Natural Death

April 29, 2012

6 min read


Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

The Torah (Leviticus 21:5) prohibits various extreme forms of mourning the death of loved ones. As the laws of nature require every living thing to eventually die, why is human nature to mourn the death of a loved one, sad as it may be, with such intensity when we mentally recognize that it is inevitable?

Nachmanides, in his work Toras HaAdam on the laws and customs of death and mourning, offers a fascinating explanation for this phenomenon. When God originally created the first man, Adam, He intended him to be immortal and created him with a nature reflecting this reality. When Adam sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit, he brought death to mankind and to the entire world.

Nevertheless, this new development, although it would completely change the nature of our life on earth until the Messianic era, had no effect on man's internal makeup, which was designed to reflect the reality that man was intended to live forever. Therefore, although our minds recognize that people ultimately must die and we see and hear about death on a daily basis, our internal makeup remains as it was originally designed, one which expects our loved ones to live forever as they were originally intended to do, and which is therefore plunged into intense mourning when confronted with the reality that this is no longer the case.

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Even though the Torah seems to require (Leviticus 24:20) "an eye for an eye" - that somebody who harms another person shall be punished by having that same wound inflicted on him - the Talmud (Bava Kamma 84a) teaches that this is not meant literally. Rather, the damager must financially compensate his victim for the harm that he caused him. Why did the Torah write this law in a manner which could be misunderstood if this isn't its true meaning?

The Chazon Ish (Kovetz Igros 3:102) explains that one of the purposes of the Torah is to teach us proper character traits, and by studying its laws and mitzvot, a person can acquire accurate values and outlooks. The greater the punishment prescribed by the Torah for a sin, the more a person should be repulsed by it and distance himself from it. Therefore, even though the actual punishment for physically harming another person is financial in nature, the Torah expressed it in stronger terms, implying that the damager will be punished with the loss of whatever limb he injured, so that we should appreciate the severity of hurting another person and take the necessary precautions to avoid doing so.

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Leviticus 23:15 contains the mitzvah known as Sefiras HaOmer - counting the Omer. During each successive day of this 7-week period, we are commanded to count the passing days and weeks. There is one unique law about this mitzvah which is difficult to understand. If somebody accidentally forgets to count even one of the days during this period, he may no longer continue counting on successive days with a blessing. Because the entire count is considered to be one big mitzvah, somebody who misses even one day can no longer fulfill the mitzvah that year.

This concept seems to be unparalleled among other mitzvot. If somebody accidentally ate chametz on Pesach, forgot to light a menorah on one night of Chanukah, or ate outside of the Sukkah on Sukkos, nobody would suggest that he is now exempt from continuing to observe the mitzvah during the duration of the holiday. Why is counting the Omer unique in this regard?

The Midrash teaches that Rebbi Akiva grew up as an uneducated and ignorant shepherd. That all changed when at the age of 40, he noticed a rock with a hole which had been born through it by dripping water. He reasoned that if the water could penetrate the hard rock, certainly the Torah (which is also compared to water) could penetrate the soft flesh of his heart. He was motivated to begin learning, starting from scratch with the alphabet until he eventually became the greatest scholar of his generation. Although this story is inspiring, what deeper message did Rebbi Akiva find in the dripping water which gave him confidence in his new undertaking?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that when a person wants to boil water, he puts a pot on the stove for one minute until it begins to boil. What would happen if he instead placed it on the stove for 30 seconds, removed it from the flame for five minutes, and then returned it for another 30 seconds? Even though the water would have been on the fire for a full minute, it wouldn't boil. The obvious explanation is that it isn't the amount of time that the water is on the flame which is crucial, but the continuity. It is the accumulated power of the heat during 60 uninterrupted seconds which allows the water to boil.

Similarly, Rebbi Akiva was skeptical about his potential for beginning to study Torah at his age. If he had to start from the beginning and could cover only a little ground daily, how much could he really accomplish? However, when he saw the hole in the rock created by the water, he recognized his error.

