Wednesday, July 1, 2020

When Classical Judaism Bothers Rabbis

You can't do mitzvos and transfer their credit to other people, whether they are alive or dead. I've written about this before, both in blog posts and in my detailed monograph "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" You can't pay someone to honor their parents and transfer the reward to you. You can't separate challah and transfer the reward to someone who is sick (though it may help you be especially inspired in your prayers for them). And you can't learn Torah and transfer the reward to someone who has passed away (except when it's your parents and perhaps other people of significant influence upon you, where everything that you do is automatically a credit to them.)

My favorite story regarding this is one that I heard from a friend who was in a shiur with Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky shlita. One student asked if the shiur could be given l'iluy nishmas his grandmother. Rav Tzvi was apologetic, but explained that this was impossible: "How does my giving a shiur create a credit for your grandmother? It might be a credit for my grandmother, but how can it be a credit for yours?"

There are several grounds on which it can be stated that you can't transfer the credit for mitzvos to other people:

1) Reason. The reward for mitzvos - at least, according to the dominant classical tradition - is the relationship that is created with the Divine. It's not some spiritual gold that can be transferred to a different bank account.

2) Explicit Sources. The sources in the Geonim, Rishonim and early Acharonim to discuss this - and there are several - all state that such a thing is impossible, precisely for the reason given above. To give but one example, Maharam Alashkar cites Rav Hai Gaon who firmly rejects the notion that one can transfer the reward of a mitzvah to another person and explains why this is impossible: "These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, 'The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,' (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, 'And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.' Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvot is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person? (Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101). The only sources that allow for such a thing - such as those cited in an unfortunately uncritical article on OU Torah - are within the last 150 years, and they are baseless innovations.

3) Implicit Tradition. If transferring the reward for mitzvos were to be possible, there are many stories and directives in the Torah and Gemara which would read very differently. When people needed a certain thing from God - either for themselves, or for others - they prayed for it. They didn't do mitzvos or learn Torah and have the reward credited to someone else. Likewise, Chazal taught us how to try to get what we want from God, and even how to help the souls of the dead, and nowhere do they mention the notion of outsourcing mitzvos to others; in fact, in one case of someone trying to help the deceased, they explicitly state that it can't be done.

(And to preempt the inevitable question - no, Yissacher and Zevulun do not demonstrate otherwise. Aside from the fact that the tribe of Yissacher were also working - Zevulun were merely marketing their produce - the idea is that Zevulun received the reward for helping people learn, not for actually learning.) 

Recently I came across some discussion of this topic from Rav Asher Weiss, shlita. Rav Weiss is a wonderful person, a leader with integrity, and an important talmid chacham. But in the past I have pointed out that, for all his breadth, he is nevertheless a product of the charedi/ non-rationalist worldview. In the previous instance, it was when he declared that Torah protects from missiles (though only after he ascertained that he was in a fortified room). The topic of transferring mitzvah rewards to other people is another example.

In his discussion of this topic, both in a shiur transcribed online and in Responsa Minchas Asher II:58, he acknowledges the problem with the notion that you can do mitzvos and credit the reward to other people. Rav Weiss notes that Maharam Alashkar and others state clearly that the reward for mitzvos cannot be transferred to other people, and that they give powerful reasons why. However, he takes the approach that it simply cannot be so. Why? Because everyone does it!

That is actually his position, and he says it explicitly in his responsum. If everyone does it, it can't be that it doesn't make sense! He tries to come up with a way of making it work even according to Maharam Alashkar et al., but is forced to admit that there is no convincing way to do so. And he tries to find earlier sources who defend it, but they are extremely limited (as they are referring specifically to charity) and tentative. Accordingly, Rav Weiss concludes that it simply does work, albeit inexplicably, and that it is one of the secrets of Divine providence.

It's simply astonishing. It means that Rav Weiss is saying that all the Geonim and Rishonim and Acharonim who said that it doesn't work, are wrong. But he would rather do this than say that the conventional practice today is baseless. There are many cases where we defend historical tradition, even on weak grounds, shelo lehotzi la'az al ha-rishonim (so as not to cast aspersions on the earlier generations), but this is the opposite; discarding the historical tradition, shelo lehotzi la'az on what people do today.

This is how classical Judaism gets reformed. And it's not a good reform. Because when you allow for mitzvos to be outsourced, you teach people that they can buy Heaven instead of earning it, and you commercialize the mitzvos instead of having them as means for personal growth. The classical view, still maintained by people such as Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky, needs to be taught and strengthened, not discarded.

