World of the Sages: What do the dead know?

When we visit a cemetery or remember a lost loved one, we may find ourselves wondering whether the deceased are aware of us.

newark graves 298 (photo credit: Peter C. Beller)
newark graves 298
(photo credit: Peter C. Beller)
When we visit a cemetery or remember a lost loved one, we may find ourselves wondering whether the deceased are aware of us. Do they know what we are thinking about, what we are feeling? Do they empathize with our travails? Do they see our actions? Our talmudic sages are divided over the question: What do the dead know? They offer three approaches (B. Berachot 18a-19a). The first approach, ascribed to Rabbi Hiyya, holds that the deceased know everything that is going on in this world and even emote about their surroundings. Thus Rabbi Hiyya berated his colleague Rabbi Yonatan for walking in the cemetery with his tzitzit dragging over the graves: "Lift up your garment, lest the deceased say - 'Tomorrow they will be joining us and now they mock us!'" In this vein, we are instructed not to enter a cemetery wearing tefillin or reading from a Torah scroll. According to some codifiers, it is not even permitted to enter a graveyard carrying a Torah scroll, even if this scroll is totally covered (Shulhan Aruch YD 242:4). Elsewhere, a similar restriction is cited regarding the reading of Shema in a cemetery (B. Sotah 43b). Likewise, we are enjoined to speak solely of matters that pertain to the deceased and avoid Torah discourse in the presence of the dead (B. Berachot 3b). These restrictions fall under the rubric of the verse: "One who mocks the poor affronts his Maker" (Proverbs 17:5). Brazenly displaying the opportunities we have for fulfilling Divine Will mocks the enforced inaction imposed by death. Thus the deceased are cognizant of their surroundings and may even feel insulted, envious and perhaps even spiteful. Rabbi Yonatan, tramping through the cemetery with his blue-fringed tzitzit flowing behind him, was of a different opinion. He felt that the finality of death precluded any knowledge of worldly matters. Citing scriptural support, Rabbi Yonatan did not entertain that the deceased would feel any affront - or for that matter, anything at all - by his blatant tzitzit. The dead - he held - are unaware of the living. Later in the passage, however, we are told that Rabbi Yonatan retracted his original position, accepting the view that the dead could be cognizant of this world. Rabbi Yonatan's initial approach may be the thrust of the colorful declaration of another sage: "Disparaging the deceased is akin to disparaging a stone," perhaps implying that the dead know nothing of our deeds, though possibly indicating that they merely do not care. A middle position arises from an episode with the sons of Rabbi Hiyya, who traveled to their estates in distant villages. They stayed so long that they forgot the Torah they had studied and subsequently took pains to recall it. Bemoaning their unfortunate plight, one brother turned to his sibling: "Does our deceased father, Rabbi Hiyya, know about our anguish?" Despite having forgotten his learning, the other brother replied: "It is written 'His sons may attain honor and he - the deceased - will not know it' (Deuteronomy 17:6). No, our father is unaware of our distress." The first brother countered: "Yet it is written 'But his flesh will pain him and his spirit will mourn for him' (Job 14:22) and sages have noted that the worm is as painful to the dead as a needle is to living flesh. The dead, it seems, do sense the mortification of their bodies. Surely, our father must perceive our predicament." The Talmud balances these texts: The deceased know of their own suffering, but are unaware of the pain of others. Further in the passage other exceptions are offered: Though the dead might not be fully informed of worldly goings-on, they may be updated by the recently deceased. Alternatively, Duma, the angel appointed over the souls of the departed, can announce to the deceased who will be joining them. Thus, considering Rabbi Yonatan's retraction of his initial position, our passage seems to conclude that indeed the deceased are aware of at least certain worldly events. Elsewhere, one of the commentators reaches the diametrically opposite conclusion on the basis of our passage (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany): The dead know nothing of this earthly world. Considering a further passage, this commentator is willing to acknowledge one exception: The dead can be made aware of our troubles through prayer. Alas, until our dying day we may never know the resolution to this conundrum. Yet the great rabbinic leader, legalist and suspected Sabbatean, Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschuetz (18th century, central Europe), offers an appealing solution to the problem. He begins by citing the classic talmudic maxim "These and those are the words of the living God" (B. Eiruvin 13b; B. Gittin 6b), referring to conflicting normative opinions and implying that even in an argument all positions reflect the Divine in some way. Building on this premise, Rabbi Eybeschuetz suggests that both opinions are true in that they are referring to two different kinds of people: Some of the deceased are aware of what is occurring in this world, while others are not. Rabbi Eybeschuetz illustrates these two types: There are righteous people who live their lives caring for others, looking out for their neighbors and generally being interested in the public good and society around them. Such people continue after life to be aware of the physical world, as they were during their lifetime. There are people, however righteous in private they may be, who distance themselves from others during their lifetime. Such people find no time to consider the plight of those around them, the welfare of others or be involved in communal ventures. In death, they continue to be unaware of their physical surrounds, as disconnected from this earthly world as they always were. Rabbi Eybeschuetz tries to avoid any value judgment between these two personalities; both may be righteous people with altruistic goals. Their worldly demeanor, however, reverberates after their death. As we go about our daily lives, it may be worth considering the proposition that our earthly conduct and interaction with our environs may one day define our post-death existence. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.