying to say here rabbi?, that its a percentage game to calculate how much percent influence of the actions each part had? like yeah the guy who bought the pens for the sign up sheet and who printed the mishnayot didnt cause anything they would have just got it from somewhere else, but this guy actually learned a masechet of mishnayot

  10. Is that quote from Rav Sherira Gaon in his famous Iggereth? If so, where is it found (want to look it up)?

  11. Alternative AngleMay 24, 2018 at 10:44 PM

    "But what about in Heaven? Is there credit to his neshamah? Obviously, none of us can really know that. The best we can do is to talk about what classical Judaism says about such things. And the fact is that in Chazal, you never see such a thing. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, encountering a person who was suffering in the afterlife, wasn't himself able to do anything directly to help him - all he could do was find the person's son and convince the son to do mitzvos. "

    If only you stopped after the third sentence! How is "classical Judaism" the best way to figure out what happens to souls after they die (or whether they even exist at all)? Out of all the philosophical and religious works in the world, how are the books you deem "classical Judaism" the best? And which books are they anyway? You've already agreed that the Jewish religion of 3,000, 2,000, and 1,000 years ago all differ and differ with contemporary Judaism as well; in fact, that's your very problem. So what is classical? If we analyze the biblical refaim, located in sheol, and determine that the biblical conception was different that yours, will the bible be trumped as well? The chassidim and kabbalists going back hundreds of years, and in works now regarded by observant Jews as "classical," obviously disagree with your ideas about the rules of the afterlife. Here's the problem for a self-described rationalist: no one rationally knows anything about any of this. It's all imagination, and the arizal's imagination is at least as good as R' Sherira gaon's. Somehow, paradoxically, Modern Orthodox people who consider themselves rationalists tend to believe that people who lived a longer time ago are more capable and authoritative than those who lived more recently. Well, at least as long as those earlier people had MO beliefs.

    1. Naturally, the more recent the rabbi the less likely his ideas have genuine sources in Judaism. If you find a custom that has a recent source but not an ancient one it is either because it was a great secret or it was made up.

    2. Alternative AngleMay 25, 2018 at 7:39 PM

      I'm not sure R' Slifkin buys into great secrets. It does seem that he has a problem with "made up" religion because it wastes people's money and talents, but that's only if it was made up recently. If it was made up a long time ago then it's "classical" and not a waste of money and talents.

  12. impressive essay in which you quote widely. I was just wondering how you come to all the sources. did you stumble on one source which led you on to others or what.

    basically I would be interested in the evolution of this report?

  13. 1) Not sure why the chesed siyum is exempt from your critique.

    2) I don't generally put my name on mishnayos sheets. I do so only rarely - only for those people who were very close to my family or me. And even for these, I do so more out of guilt ("How can I not considering...?"). So doesn't the person get some credit? I don't learn Torah for just anyone, only those people I really liked or feel indebted to for one reason or another.

    You might say my parents deserve credit for me feeling this way. Possibly. Or my school. Or Hashem. But again, as others pointed out, I would have never learned any mishnayos at all if not for me feeling indebted to the meis. And it's the meis's character or good deeds that often makes me feel indebted to him or her. That should count for something.

    Just like the number of people at a levaya is a tribute to the meis, shouldn't the number of people who wish to learn in a meis's memory be a tribute to him or her?

    (But now you will ask: What about a stranger signing up?... I need to think more. :))

  14. Although we can adduce instances where people learn mishnayos because of their bond with the niftar, I also recall a case where a person divided mishnayos up among people, to finish by the שלשים. When he understood that people who signed up were not going to finish in time, he donated money a yeshiva that would ensure that the mishnayos would be finished by the designated date.

    I'm sure that Rabbi Slifkin would criticize this on two counts: 1) The yeshiva students are so far removed from having any relationship with the niftar, the level of "זכות" is already questionable, and 2) it should be immaterial whether the mishayos are learned within 30 days after the person's passing, or later than that.

    Perhaps if a son of the deceased had a minhag to fast on his parent's yahrzeit, and he needed the siyum to exempt him from the fast, there would be significance in finishing by a certain date.

  15. In the comments of the original essay, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?", Danny Schoemann commented that from Chagiga 15b, it appears that the Rabbis wanted to gain atonement for R. Elisha ben Avuya after he died, and couldn't do so.

    However, the Gemara there says Rabbi Yochanan said that, when he'll pass away, he'll succeed in gaining atonement for "Aher". And indeed, upon Rabbi Yochanan's passing, the smoke rising from R. Elisha ben Avuya's grave stopped, indicating that atonement was achieved.

  16. According to your logic with the chessed siyum, if the niftar had a reputation for being a ben torah or if one is inspired by the type of person the niftar was, then learning would be a proper zechus li'iluy nishmaso, just like you said for chessed.

    In essence, all I believe you are saying is that you think chessed is a more important mitzvah than learning torah as you suggested with you first reason.

  17. IMHO there is nothing wrong with saying Mishnayos “for” a deceased whom one does not know or giving Tzedaka to a Yeshiva to encourage “Gadol” whom you do not know to say a tefillah “on your behalf”. There may even be SOME benefit to the deceased and yourself respectively. Another commenter already mentioned the “but for cause.” Rather the point is - is that time/money BEST spent in those endeavors or are there any better uses of same. Is there a cause that needs the money more or would better utilize the funds? Is there a Chesed that could be done during that time that would help others more and be of more honor to the deceased?

    In short, it’s not that mishnayos/tehilim/tefilot are completely ineffectual, but perhaps there are other things to do that simply would be more effectual if done because you or the deceased were the inspiration for it.

  18. I completely agree.

    Learning on behalf of someone (especially if you publicly declare this on a sign-up sheet) is giving honor to the deceased and his family - they see all of the people in the community coming together to show their respect by learning mishnayot. And that is a good thing.

    But those who take the next step and say that this is a benefit to the deceased himself are, IMO (and yours, I believe) are fooling themselves.

    Unless, perhaps, you were actually influenced by the deceased to do this. Maybe because he taught you how to learn mishnayot. Especially if you decide to do this on your own, not because others asked it of you. But that's not the situation under discussion here.

  19. Hi Rabbi, I apologize if this has already been covered but putting aside learning mishnayot specifically it would seem from Chazal that one is able to positively effect the soul of a person who has died. It is my understanding that this is part of what saying kaddish is about. Moreover Kiddushin 31b teaches that a person should state that any difficulties he experiences should serve as an atonement for his deceased father. Furthermore, the gemarah there continues, one should offer his deceased parent (and others) the blessing of zichrono l'bracha l'chayei olam haba which does not seem to be empty words, but rather a halachic obligation (SA YD 240:9) as a form of honor. Given that all other forms of honor discussed involved some form of benefit to the parent I would assume that this blessing provides similar benefit after death.

    Perhaps it can be argued that these benefits can only be effected by the children of the deceased, but the Shulchan Arucb (YD 242:28) codifies a similar idea for one's teacher. As such I don't see why, minimally, one cannot offer a blessing and/or offer to absorb some of the atonement of any deceased person.


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...