What do the dead feel and what do they say — Berachot 18b
“The sons of R’ Chiya moved to town for work and forgot their studies. They regretted this. One of the group said: Father, who is already dead, knows we regret this. Another said to him: How do you know that the dead know what happens amongst the living? It is written, ‘His sons shall attain honor and he shall not know.’ The other answered him: Shall he not know? Yet it is written, ‘The flesh upon him shall ache and the soul upon him shall mourn;’ and R’ Isaac said: Worms are as painful for the dead as a needle to live flesh.” See there for the continuation of this debate in the Gemara, discussing whether the dead know what happens amongst the living; in the end the Sages concluded that the dead do indeed know.
So you have, wise and rational student, an example of debate amongst our rabbis and from that you can draw conclusions on many other matters. For example: One who supposes the dead know what happens amongst the living brings proof from the story of a righteous man who spent the eve of Rosh Hashanah in a cemetery and heard ghosts talking amongst themselves. One ghost said to another: “Leave me alone, for things which should have stayed between us were already heard amongst the living” — which they brought as a proof that the dead do indeed know. But the Gemara rejected this with the claim that perhaps the dead do not truly know about the living, and the reason the ghosts in question knew was that another person, who died later than the ghosts, told them what he heard while alive.
Good. We learn that those “gone down to silence” are not silent at all. Not only do they take stories with them to the grave, they also reveal them to the ghosts in cemeteries. Moreover, see Agadot Maharsha, who asks: “Every time it says ‘Once a righteous man…’ it refers to either R’ Judah son of Ilaei or R’ Judah son of Bava. How is it conceivable that either of these righteous men would spend the eve of Rosh Hashanah alone in a cemetery, to sleep in an impure place?” He answered that this was all a dream. A perfect fit!
Now matters are as clear as the sun: A righteous man, R’ Judah son of Ilaei (or maybe R’ Judah son of Bava) dreamt that he heard two ghosts conversing in a cemetery. In his dream he also saw the ghosts saying that they heard things from the world of the living. The Gemara says that the ghosts of whom R’ Judah son of Bava (or maybe R’ Judah son of Ilaei) spoke heard in this dream what was said by those who died after them, in the dream of course. We don’t understand at all how proof can be brought from dreams — have our rabbis not already said in Berachot 55a, “Just as it is impossible to find grain without straw, so no dream is without foolish things”? Moreover, the Gemara rejected this argument because the story might have involved a man who died after the ghosts; according to the Maharsha, what had this to do with dreams at all? Perhaps we should answer that the one who died later was in another righteous man’s dream?
Think, you who learns and investigates, how our rabbis debate upon a matter whose secrets only a tradition from the Glory can reveal (for only there do they know what happens amongst the dead). Why bother at all to debate this?
Come see how far the matters go. The Gemara in Shabbat 13b: “‘The flesh of the dead does not feel a scalpel.’ Doesn’t this contradict what was said earlier? After all, R’ Isaac said that worms are as painful for the dead as a needle to live flesh, for it is written, ‘The flesh upon him shall ache and the soul upon him shall mourn!’ (Job 14:22) It should be said that dead flesh on one who lives does not feel the scalpel.”
According to the Gemara, a dead body can indeed feel the pain of worms chewing away at its flesh. But the words of the Gemara seem a little strange, for one should discuss here a simple analogy from minor to major: If one who lives and his soul is within his body does not feel the pain of dead flesh, how much more so must a dead person, whose soul has departed from his body, not feel the pain of dead flesh…
The Rashba, in his responsa, part one, paragraph 816, was asked whether it is permitted to introduce lime into a dead body to speed the decomposition of flesh. He answered that “If one wishes to speed the decomposition to take the body to where the person had commanded he be carried, it is permitted. There is no degradation here nor any pain being caused. The dead flesh does not feel the scalpel, and certainly not lime. Likewise, the embalmers tear the body and remove the entrails, and there is no degradation here.”
Not only did the Rashba ignore the above gemara (and we will return to our rabbis’ handling of this issue), see something great — the Rashba brings proof from the Torah itself that embalming is permitted and there is no specific obligation to bury the dead (see below for more on this issue), for it is written explicitly in Genesis 50:2: “And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father; and the physicians embalmed Israel…” Similarly, in Genesis 50:26: “So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” See the Encyclopedia Hebraica, entry chanitah for a detailed description of embalming. Even the Abarbanel on the portion of Vayechi described it: “Embalming is removing the brain and the heart [in the encyclopedia it is written, “All organs aside from the heart and kidneys”] and liver, the intestines, and the bile ducts from the body. The body is anointed from within and without with persimmon oil, and the bowels are filled within and without with perfumes which dry out the moist parts of the body. Each day the perfumes must be changed and within days there remains a dry and hardened body form without any change. The dead body looks as though it were asleep and it will neither mold nor stink.”
