Berakhot 19

Human dignity versus Torah law.

According to the mishnah still under discussion on today’s daf, the relatives of a recently-deceased person are exempt not only from prayer but from all positive commandments in the Torah (the “thou shalts” and as opposed to the “thou shalt nots,” which are always in effect). And this is in fact the practice today — between death and burial, close relatives of the deceased are in a state called aninut and are exempt from many religious obligations.

The mishnah extends the exemptions around prayer beyond the immediate relatives of the deceased to include the pallbearers and those who form two rows to offer condolences for the bereaved after a funeral. These funeral participants, though not close family mourners, are also exempt from reciting Shema because they are busy with sacred duties.

On today’s daf, the Gemara attempts to expand this idea into an even larger principle, that the preservation of human dignity takes precedence over the Torah’s commands. May one violate a law of the Torah — even a negative prohibition, a “thou shalt not” — in order to preserve the dignity of a human being? Perhaps so:

Come and hear: Great is human dignity, as it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.

Immediately, this sweeping principle is challenged. The Gemara brings a teaching that if one suddenly discovers his clothing contains interwoven wool and linen — a forbidden mixture known as kilayim or shatnez — it must be promptly removed, even in the marketplace. This would seem to suggest that one’s personal embarrassment does not override the need to immediately cease a violation of Jewish law.

On the other hand, the Gemara also brings this teaching in support of the principle that human dignity overrides a Torah prohibition:

If a mourner walks through the cemetery along an impure path, all of the funeral participants accompany him on the impure path in order to show him respect.

In Jewish ritual law, walking too close to a corpse can impart ritual impurity, so under ordinary circumstances a cemetery is a place to choose one’s path carefully. As this teaching shows, however, the rabbis cared less about the requirement of ritual purity than the dignity of the bereaved.

In the end, the Gemara ultimately fails to uphold the general principle that human dignity permits the violation of laws that are explicit in the Torah. But it surely says something about the sensibilities of the rabbis that they tried.

Read all of Berakhot 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 22, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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