Although each individual drop of water makes no distinguishable impression on the rock, the cumulative effect of their continuous dripping is indeed great. Understanding the power latent in consistency, Rebbi Akiva set off to study daily until he became the leader of the generation.

The 7-week period of the Omer is one in which we prepare to celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuos. As a result, Rabbi Eliezer Fireman suggests that the Torah specifically requires us to count the Omer without missing a day to symbolically teach us the importance of stability in our Torah study. Rebbi Akiva teaches us that the key isn't the age at which we start, but rather the consistency and permanence of our studies. If we persevere, the "hole" will be greater than the sum of the parts.

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One of the reasons given for the happiness associated with Lag B'Omer is that on this day, the students of Rebbi Akiva, who had died en masse every day since Pesach, stopped dying. As there are no coincidences in Judaism, why did they specifically stop dying at this time?

The 7 weeks between Pesach and Shavuos represents a period in which we prepare ourselves to celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuos. The leaders of the Mussar movement point out that the Mishnah (Avos 6:6) teaches that there 48 traits by which the Torah is acquired. Since there are 49 days during which we prepare to reaccept the Torah, they maintained that it would be appropriate to use this time to develop within ourselves the qualities and attributes which are necessary to accept and acquire the Torah on Shavuos. Therefore, on each day of this period, they worked on understanding and instilling within themselves one of these qualities. Since there were only 48 traits, they used the last day for a general overview of all of them.

In his work Lekach Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Baifus suggests that if the founders of the Mussar movement engaged in this commendable practice, certainly the lofty Sages of the Talmud did so as well. The 32nd trait by which the Torah is acquired is ohev et habriot - "love of one's fellow man." The Talmud teaches (Yevamos 62b) that the reason for the death of Rebbi Akiva's disciples was that they didn't feel and display appropriate respect toward one another. Rabbi Baifus suggests that once they had worked on the trait of loving one another on the 32nd day, they rectified the cause of this tragedy, and indeed on the following day the students stopped dying.

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If a person is forced to spend Sukkos either in a community which has the four species (Leviticus 23:40) but no sukkah or in a place which has a sukkah (Leviticus 23:42) but not the four species, which one should he choose?)

The Mateh Ephraim (625:22) writes that in such a situation, the person may go to whichever location he prefers, and there is no legal preference to perform one mitzvah over the other.

However, the Elef HaMagen (625:22) cites several sources who rule that the person should go to the town which has the sukkah for three reasons. First, the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah is Biblically applicable all 7 days of Sukkos, whereas the mitzvah of taking the 4 species applies Biblically only on the first day. Second, the mitzvah of dwelling the sukkah can be fulfilled constantly throughout the day, while the mitzvah of taking the 4 species can only be performed once a day. Finally, the fact that the Torah refers to the festival using the name "Sukkos" is an indication that this mitzvah is considered the primary essence of the Yom Tov.

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The Torah (Leviticus 23:42) commands us to dwell in the sukkah for 7 days, eating and sleeping there as we would in our own homes. Unfortunately, the size and layout of many houses aren't conducive to building sukkahs large enough to accommodate the family's needs. If a person's sukkah isn't big enough for everybody to fit in it, meals can be eaten in shifts. However, sleeping in shifts isn't very practical. Is it permitted to wait until some of them are sleeping and then gently drag them out of the sukkah?

As far-fetched as this suggestion sounds, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach actually rules that it is permissible. He explains that the mitzvah is only to go to sleep in the sukkah, but once a person is already sleeping, he is unconscious and exempt from any further obligation in mitzvot until he awakens. Although permissible, this may not be so feasible, as if the person wakes up while being moved, he must once again return to the sukkah to fall asleep, thereby defeating the entire purpose of the plan.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Yisroel Reisman suggests a more practical application of this ruling. If the weather forecast calls for a torrential downpour in the middle of the night and a person doesn't want to be awakened by it, he can simply go to sleep in the sukkah, and once he is sound asleep, somebody can spread a cover across the top of the sukkah. Although this invalidates the sukkah, the person is already sleeping and exempt from the mitzvah, and doing so will allow him a warm and dry night's sleep.

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