Talmudic pages

Moed Katan 28

Fooling the Angel of Death.

It’s probably a given that most of us would like to avoid death — not only because we enjoy life, but because we worry that dying itself will be painful. The rabbis worried about that too. On today’s daf we read two descriptions of what death might feel like, and six cases of rabbis encountering death. We can’t cover it all in-depth here, so feel free to dive into the page for a deeper look.

If you want to know what it feels like to die, you have to ask a dead person. That’s exactly what Rav Seorim asks his dead brother, Rava, who visits him in a dream. Rava answers that death feels: 

Like the prick of the knife when letting blood.

Presumably letting blood was a common enough practice that it was not feared, even if it hurt a bit. This is as if to say: pain of death hurts, but not a lot. 

Next, we get an even more soothing answer. We learn that, before he died, Rava had harbored the same question, and asked it of Rav Nahman who predeceased him and also appeared to him in a dream. Rav Nahman told him that death felt: 

Like the removal of hair from milk.

It’s a comforting image — the idea that removing the soul from the body is akin to gently skimming a hair from the surface of a glass of milk. This suggests a practically painless experience. And what’s even more reassuring is Rav Nahman’s insistence that the fear of death is far worse than the actual experience, as he tells Rava:

Were the Holy One, Blessed be He, to say to me: “Go back to the physical world,” I would not want to go, for the fear of the Angel of Death is great.

Rava assures us that though fear of death is great, actually dying and being dead is not so bad.

Still, life-loving humans — including the rabbis — would rather avoid it. Next the Gemara details six cases of rabbis actively trying to avoid death. First, Rabbi Elazar admonishes the Angel of Death who comes to take him as he’s eating the holy food of terumah. To the Angel of Death, he says:

I am eating terumah; is it not called sacred?

By scolding the Angel of Death for coming at such an inopportune time, the Angel of Death is put off and, the Gemara reports, Rabbi Elazar escapes death in that moment.

Rabbi Elazar lived to see another day — and he wasn’t the only one. Rav Sheshet also shamed the Angel of Death by scolding:

In the market like an animal?! Come to my house!

Rav Ashi likewise bought himself more time on earth. Also approached by the Angel of Death while in the marketplace, he asks for 30 days to review his learning. The Angel of Death acquiesces and, 30 days later, Rav Ashi meets him again. Once again, Rav Ashi asks for an extension, at which point the Angel of Death responds:

The foot of Rav Huna bar Natan is pushing you, as he is ready to succeed you as the leader of the generation, and one sovereignty does not overlap with its counterpart, even by one hairbreadth.

With Rav Huna bar Natan ready to take over leadership, Rav Ashi’s time has come. This is a theme we have encountered elsewhere in the Talmud — the notion that older rabbinic leaders must pass away to make room for younger leaders (see Megillah 28).

Rav Hisda avoided the angel of death by studying constantly — similar to the technique that Rav Ashi employed. On today’s page, we read that“his mouth was never silent from study.”That is, until one day when a cedar column of the study hall cracked and, for just a moment, Rav Hisda was silent, and the Angel of Death was able to take him.

This collection of stories of rabbis temporarily getting the better of the Angel of Death are then contrasted by the story of Rabbi Hiyya who was so righteous that death couldn’t come for him. So how did he die?

The Angel of Death could not come near Rabbi Hiyya (to take him). One day, the Angel of Death appeared to him as a poor person. He came and knocked on the door and said to Rabbi Hiyya: “Bring out bread for me.” And he took out bread for him.

The Angel of Death then said to Rabbi Hiyya: “Master, do you not have mercy on a poor person? Why, then, do you not have mercy on me, and give me what I want?” The Angel of Death then revealed his identity to him, and showed him a fiery rod. Rabbi Hiyya surrendered himself to him.

Rabbi Hiyya was so righteous that he didn’t need to do anything special to ward of death — his greatness was such that the Angel of Death needed his cooperation. And perhaps because he was so great, when the Angel of Death told him it was time, he submitted.

Fear of death and avoidance of death can be, as today’s page readily acknowledges, utterly exhausting. And ultimately, as we all know, futile. No wonder Rabbi Elazar said that even if he could come back to life, he wouldn’t — if only to avoid the constant fear of death.

Read all of Moed Katan 28 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 9th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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