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67 comments:

  1. The idea is little different than the Catholic practice of selling (or buying) indulgences. Yet another foreign practice imported into Charedi Judaism and then Kashered.

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  2. I never understood the concept of giving a shiur "l'iluy nishmas so-and-so" as literally trying to give the merit from the shiur to that person, rather it is a nice way of commemorating the person who passed away and makes the family member feel better as they know that the memory of their grandparent is not being forgotten.

    It is not so much as transferring credit to that person, as it is to keep their memory alive. If a book (or shiur) is dedicated to someone's memory, whenever I open the book or learn I am reminded of that person, especially if i take a few seconds to look at the inscription.

    On Yom Hazikaron I took part of the Zichronot program, and learnt a perek of Mishniyaot in memory of a fallen soldier. In addition to learning the mishnayot, I read a short biography of the soldier. Even is that is not literally "l'iluy nishmas the soldier", I think that is the intention most people have when they give a shiur l'iluy nishmas somebody.

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    1. You're talking about "l'zecher nishmas." That's fine and valuable, but most people are talking about a very different thing with l'iluy nishmas.

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    2. In the case of R' Kushlefsky -- could the student have stated, I am attending this shiur (limmud Torah) l'iluy nishmat my grandmother & then she would have gotten the credit?

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    3. Everyone is a little child. Let me do what daddy says and then a get a candy. If I'm a really nice child, then I do what Mommy says and I give my candy to my little sister.

      Infantile. And totally pervasive in Judaism. From the alleged adults.

      And for rationalists? You can keep making things up, but this isn't rational. It's a religion driven by emotional satisfaction.

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  3. If a person gets sick and goes through yisurim and that inspires me to be a better person, in your opinion could that be a credit to that person?

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    1. Nope. Just like if a person ruins their life by making terrible choices, and that makes me decide not to do the same, it's not a zechus for that person.

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    2. Fair enough. How do you understand, though, when we talk about a tzadik getting yisurim and that is an atonement/zchus for others?

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    3. But if a person has a great life by making great choices that makes me decide to do the same it is a zechus for that person? Sounds like a double standard....

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    4. "How do you understand, though, when we talk about a tzadik getting yisurim and that is an atonement/zchus for others?" Can you give examples? I really don't think that is a strong idea in Judaism.

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    5. It can serve as a kapara because on some level klal yisroel is an organic whole, which may help for God's judgement on the nation in general, but that doesn't mean actual reward is "transferred".

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    6. Can one really say that this religion isn't a cult with a few rationalist outliers, constantly trying to thread the needle, with things that just cannot be threaded?

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    7. Misas tzedikim mechaparas is found several times in chazal. From the juxtopistion of nodov and avihu to yom kippur for starters.

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    8. "Can you give examples? I really don't think that is a strong idea in Judaism."
      Sure, the gemara in B"M 55a. It says both Rebbi and R' Elazer underwent yisurim. During Rebbi's yisurim, the world didn't need any rain (the earth produced without the burden of rain). During R' Elazer's yisurim, nobody died prematurely

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  4. Link to source, Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101
    https://www.google.com/books/edition/%D7%A1%D7%A4%D7%A8_%D7%A9%D7%90%D7%9C%D7%95%D7%AA_%D7%95%D7%AA%D7%A9%D7%95%D7%91%D7%95%D7%AA_%D7%9E%D7%94%D7%A8/ZupHAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Moses%20ben%20Isaac%20Alashkar&pg=PA100&printsec=frontcover

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  5. "when you allow for mitzvos to be outsourced, you teach people that they can buy Heaven instead of earning it, and you commercialize the mitzvos instead of having them as means for personal growth"

    This does not really apply to Mitzvot and prayers done Leilui Nishmat for a dead relative. Is there anything meaningful that can be done for a Neshama/dead relative?
    Quite a depressing one-dimensional religion you believe in if so...

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    1. As I wrote, if it's your ancestors, then everything you do is automatically a credit to them.

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    2. "Quite a depressing one-dimensional religion..."

      You mean a religion that purports to convey God's word to the world that people are responsible for themselves and are supposed to engage in productive behavior to give meaning to their lives?

      You think that if the religion doesn't have an appropriate amount of mystical unverifiable garbage that appeals to the lowest common denominator, it's a simple one-dimension and depressing?

      I strongly suggest, Mr/Mrs/Ms/Whatever Anonymous that you are in need of regular doses of strong medication. See a doctor right away.

