Here is a fascinating and disturbing exposé of a Fake Chazal, and an explanation of how it comes into being.
As you may recall, a few years ago I e-published a study entitled "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In that study, I discussed the popular notion that a person can learn Torah and designate the spiritual rewards for any deceased person, by declaring that they are learning l'iluy nishmasam. I argued that this notion is of extremely recent origin - no more than 150 years old. Traditionally, there was only a concept that your Torah and mitzvos can benefit your ancestors (and teachers), because your good deeds only exist as a result of them. There's just no mechanism for your Torah study to benefit a person who had no formative influence on you.
Recently I was looking at the website of Chevra Lomdei Mishna, the institution which takes your funds in order to support kollel students studying l'iluy nishmas your loved one. (This is the institution which published the popular book The Neshama Should Have An Aliyah.) On their website, accompanying some bold claims - "Imagine the merits that can be amassed for your dearly departed loved ones, as well as for yourself and your family, by tapping into the merit of Torah learning by dedicated, serious Torah scholars!" - there is a page of sources to back up their claims. It's a pretty slim list; just four sources are cited, of which three are contemporary works! The only pre-modern source that they provide is a second-hand citation from a contemporary work called P’nei Boruch, which they report as saying the following:
“Our Sages have said that Asher, son of the Patriarch Jacob, sits at the entrance to Gehinnom (Purgatory), and saves [from entering therein] anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied."
That indeed seems very explicit. Chazal themselves said that anyone who is having Mishnah studied on their behalf, will be saved from Gehinnom. Better get out your checkbook!
When I came across this, I was very taken aback. If true, it would completely disprove my thesis.
However, over the years, I have learned not to trust citations of sources. (Remember when Dialogue journal published a critique of my kezayis article by Dovid Kornreich, which quoted websites as stating that the Romans cultivated and exported olives in northern Europe, and these quotes turned out to be completely fabricated?)
So I decided to look into this citation from Chazal. And, lo and behold, I discovered that no such source exists.
First of all, you have to wonder: If Chazal did indeed say such a thing, why didn't Chevra Lomdei Mishnah cites the source from Chazal directly, instead of citing a second-hand attribution from the contemporary work P’nei Boruch? The reason is that no such source in Chazal can be found. Not in Bavli, not in Yerushalmi, not in Midrash. The earliest reference I was able to find is the Chida, attributing it to earlier authorities (Chazal?), yet he too does not provide any source.
But here's the kicker. Even if one were to find it in some long-lost Midrash, this alleged statement from Chazal does not at all say what Chevra Lomdei Mishnah cite it as saying! What it actually says, as quoted both by Chida and in Pnei Baruch, is that Asher son of Yaakov saves anyone who studies Mishnah - not anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied!
Now, Pnei Baruch does follow this quote with a claim that this would also apply to anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied. However, he provides absolutely no support for this claim - and it's certainly not part of the alleged citation from Chazal!
On the website of Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah, it states that "we strive to address any and all questions, concerns and issues that you may have. If at any time you need to reach us, please do not hesitate to contact us via phone or email, any time!" Well, I wrote to them twice, pointing out this distortion of the alleged source from Chazal, but they did not respond. Feel free to check out the sources yourself, by following the links above. Then you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org, and ask them why did they change the source, and why they are presenting all this as normative, traditional Judaism when there is in fact no source in Chazal or the Rishonim for this concept.
Perhaps you're wondering why I am making such a fuss about this. Well, it's because if there's one thing that bothers me more than people manipulating sources (and you'd hope for better from people who market their services as "serious Torah scholars"), it's people manipulating sources so that they can manipulate people for money.
Coming up soon: an inspirational post about a very different new initiative for commemorating the deceased. Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog, using the form on the right of the page.