As we near tomorrow’s conclusion of Tractate Ketubot, our daf turns philosophical with a conversation about the Jewish tradition of resurrection of the dead. The rabbis are discussing the manner in which that will happen, including the fascinating possibility that the bones of the departed will actually roll through magical tunnels to the land of Israel where they will be restored to life. But perhaps more importantly, they consider who will be deserving of resurrection at all.
After debating whether a person must live in Israel or be buried there in order to be resurrected (thankfully for those of us who live in the Diaspora, the answer is seemingly no), the Gemara next turns to the question of whether a person’s level of Torah scholarship has bearing on whether they will merit to be revived after they have died.
Rabbi Elazar said: The common, uneducated people will not come alive, as it is stated: “The dead live not” (Isaiah 26:14).
Rabbi Elazar relies on a prooftext from Isaiah to demonstrate that those who do not study Torah will not be resurrected, attempting to prove that the word “dead” really means “unlearned.” If this view seems harsh to you, you’re not alone.
Rabbi Yohanan said: Their master (God) is not pleased that you say this. That verse is written about one who weakens himself (and succumbs) to idol worship.
Ouch. Nothing like being told that God is displeased with what you are teaching, especially when the accuser is Rabbi Yohanan, a huge force in Torah learning in Israel.
Undeterred, Rabbi Elazar tries again:
I teach a different verse, as it is written: “For Your dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades” (Isaiah 26:19). Anyone who uses the light of Torah, the light of Torah will revive him; and anyone who does not use the light of Torah, the light of Torah will not revive him.
Here, Rabbi Elazar equates the life-giving “dew of light” mentioned in a different verse in Isaiah with the light of Torah. This second argument seems equally ineffectual, as Rabbi Yohanan does not even comment on it. Finally, the Talmud relates:
Since (Rabbi Elazar) saw that (Rabbi Yohanan) was grieved, he said to him: My teacher, I have found for them a remedy from the Torah: “But you who cleave to the Lord your God, are alive every one of you this day” (Deuteronomy 4:4).
But is it possible to cleave to the Divine Presence? Isn’t it written: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24)?
Rather, anyone who marries his daughter to a Torah scholar, and one who conducts business on behalf of Torah scholars, and one who (utilizes his wealth) to benefit Torah scholars with his property, the verse ascribes him (credit) as though he is cleaving to the Divine Presence.
Is the third time the charm for Rabbi Elazar? Here, he changes his approach, saying that cleaving to God is the ticket to resurrection. And how do we cleave to God? By supporting Torah scholars.
It’s worth noting that the Talmud was created by and for rabbis, so there’s more than a bit of self-preservation to Rabbi Elazar’s final argument. Rabbis and their families, especially those who did not have other ways to sustain themselves financially, relied on members of the community to support their Torah study. That enterprise continues today — just visit a synagogue or Jewish day school and note the names engraved on plaques or on the side of the building. Jewish education has always relied on support from those who aren’t actually doing the teaching.
Rabbi Elazar’s final argument mitigates his initial statement, but it doesn’t achieve total inclusivity, as it still guarantees resurrection only to Torah scholars and those with the money to support them. What about those that Rabbi Yohanan was concerned with — ordinary Jews?
A solution might be found in the very prooftext from Deuteronomy that Rabbi Elazar cites. Those words are familiar to many of us as the passage chanted at the beginning of the Torah service, just before the first person comes up to say the aliyah blessing. By choosing a verse proclaiming that all who cleave to God “are alive, every one of you this day” to recite just prior to the public reading of the Torah, Jewish tradition seemingly answers Rabbi Yohanan’s concern about including even unlearned Jews in the resurrection. If “every one” of the Jewish people can cleave to God, then everyone is included.
This idea is further strengthened by Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith, popularized in the Yigdal prayer chanted in many congregations on Friday night. As the service closes, we sing: “God will revive the dead in God’s full kindness, may God’s name be blessed and praised forever.” Maimonides doesn’t qualify which of these dead will be revived, but his unqualified statement that “God will revive the dead” suggests that God gives the gift of resurrection to everyone.
Read all of Ketubot 111 on Sefaria.