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  6. "You can't separate challah and transfer the reward to someone who is sick"
    1. This example is not necessarily to the point. הפרשת חלה is a חיוב מצוה, and this type of mitzvah is only on the person who is obligated in its performance, and does not lend itself to be transferable (similar to a מצוה שבגופו). A better example would be a מצוה קיומי where the performance is in a sense optional. Like learning Torah (after one's minimum requirement), or giving צדקה.
    2. To your point that a performance of a mitzvah is non transferable, perhaps a proof from the גמרא: Someone says I will give צדקה in order that my son should live long, or, that I will have העולם הבא. (Rosh ha-Shana, and Pesachim). The Talmud answers he is considered a צדיק גמור. The main chiddush is even though one has an different intention in the performance of צדקה, he is still considered a צדיק גמור.
    In relation to the point discussed, the גמרא could have offered a bigger chiddush: I gave צדקה in order that my son should have עולם הבא. But no, the son could only benefit in this world (צדקה תציל ממות); and the העולם הבא aspect of the performance of this מצוה could only have an effect on the one actually doing the מצוה, not anyone else (no matter where he or she exists).
    One may disagree if they are not trained in this system of analyzing the exact language of the Talmud, and there is room for disagreement. But I have not seen anywhere else a proof - pro or con - brought from Chazal on this matter.

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  7. Let's say there WERE some sources in the Geonim and Rishonim that supported all the ilui nishmas stuff. Would that really convince you that it was legitimate from a rationalistic standpoint? It might make it harder to criticize the current beliefs, but from my perspective, it wouldn't make it more believable.

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    1. You have a list? Bring it on.

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    2. Answer to your question is: NO.

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  8. Thank you for this very interesting article.

    On a similar note, do you have an article discussing the prevelant custom of saying Tehillim for people who are sick, for livelihood, finding a spouse and other issues?

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    1. In those cases tehillim is acting as prayer. There is a longstanding tradition dating back to Avraham of praying for positive outcomes for others.

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    2. That's idiotic. There is no "tradition" dating back to Avraham for ANYTHING. ZERO. NADDA.

      Avraham was negotiating with God to know the parameters of God's forgiveness. He made no argument about Sodom's destruction at all.

      Anything you read about Avraham (and I'll exclude Tanach from my statement to be fair) - anything and everything you read about Avraham is something that was written by a Rabbi - a RABBI - within the past 1500 years. It's by-definition NEW and INNOVATIVE.


      Get your head out of the sand.

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    3. Why do you need an article to know about this. Best thing you can do for someone sick is to make them better. Provide the know-how to cure them, provide the resources to make them well, become a doctor or a researcher to help in the long term. Tehillim is the "last resort" when you cannot contribute anything meaningful. If you doubt that, ask yourself how long you'd keep a doctor, no matter how frum, who gave his patients a healthy prescription of various tehillim instead of medicine, surgery, or other practical solutions.

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    4. The Talmud and Rambam, clearly state you cannot say tehiilim for sick people

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    5. @Malcom XI
      Check out Genesis 20:17. You may find it enlightening

      The Ostrich

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    6. Hey Ostrich - prayer works. That's a religion thing, yeah? Doesn't mean that God shifted the balances for "mitzvah performance" from one person to another. Or that this is possible.

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    7. @Malcolm 11 "Hey Ostrich - prayer works. That's a religion thing, yeah? Doesn't mean that God shifted the balances for "mitzvah performance" from one person to another. Or that this is possible."

      But that's just repeating the point Rabbi Slifkin made. So what was purpose of the prolonged inaccurate ranting about Abraham?

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  9. Bernard MatthewsJuly 1, 2020 at 1:49 PM

    I get that it isn't a classical idea and I am also cynical of it, but it is clearly a widespread practice with some basis in strong rabbinic authority as quoted in the OU article. I'm sure those figures would have what to say in response even if Rav Asher Weiss doesn't. And the justification of modern minhag against pashtus in classical sources was the aruch hashulchan's area of expertise, because minhag yisroel torah is a real concept. So I agree it is not a classical idea, but there are enough significant sources to suggest it might work, likely on a kabbalistic level, and it definitely helps people through the grieving process, so I don't think this is the worst adoption of practice in the world.

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    1. "some basis in strong rabbinic authority as quoted in the OU article." It didn't quote any such basis. "minhag yisroel torah is a real concept" - but does every new fad become a minhag?

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    2. Survey says: YES! Every fad that catches on becomes a minhag!

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    3. Kaballah is supposed to be an ancient thing, and the people who understood it are long since gone. We're just flying on their coattails. Therefore, your statement:

      "it is not a classical idea, but there are enough significant sources to suggest it might work [...] on a kabbalistic level"

      is completely nonsensical.

