Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Value of Participating in a Mishnayos Siyum

A wonderful person that I am privileged to know, Mrs. Mollie Fisch of Teaneck, sent me a gentle critique of the post before last, in which I deprecated the value of making a siyum mishnayos for someone who has passed away. It's a fabulous piece, so I am posting it in its entirety:
Rav Natan, I like the idea of a chesed siyyum, and this is not the first time I have heard of something of this nature. 
But back to basics: please consider thinking about the whole tehillim-mishnayot situation from an alternate, and perhaps even a Rambam type perspective.
I think your motivation in dispelling the magical thinking of aliyat haneshama and direct intervention is at least partly propelled by your concern that some "charitable institutions" are convincing others to hand over money so that they will send a team of rabbinical students to pray until the walls cave in, to effect a change in someone's destiny, or push up someone's neshama to a higher realm.  Clearly, it is also important to you to present the truth of the matter as a scholar.  I sympathize with that effort, but I also think that your battering away at the issue so persistently may cause you to throw out the baby with the bathwater. 
From a scholarly standpoint going back to chazal, I recognize that my saying tehillim for a stranger or a friend does not really effect a magical cure or evoke the perfect zivug for a single. Saying mishnayot in someone's memory is not going to cause their neshama to bounce around. (You may recall that I once sent you a poem about the neshama as a pinball.)  But it does serve some very important purposes:
1. It makes me more sensitive to the people around me, makes me aware of the struggles we all face in life, puts my own life into perspective, and hopefully builds my character (much as the Rambam says about prayer) in a kedusha-laden atmosphere where I cannot help but know Who is really in charge.  It also says "kol Yisrael chaverim." Connection is very important, especially in troubling times.  To me, that's the real meaning behind "v'lo ra-iti tzaddik ne-ezav..." - connection leads us to engage in chesed.
2. For the needy person on the receiving end of tehillim, it says "You are not alone, someone cares enough about you to say tehillim on your behalf. You matter, your name is your identity, and even if our only connection is being two Jews, you are part of a community." That's a chizuk giving mechanism in itself, and who doesn't benefit from chizuk? 
3. If I commit to learning mishnayot for a friend's relative, or for my daughter in law's parent, it says to the survivor "You are not alone in this dark time. You may have lost your parent/child/spouse, but look at the people who are here for you to support you in your grief."  It also commits me to an additional act of "kovea itim" and gives me an opportunity to learn something new or at a deeper level. Again, it helps us both in life, regardless of its effect or lack thereof on the dead.
4. Good people want to DO SOMETHING POSITIVE and to be a part of the process.  They cannot perform surgery, turn back the clock, change the history of the moment, but they can do chesed, cook a meal, take care of the laundry or the kids -- and they can also pray/say tehillim/learn/ TO SHOW THEY CARE.  Nothing wrong with that, is there? It creates a zone of comfort for the patient/family/survivor that is very reassuring through a difficult process. I have been on the receiving end, and it is indeed helpful..
That's my message to you for today, not really a post, but if you find it of interest, feel free to use it in whole or part. 
And here is the poem that she sent me a few years ago:
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


  1. Tehillim for a list of names is surely meaningless, even bybthe most mystical of approaches. That is not נושא בעול, the people behind the names do not appear at all in the consciousness of the tehillim zager. When I get a tehillim chain call, I politely hang up the phone. And I am black hat charedi pro kollel cholov yisroel etc

    1. Let me try to understand this:
      There is a charity called Darchei Miryam, which assists cancer patients by arranging transportation to the hospital for treatments, etc. (My father-in-law, o.b.m., was a recipient of their chessed for quite some time.)
      Once a month, on מוצאי שבת מברכים, they print out a list of names of patients, and say tehillim at the Kotel. It's nearly impossible for someone to be familiar with all those names on the list. Does the rationalist approach here mean that saying Tehillim is only going to be effective if they are said for the people that we know personally?

      From the mishnah in Berachos, it certainly seems that Rabbi Chaninah Ben Dosa would get requests to pray for sick people. Would he have to know the case personally in order to pray for them?

    2. I never realized that any mysticism, let alone the most mystical mysticism, limited itself to נושא בעול. Thanks for the info.

  2. I disagree with her gentle critique. It reminds me of people who like religion because of what it does for them. But it only "does" it for them because they believe it's true. If I didn't believe saying Tehillim helped, why would I say it? If I didn't believe Hashem was listening, why would I daven? If I didn't believe that learning mishnayos was in some way honoring the deceased, why would I bother?

