Shabbat 30

Matters of life and death.

Yesterday’s daf discussed blowing out a Sabbath lamp to help a sick person sleep and heal (or, as you might recall, to extinguish one’s fear of demonic attack). Today’s daf builds on that discussion to explore issues of life and death more broadly.

On 30a, Rabbi Tanhum offers an extended meditation on whether it is better to be dead or alive. He begins with a verse in Psalms that is attributed to King David:

That which David said: “The dead do not praise the Lord, neither any that go down into silence” (Psalms 115:17); this is what he is saying: A person should always engage in Torah and mitzvot before he dies, as once he is dead he is idle from Torah and mitzvot and there is no praise for the Holy One, Blessed be He, from him.

According to Rabbi Tanhum, it is a person’s actions which praise God; when a person dies, their potential to glorify God dies too.

The Gemara juxtaposes this teaching with two other biblical verses about life and death, both rabbinically attributed to King David’s son Solomon:

And I praised the dead that are already dead more than the living that are yet alive” (Ecclesiastes 4:2).

For a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4).

You might, at a literal level, understand that Ecclesiastes 4:2 views the dead more favorably than the living. But, Rabbi Tanhum argues, the dead who are being praised in Ecclesiastes 4:2 are only the particularly righteous dead, i.e. Moses, or perhaps David himself. Rabbi Tanhum drives home the point with Ecclesiastes 9:4 which teaches that the life of simple creatures is more important than the dead body of even a giant among men such as King David. Even if a dead man is worthy of being praised, it is still better to be alive.

In a world where we can sometimes imagine that our forebears were more righteous than us, that things in the past were simpler and holier, Rabbi Tanhum insists that it is still better to be alive right now. Only the living can continue to learn, grow, act righteously, and through their actions, glorify God.

And yet the Gemara immediately undermines this notion with an interesting description of the afterlife as a place bustling with creative and righteous activity. After all, the rabbis imagine, if we won’t all be busy with Torah and mitzvot, what on earth (or, rather, in heaven) are we going to be doing when dead? The Gemara imagines an afterlife world of boundless creativity:

Rabban Gamliel was sitting and he interpreted a verse homiletically: In the future, in the World-to-Come, a woman will give birth every day, as it says: “The woman with child and her that gives birth together” (Jeremiah 31:7), explaining that birth will occur on the same day as conception.

A certain student scoffed at him and said: That cannot be, as it has already been stated: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Rabban Gamliel said to him: Come and I will show you an example of this in this world. He took him outside and showed him a chicken that lays eggs every day.

In the afterlife, humans will reproduce every day (presumably avoiding all the pains of morning sickness, stretchmarks, and the slow changes of the pregnant body). This may be meant as a kind of metaphor for the vitality and fecundity of the World-to-Come. The Gemara later describes that in heaven trees will flower and fruit every day, and that rather than sprout grain and flax, the land of Israel will grow ready-made cakes and clothing straight from the ground.

These are not simple flights of fancy — in each of these cases, the rabbis are envisioning the afterlife as a perfected version of our world. For the rabbis, death is real — and so is the afterlife. And yet what matters most to them is life itself. That’s why the afterlife is modeled on the real world. The valorous dead are nice, a glorious afterlife is a lovely hope, but it is one’s actual life — and the learning and actions that one can do with it — that matter most.

Read all of Shabbat 30 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 5, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here

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