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    4. Bernard MatthewsJuly 2, 2020 at 2:58 AM

      The article quotes a bunch of explicit (admittedly late) sources to this effect, great figures who hopefully knew what they were talking about and had some sort of mesora on this Torah.
      There are halachic criteria that define when minhag becomes accepted, and I'm not a posek, but broadly it can't be something based in avoda zara and it needs to be accepted my a significant chunk of klal yisrael. Ideally it would have a historic basis with which to connect it. Much in the way the aruch hashulchan decried many a new fad but still justified them. I personally wouldn't want to pick a fight with the figures quoted in the article so despite the poor sourcing, I'm not going to make a macha'a about it.

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    5. @Bernard displays cogitative dissonance evidence by his word-salad of a non-reply.

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    6. "There are halachic criteria that define when minhag becomes accepted, and I'm not a posek, but broadly it can't be something based in avoda zara and it needs to be accepted my a significant chunk of klal yisrael. Ideally it would have a historic basis with which to connect it. Much in the way the aruch hashulchan decried many a new fad but still justified them."

      Sorry, what? Care to clarify?

      "I personally wouldn't want to pick a fight with the figures quoted in the article so despite the poor sourcing, I'm not going to make a macha'a about it. " - no, but I bet they'd use Tylenol before using a dead chicken

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  10. How far do the limits of כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה go? Could this be taken to mean that one's actions positively or negatively affect others or does this only apply generally to כלל ישראל as a whole?

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    1. Wait! I know this one! It has to do with one guy on a boat who is drilling for water, right??

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    2. @meles - ROTFL

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  11. If after 150/200/500 years your grandmother’s neshama still needs an aliya, her neshama must be in pretty bad shape.
    I wonder where it was shlepping about for all these many years.
    I supppose there are a lot of things more meaningfull than reciting an innocuous kaddish or learning a shiur for a person dead for decades/centuries , but if you have too much time on your hands and are obsessed with religious rituals for the dead, this is what happens. This is the consequence of forfeiting critical thinking to religious fundamntalism.
    If the remains of grandmother’s scattered atoms or Neshama, wherever it may be, are still in need of an Aliya then it probably has been in a pretty bad place from which it needs to be rescused.
    Why was her Neshama dispatched there in the first place? So for all those Neshamas needing an Aliya, it’s a bad, bad state of affairs for all of them.




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  12. I heard a shiur of Rabbi Weiss few years ago about this issue, and he concluded then that buying/selling of merits is impossible and does not work.
    Not sure what caused him to change his mind.

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  13. To what end. It is completely logical that Olam Haba was an innovation bourne out of necessity (that we were seeing violations of the second paragraph of Shema all of the time), and innovations from Persian and Christian culture.

    Classical Judaism, it could be argued, is ONLY about a certain set of things.

    If you dont like Charedi innovation, you may find that the onion you are peeling may be your own.

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    1. Is the story of Saul summoning Shmuel haNavi a Persian/Christian innovation?

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    2. That there are people in the 21st century who believe that a soul can be summoned from the other side is just an amazing thing. I am so glad that our religion is able to stay firm to its belief in the things that are unreal even though the rest of the modern world is trending away from the unbelievable. It is truly warming to the heart.

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    3. Wait, you mean this wasn't a deception by a charlatan priestess?

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    4. Shmuel HaNavi said that he was in olam haba?

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    5. Saul, the king with the mental issues. Calls a Medium. Yep, that's convincing.

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  14. As you mention we find this of doing a mitzva and conferring the merit to another with regard to the mitzva of tzedaka and that comes from an early source, quoted by the Rema in Hilchos tzedaka 249:9 from Rokeach 217. It is commonly recited in the tefillah of kel malei rachamim. It is not difficult to see this concept applied to other mitzvos as well. There is an indication of this concept from the minhag of saying kaddish that it will help the niftar even if he was a rasha, from a quoted medrash regarding a story of Rebbe Akiva. The minhag of saying kaddish for a niftar is certainly older than 150 years.

    While it is so that Rav Hai Gaon rejected this concept, but was from the rationalist camp which Rambam and others followed his path, but there was also a non rationalist path that others followed that was older than 150 years, so this concept is likely a machlokes between the two paths and not something recently invented.