    1. Alternative AngleMay 25, 2018 at 7:53 PM

      I think you massively underestimate the degree to which "what it does for them" and their belief in it are intertwined. In fact, for many people it's so intertwined it happens entirely in the subconscious, and they go on imagining that they are two separate issues.

  3. The critique is nice in that it reminds us to be human. But it highlights how wrong we Jews have gone when we become more comforted by something that does nothing going rather than by good deeds.
    Similar to the comment made on another recent post by someone for who their relationship with their rebbe was more valued than with their father.

    We need to move back towards a more sane judaism.

    1. I agree.

      1) ושננתם לבניך, not לתלמדיך.
      2) “The hands that help are better far than lips that pray.” - Robert Ingersoll

  4. I think there’s another point missing in this whole discussion. Nobody is saying that learning Torah is a bad thing but this whole topic is just one example of the overemphasis our generation puts on learning Torah vs all of the other mitzvos (particularly bein adam l’chaveyro). Rav Slifkin has clearly demonstrated that the popular retort of “Talmud Torah Kneged kulam” is not meant literally and we have gotten away as a people from what Hashem really asks of us.

    In the Torah, there is but one line on learning Torah (not really even learning, but about teaching your children) and countless lines about doing chesed. Shouldn’t we act at least closer to that proportion?

    1. Especially when you consider that תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם appears after a list of specific מצוות. The idea that כולם is not limited to that list seems to be a later invention.

    2. Why trust Rabbi Slifkin's undertsanding of the mishna when the Gemara already explains it?

      רבי ברכיה ורבי חייא דכפר תחומין: חד אמר: אפילו כל העולם כולו אינו שווה אפילו לדבר אחד מהתורה; וחד אמר: אפילו כל מצוותיה של תורה אינן שוות לדבר אחד מהתורה

    3. Yuo have to look at the original context of Keneged Kulam in the Tosefta, which shows that it's not supposed to be understood as literally meaning that. See

    4. I notice in your article you do not cite the actual gemara on this statement (posted above), which seems to completely refute your contention.

  5. I think Mrs Fisch hit the nail on the head. Whether or not learning Mishnayot for the deceased does something for the Nishama, it definitely does something for the living, both the person learning, and for the family of the deceased

    1. Right.
      Chesed does even more, though.

    2. and ongoing lifestyle changes even more though. I remember one maspid saying that while all the hamakom yinacheim's etc. will be appreciated, if you really want to honor the nifteret, please take one facet of your life where your avodat hashem could stand improvement and raise the level of your game there.
      Joel Rich

  6. While I agree, and even find meaningful, Mrs. Fisch's approach to learning for deceased strangers, I would just point out that her approach sounds very much in line with Rabbi Harold Kushner's entire thesis regarding the effect of communal prayer for sick people, in general. Namely, that it is more about showing those close to the ill person that we care and want to support them, than about actually helping to cure the ill person.
    I'm not sure how comfortable many people in the Orthodox community would be with that approach to prayer...

    1. Well regardless of whether prayer works in other ways, it definitely has that value. But I think the R Slifkin’s point is about zechus transfer. Praying for someone is invoking the zechus is the prayer not the “prayee”.

  7. Beautiful response/critique. I feel the same way.

  8. The picture is proof that your dangerous approach to this issue leads to mixed dancing.

  9. Bingo! This is what I've said a few times here (but worded far better than I ever have). That all the learning and charity and mitzvot that people do on behalf of the deceased is fundamentally for the benefit of those of us he leaves behind.

    This should never be taken for granted or belittled simply because it isn't involving a mysterious mystical process.

  10. There is a lot of criticism on this blog of dogmatism, but you too are dogmatic just in the opposite direction. You seem to limit yourself to your five physical senses and to the laws of nature alone, leaving no room for the spiritual and the miraculous. For me being a Torah Jew, means that whilst I manage my life in accordance with the laws of nature and man, my head and my heart are open to experience Hashem's miracles, that we praise Him for three times a day in the amidah.

    Regarding saying Tehillim, and for that matter saying anything, in yahadut words, all words, have spiritual power, and how much more so holy words of Tehillim and learning Torah. You are not saying them only for the feel-good factor of creating community and caring, which are of course important, but on account of their spiritual power. Otherwise, you could just have a reading of a novel or a poem that the deceased used to enjoy.


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