rosh hashana 88.
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While we are judged on Rosh Hashana for our conduct over the entire year, we often seek to garner last-minute merits as the year draws to a close. Are these last-minute spiritual preparations effective?
The Talmud relates a tale of a pious person who gave a dinar to a pauper on the eve of Rosh Hashana during a period of drought (B. Berachot 18b). According to one commentator, the pious man may have been Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai who was extremely poor (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). This may very well have been the last coin left in the house and his wife was not happy about his generosity.
Feeling uncomfortable in the face of his wife's jibes and perhaps seeking solitude at this holy juncture in the Jewish calendar, the pious man went to the cemetery to spend the night there.
While in the graveyard he heard two spirits conversing with each other: "My friend, let us roam the world and hear what is being said behind the curtain that partitions off the Divine Presence. We will hear of the misfortune that will come to the world this year."
"I cannot join you," responded the other spirit, "For I am buried in a matting of reeds." Apparently, roaming disembodied spirits appear dressed in their burial shrouds. The deceased spirit was embarrassed that her family had been too poor to purchase linen shrouds, and had been compelled to bury her in reed matting (Ritva, 13th-14th centuries, Spain).
Yet the trapped spirit did not begrudge her friend roaming and she suggested: "You go, and whatever you hear you can tell me." The spirit headed out, drifted around and returned to the cemetery: "My friend, what did you hear from behind the curtain?" asked the ensnared spirit excitedly.
"I heard that the crops of anyone who sows this winter at the time of the first rain will be destroyed by hail." Agriculture in the Land of Israel is dependent on the winter rains. Generally there are three periods of rain, the first that begins on the 17th of Heshvan, the second on the 23rd of the same month and the third on the 1st of Kislev. Crops planted at the first rainfall would have grown stiff by the second rainfall. If hail comes in the second period it may destroy the upright plants. Seeds sown at the second rainfall would not be harmed by hail for the fledgling plants are still pliable (Rashi, 11th century, France. See Exodus 9:31-32).
Hearing the prognosis, the pious man avoided sowing his grain after the first rains, waiting for the second rain. When the hail came, the crops of many were destroyed, while the pious man's grain was unaffected.
Having benefited from a night in the cemetery, the pious person returned there the following year. Once again he heard the same two spirits scheming: "My friend, let us roam the world and hear what is being said behind the curtain about the misfortune that will come to the world this year." "Did I not already tell you," replied the second spirit, "I cannot come with you for I am buried in a matting of reeds! You go and tell me what you hear."
One commentator explains that the spirit declined to roam not because of embarrassment as we suggested above, but because she was not free to wander until her body had decomposed. For this reason we bury the deceased in linen shrouds that decompose quickly thus allowing the spirit to disengage from the body. The reed matting was slowing down the process and the spirit was therefore not free to roam. Her fellow spirit returned the next year with the same proposal, anticipating that the shroud had decomposed over the year, freeing her friend. This eventuality, however, had yet to transpire (Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 18th century, Poland-Prague).
The free spirit went on her merry way and when she returned she reported: "I heard that crops sowed around the second rains will be destroyed by a dry wind." Such a blustery airstream would only affect crops recently planted. Crops planted during the first rains would have already taken root and be able to withstand the wind (Rashi).
Once again the pious person acted upon the Divine decree to which he had been privy and he reaped the rewards. His wife however was suspicious: "Last year everyone's crops were destroyed by hail, except yours. And this year everyone's crops were destroyed by a dry wind, except yours!" The pious person shared the entire story with his wife.
Within a short time, a quarrel broke out between the pious man's wife and the mother of the deceased girl whose spirit was trapped by the reed matting. As the two traded verbal blows, the wife scorned the mother: "Come and I will show you your daughter buried dishonorably in a matting of reeds!"
When the next Rosh Hashana rolled around and the pious person settled down for his annual bivouac in the graveyard, he heard the free spirit urge the trapped spirit to roam and eavesdrop on what was being decreed behind the partition.
The trapped spirit declined, though for a different reason: "My friend, leave me be. The words that we have spoken between ourselves have already been heard by the living." And with that the lifeline of the pious person to Divine decrees was severed.
What was the initial deed that brought about the change in fortune for our poor pious man? Was it his charitable act of helping out a pauper in times of trouble? This might be why the poor spirit buried in the reed matting was the medium for helping the pious man. Perhaps it was that the pious man had silently accepted his wife's taunts, preferring to avoid conflict rather than retort? Or perhaps the pious person's deeds were merely reflective of his conduct over the entire year. We can never know with certainty, but the passage certainly seems to suggest that last-minute acts can change fortunes and that prosperity can come from unexpected quarters.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.