    To Avi: The concept is totally unlike the sale of indulgences invented by the catholic church to increase its coffers. That idea is that in the view of the christians all those who are in heaven are equal, which means that good deeds of the truly righteous are unrewarded and remain property of the church which allows the church to sell these to sinners who need them to continue their evil deeds and still be entitled to heaven. You can see the difference without much difficulty

    The concept of a tzadik suffering and taking away punishment from his generation, which seems to be the backbone of christianity, is indeed found to some extent in the Talmud, see Kesubos 8b Rashi there based on Yechezkel 9. Explanation for this concept is found in Derech Hashem of Moshe Chaim Luzzato section 2:8-9

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    1. "It is not difficult to see this concept applied to other mitzvos as well." Yes it is. Even with tzedakah it is very difficult, and the authorities struggle to explain it. They only attempt to do so because there is such a tradition with tzedakah. Kal v'chomer it is problematic to extend it even beyond that, where is no such tradition.

      "There is an indication of this concept from the minhag of saying kaddish that it will help the niftar even if he was a rasha, from a quoted medrash regarding a story of Rebbe Akiva." No, you've got it exactly backwards. That story shows specifically that it is ONLY the descendant who can create a merit for the deceased - Rabbi Akiva himself couldn't do it!

      "there was also a non rationalist path that others followed that was older than 150 years" Indeed. But even the non-rationalist path never mentioned this.

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    2. You can see the difference without much difficulty

      The idea that merit for good deeds can be transferred is identical. That indulgences were invented to give evil people an out is immaterial.

      What is key is the ability to transfer, not who is doing the transfer, nor why.

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  15. Queen Esther: Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf... Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!

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    1. Lazar,

      Yup. You certainly made your point.

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    2. As we know from Mesechet Taanis, fasting and prayer go together. The idea that prayer on others' behalf is effective goes back to Chumash.

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    3. Getting your life together through deeds is a good thing to do. That's part of the message of Judaism: no matter what, you should be examining your deeds and working to improve them. The financial transaction in heaven to move good-deed numbers from one side of the ledger to another is where things break down. That's the issue. It's FINE to do good things. The question we're playing with is whether God counts it for someone else. And the answer is of course, that it is unknowable and irrelevant.

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    4. But her actions in confronting the king were also being done on THEIR behalf. Doesn't seem like a valid example.

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  16. I went to the OU article and am most puzzled by the below excerpt. Can anyone explain how the source quoted corroborates the initial statement.

    Even a non-relative of the deceased can contribute to the iluy neshama.

    Teshuvot Maharam Shick wrote — “Every Jew is commanded on lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa (don’t stand by the blood of your friend), in addition to the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah (returning a lost object) which includes returning one’s body and saving one from danger, even with one’s money. If we are commanded to save the body, all the more so to save the neshama with whatever is possible. Whoever returns the soul of a person fulfills this mitzvah whose obligation is upon all relatives, as well as others.” (Quoted in Kol Bo l’Yartzeit — pp. 46–7).

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  17. I don't have the Teshuvos Minchas Asher so I don't know what he says there, but in the audio shiur in the other source that you cite (torahbase.org) he doesn't really say that you can transfer the reward of a mitzvah to someone else. He says that there is a mystical concept called "ilui neshamah" which we don't know what it means other than that there is some type of benefit for the dead person's soul.

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  18. In all fairness, there are very old traditions in Judaism of "עם לא נביאים הם, בני נביאים הם" as well as "פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר". Of course, this has to applied very carefully, and whether or not it applies here is at least debatable. But it does exist, as a concept.

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  19. R' Slifkin,
    Would love to see you pose this to R' Asher Weiss and see what he responds. Yes, he is a product of the Haredi world, but from the few shiurim of his that I've heard, he seems to be much more in touch with reality than the majority of "gedolim."

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    1. I would love to send him my detailed essay on the topic. Does anyone know how I can do this?

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    2. https://tvunah.org/

      This may be a good place to start. I would also be interested in his response to you referring to him as a non-rationalist (or more specifically whether Judaism can actually be 100% rational)?

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  20. Continues to amaze me how Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin lives as a reaction to hareidi Judaism. Instead of just living, he feels the need to continue explaining why he has left the Yeshiva world.
    The reason for this (listen up Natan) is because you actually do see value in the Chareidi way of life and won't relinquish it completely. Perhaps it's their devotion and commitment that inspires you.

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  21. Rabbi Slifkin, I quote the late Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z'l, who, in praise of Rav Soloveitchik,zt'l, at the end of the Introduction to his book, "Torah for Torah's Sake" (p. xvii), and nothing his master's illness, wrote the following:
    "May this work, inspired and guided by him, be accepted by the Almighty as a prayer for his recovery and longevity."
    In light of this post, how do you analyze Rabbi Lamm's hope?

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