Berakhot 18

What the dead know.

Today’s daf finds us discussing a mishnah that outlines various religious duties a mourner is exempt from, including: ShemaAmidahtefillin, and all positive commandments in the Torah. In short order, the rabbis find themselves reflecting on a question that people have wondered about for millennia: What do the dead know about what is happening in the world of the living?

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yonatan were walking in a cemetery and the sky-blue string of Rabbi Yonatan’s ritual fringes were dragging across the graves. Rabbi Hiyya said to him: Lift it, so the dead will not say: Tomorrow, when their day comes, they will come to be buried with us, and now they are insulting us.

Why insulted? Because the dead, being unable to perform the commandment of wearing fringes, known as tzitzit, might feel that the living are mocking them by dragging the fringes across their graves.

Yonatan, however, challenges the idea that the dead know what’s happening in the world, and from there it’s off to the races. Verses are cited, stories are told, arguments are made and dismissed. Eventually the Gemara presents three stories, each of them an attempt to prove that the dead are conscious of the world. Here’s one of them:

Ze’iri would deposit his dinars [coins] with his innkeeper [for safe-keeping]. While he was going and coming to and from the school of Rav, she died, and he did not know where she had put the money. So he went to her grave in the cemetery and said to her: Where are the dinars? She replied: Go and get them from beneath the hinge of the door in such and such a place, and tell my mother that she should send me my comb and a tube of eyeshadow with such and such a woman who will die and come here tomorrow. 

The Gemara ultimately rejects this story as a proof that the dead know what happens in the land of the living, suggesting that perhaps an angel informed the innkeeper that the woman was about to die.

In fact, all the stories the Gemara relates are ultimately rejected and the matter isn’t really resolved, despite the many lines of talmudic real estate given over to it (the stories are not brief).

But the exchange highlights something significant about the worldview of the rabbis. The world of magic, where the dead can be insulted, receive messages from the land of the living (and vice versa: they can send them too) — these aren’t mere parables or abstractions, but topics as worthy of debate as the time for reciting the Shema.

Read all of Berakhot 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 21, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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