Some of our rabbis found it difficult to accept the embalming of our father Jacob and the removal of his internal organs, his intestines, brain, and liver. What did they say about this? The Chatam Sofer wrote in his responsa, Yoreh Deah, paragraph 366: “The Leket HaKemach has written…that, G-d forbid, they did not open Jacob’s belly nor remove his intestines. Through his navel they inserted the persimmon, for through the mouth it was impossible, for with one’s death his mouth is sealed and his navel opened, as when he was inside his mother (a small opening a hair’s breadth in size); and there the physicians inserted the persimmon…This was known to the sons of Jacob and not to the others, and therefore gentile physicians do not know to do their work thus with their kings.” We have already written quite a lot that this is our rabbis’ way, to invent things that never were and whose only use is as an excuse. (There is no innovation in this method. We have already written in our essay about animalsthat Chazal invented an animal called the shesuah and even brought it as proof that the Torah is from the Heavens.) Here, too, they discovered an amazing method of embalming and attributed its great secret to the sons of Jacob. And this secret, they must add, was not known to the gentiles, for blessing does not fall upon nonsense unless it is hidden from the eye.
Come see something else. In I Samuel 31:12 it is said, “All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beit-shan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under a tree.” This is an explicit Scripture which states that it was customary to burn the bodies and not to bury them, as the Radak wrote there: “It can be explained that the flesh they burned was full of worms and they did not want to bury them with the worms, for this was not dignified, so they burnt the flesh and buried the bones.” What do our rabbis, who absolutely forbid cremation, say about this? In Responsa Chelkat Ya’akov, Yoreh Deah, paragraph 203: “And about Saul, who was burnt, [the Reform] gnash their teeth against the Sages’ tradition that this was not the burning of bodies but only of their bedding and the possessions made for them, as brought in Avodah Zarah 11.” But the Scriptures explicitly state that the bodies were burnt: “And they put his armor in the house of Ashtarot, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beit-shan…. and [they] took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beit-shan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there” (I Smauel 31:10-12). The words of the Scriptures are extremely clear: the Philistines put the armor in Ashtarot and the Scripture does not relate what happened to it, while about the bodies of Saul and his sons the Scripture explicitly states that they were removed from the walls of Beit-shan and burnt. How, in his fear of the Reform, did the author of Chelkat Ya’akov sway from the explicit Scripture?
We find that embalming and cremation of the dead is permitted by the Scriptures, but our rabbis were the ones who forbade it absolutely. We have said many times that we do not live according to the Torah nor the actions of our forefathers recorded in the Scriptures before us, neither the embalming of our father Jacob nor the burning of the body of a king of Israel, but according to the laws of our rabbis in each generation, absolutely human laws.
We will now return to the Rashba’s ruling, which contradicts the words of the Gemara. The Ridbaz in his responsa, part one, paragraph 484, settles the contradiction: “You should always say that the dead do not really feel the scalpel, and if you say that since the dead do not feel, they do not feel even a worm, so how R’ Isaac could say, ‘Worms are as painful for the dead as a needle to live flesh’ — it should be answered that worms, which are created from that very flesh as punishment for his deeds, are felt, but other things are not felt; and this is one of the wonders of His supervision.” Before us again is an “invention for the sake of an excuse” such as we mentioned above. Dead flesh does not feel the scalpel which cuts, but worms it does feel, for these are created from that very flesh and are therefore a punishment to that flesh. There is no need to say that all this nonsense arouses laughter. What should be seriously contemplated is that our rabbis debate things which the human intellect does not know or understand (such as what the soul feels after death), and they use their human intellect to discuss this, with no reason or purpose, for none of these matters can be proven or refuted and therefore, why deal with them at all? This is just a waste of time.
This is the place to clarify the opinion of our rabbis about why autopsies are forbidden though because of them many lives have been saved. Thus it is written in Responsa Noda B’Yehuda, second edition, Yoreh Deah, paragraph 210: “But in the matter under discussion [autopsies for purposes of studying medicine] there is no specific patient who needs this, only people who want to learn this wisdom — perhaps some future patient will need it.” And similarly on the issue of organ transplants from the dead.
Not only did our rabbis not receive from Sinai what exactly constitutes degradation of the dead (they only discussed this based on their own knowledge, as clarified above), but they also forbade us to save lives and deemed dead bodies more important than living people. How did our rabbis know this constitutes degradation? Perhaps it is better for the soul of dead to see a man saved because of his organs than to see worms eating them. And reasoning from minor to major premises: Just as a living person may donate an organ like a kidney to save his friend from death (which is seen as a great mitzvah), how much more so should that same soul agree to donate the kidney after death (whereby it would be taken from the body with the use of scalpel, not painful for the dead) instead of leaving it for worms to eat (which is painful indeed).
