Moed Katan 29

From strength to strength.

Rabbi Hanina said: The soul’s departure from the body is as difficult as it is for a knotted rope to pass through an eye in a ship’s rigging.

Yesterday, when the rabbis asked whether death was painful, Rava reported, via intelligence he received in a dream from the recently deceased Rav Nahman, that it feels like skimming a hair from the surface of milk. In the end, he reassures us, death is gentle.

But that doesn’t mean it is easy. According to Rabbi Hanina, the soul is reluctant to depart from the body, stubbornly clinging to life like a knot that refuses to squeeze through the eye of a ship’s rigging. Some commentators read the word for knotted rope (tzippori) as bird and the word for the eye of a ship’s rigging (veshet) as esophagus. Death sticks in the craw.

Nonetheless, however reluctant, the soul eventually departs. When it does, we offer our last earthly goodbyes to the dearly departed. What should we say?

Rabbi Levi bar Hayyata said: One who departs from the deceased should not say to him, “Go to peace,” but rather, “Go in peace.” One who departs from the living should not say to him, “Go in peace,” but rather, “Go to peace.”

It is not clear exactly why we should wish for someone who is alive to “go to peace” but change prepositions and wish the person who has died to “go in peace.” When David tells Absalom to “go in peace” (2 Samuel 15:9), the latter ends up dead in very short order. On the other hand, when Jethro blesses Moses to “go to peace,” Moses leaves to successfully initiate the redemption from Egypt (Exodus 4:18). The commentators offer some insight into this prepositional particularity. The Ran suggests that we do not use “to” for the dead because we do not wish to draw attention to their ultimate destination.

This somber talk of ultimate goodbyes feels like a fitting way to close out our tractate. (Yes, this is the last page!) What began as a discussion of the rules for hol hamoed — the intermediate festival days of Passover and Sukkot during which some but not all work is permitted, in order to preserve the sanctity and joy of the festival but not totally disrupt people’s lives and livelihoods — pivoted in this last chapter to the rules of death, burial and mourning. But instead of leaving us here, bidding farewell to those we have lost, at the last moment the rabbis turn us back from the grave to the center of Jewish religious life. 

And Rabbi Levi said: Anyone who leaves from the synagogue and goes to the study hall or goes from the study hall to the synagogue, merits to receive the Divine Presence, as it is stated: “They go from strength to strength, every one of them appears before God in Zion.” (Psalms 84:8)

It’s a blessing used commonly among Jews today — may you go from strength to strength. According to Rabbi Levi, the study hall and the synagogue are the two great sources of Jewish strength — the houses of worship and learning. It is by toggling between these that we strengthen ourselves and our community.

And just maybe we will get to keep that up, even beyond this life, as Rav Hiyya bar Ashi, speaking in the name of Rav, offers us the last word in this tractate:

Torah scholars have no rest, even in the World to Come, as it is stated: “They go from strength to strength, every one of them appears before God in Zion.” (Psalms 84:8)

Leaning into the second half of the quotation from Psalms, this final teaching in Moed Katan imagines what the afterlife might be — unending opportunities to learn and grow and continue going from strength to strength, this time in the very presence of God. Perhaps the study of Talmud, as we go from page to page, tractate to tractate, might just be a foretaste. Hadran alach Massechet Moed Katan — we will return to you, Tractate Moed Katan. And may we go from strength to strength.

Read all of Moed Katan 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 10th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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Shalom shalom.