Another thing which the Noda B’Yehuda did not realize is that autopsies for medical study are not questionably the saving of lives but certainly the saving of lives. Go see how medicine has advanced, in part because of autopsies. Without them there would be many more ill and dead among us, G-d forbid, and though there is no specific patient whom a given autopsy might benefit right on the spot, it is clear that at some point relief and remedy will be found because of autopsies, and many patients’ lives will be saved. This is similar to what we brought on the portion of Balak, in the name of Rabbi Obadiah Yosef, in Responsa Yabiya Omer, part eight, Orach Chaim, paragraph 38: “We learn that in our times, when there is fear of more than mere animosity if Jewish doctors forbore from treating non-Jews on the Sabbath and left them to die, even this issue is one of saving Jewish lives — for if non-Jewish doctors heard this they would stop treating Jewish patients.” So you see that even if there is no Jewish patient immediately at risk, we permit the desecration of the Sabbath because it will save Jews at some future point. If this is how we treat the Sabbath, autopsies (which are not forbidden by the Torah) should be permitted even more.
Come see how far our rabbis the Halachic arbiters went. They have no inspiration, wisdom, or foresight and they permit autopsies of gentiles but not of Jews. That is, to enjoy the fruits of medicine based on autopsies of dead gentiles (and of Jewish doctors who do not listen to our rabbis but rather to their own sense) is permitted, and all religious Jews hurry to enjoy the fruits of medical knowledge which they themselves are forbidden to obtain. Were the situation the opposite and gentiles permitted to autopsy only Jewish bodies, what a cry would reach to the heavens about anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews. Don’t the arbiters understand that in the end this will only lead to more hatred of Jews?
We will conclude this matter with an amazing thing we’ve written several times — that our rabbis insist on learning reality from the Holy Writings instead of from actual reality!
The Gemara in Taanit 5b: “R’ Yochanan said: Jacob our forefather did not die. They said to him: So, was he mourned, embalmed and buried for nothing? He answered: I expound the Scriptures; it is written, ‘Do not fear, My servant Jacob, said G-d, and do not quail, Israel, for I will redeem you from afar and your seed from the land of captivity’ — he is compared to his descendents: as his descendants are alive, so is he alive.” From here the author of Responsa Tzitz Eliezer learns in part 14, paragraph 98: “Chazal showed here that if the physical sense is contradicted by what is written in our holy Torah, we must conclude that the physical sense is in error, and it only seemed that he was embalmed — for since one expounds the Scriptures through the true rules given us at Sinai, the holy One, blessed be He, says so, and in any case it is clear that it only seemed to them he died, but he lived. This is how Chazal learned the Torah, and this is the great difference and the terrible distance between our views and Chazal’s. They are exactly the opposite: for us, in our sins, this world is reality and the Torah is expounded — but Chazal, with their holiness, saw the Torah with their senses as real, and when one expounds the Scriptures all senses and flesh-bound eyes are void, for they lie, mislead and are misled, and it only seemed that he was embalmed.”
First, one who holds such odd opinions will quickly see that reality doesn’t forgive those who ignore it. Second, even according to his method, the Tzitz Eliezer says that only the Torah is reality — but it is written in the Torah that Jacob was embalmed after his death. If this is what is written, then this is reality. How dare he say, opposing the words of the Scriptures, that “it only seemed that he was embalmed”? It seems that the Tzitz Eliezer’s reality (and the reality of many other rabbis like him) is not the reality of the Scriptures nor the reality of the senses, but his own private reality, which he built for himself to suit this reality to his world view. There is no need to say that his imaginary world (in which Jacob was not embalmed but the rabbit is ruminant) has nothing in common with objective reality.
Thus, too, did the Chatam Sofer act in building reality from the words of Chazal instead of learning it from facts and experiments. In Tractate Avodah Zarah 31b, after forbidding the drinking of water which stood open for a time (due to the danger of snake venom having fallen into the water), the Gemara asked: Why aren’t the gentiles, who are not careful about open waters, harmed? And it answered: “Since they eat reptiles, they’ve developed an immunity.” The Tosfot wrote that the eating of reptiles and insects, practiced by gentiles, nullifies the snake venom’s effect.
And from this Gemara the Chatam Sofer learned in his novellae on Avodah Zarah: “Since the idolaters eat reptiles and insects their bodies are immune. Therefore, since all who learn medicine through autopsies learn on bodies which have the nature of idolaters, they are not experts on the nature of Jewish bodies.”
First, this is absolute nonsense — and a sign is that all religious people rush to medical centers outside Israel (where the doctors learned their trade from autopsying non-Jews). They rely completely on the learning of foreign physicians and do not demand that they take advanced courses in autopsying dead Jews before starting to treat them.
Second, if the Chatam Sofer really thought this way, he should have hurried and explicitly permitted autopsying Jewish bodies so that physicians might learn the Jews’ special nature and be able to treat them. For if physicians cannot know about Jews from autopsying idolaters, whose bodies are immune as result of eating reptiles, then autopsying Jews is truly a matter of saving lives, for without it Jews would never be healed…
Words of True Knowledge