DEATH, VIEWS AND CUSTOMS CONCERNING.
The ancient Hebrews expected to "be gathered to [or sleep with] their fathers" when death befell them (Gen. xxv. 8, xlvii. 30), and feared only the idea of going down to Sheol mourning (ib. xxxvii. 35). To sleep and be at rest was the desire of the distressed (Job iii. 13-22). To die "in a good old age"was regarded as a blessing (Gen. xv. 15, xxv.8); to be cut off from the land of the living in the noontide of life was dreaded and looked upon as a misfortune (Isa. xxxviii. 10). Only occasionally the stings of death and the stroke of Sheol became terrors, from which the Lord was petitioned to redeem man (Hosea xiii. 14; Ps. xvi. 10, xlix. 16 , lxxxvi. 13). Nowhere, however, in the Bible is death regarded as a real evil, except from the point of view that man, being of divine origin, should have had, like any other heavenly being, access to the tree of life and have lived forever (Gen. iii. 22). Accordingly, the eschatological view found expression in such phrases as that "the death will be swallowed up forever" and "the dead shall rise again" (compare Isa. xxv. 8, xxvi. 19).
Still the popular view in the days of Kohelet (Eccl. vii. 1, ix. 4-6) and of Ben Sira (Ecclus. [Sirach] xli. 1-4) was that there was no other prospect for man but that of the dreary life of the shades in Sheol, and this made life on earth all the more precious. Nor did this view in any way prevent Ben Sira from seeing in the yielding of the first woman to the tempter the cause of men's death (ib. xxv. 24). More pronounced on the latter point is the Book of Wisdom: "God created man to be immortal; . . . nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world" (Wisdom ii. 23, 24). "For God made not death; through righteousness immortality is obtained" (ib. i. 13, 16; vi. 18; xv. 3). This view (expressed also in Ethiopic Enoch. xcviii. 4 and Slavonic Enoch, xxx. 16-18) was made the basic idea of Paul's system of salvation (Rom. v. 12; I Cor. xv. 21; Heb. ii. 14), after the apocalyptic literature of the Jews had made the problem of sin and death the object of most serious reflection, which culminated in the hope of the final annihilation of death in the world to come (IV. Esd. iii. 7; vii. 32, 119; viii. 53). Satan is called in the New Testament "a murderer from the beginning" (John viii. 44) and "the destroyer" (I Cor. x. 10). See Death, Angel of, in Rabbinical Literature.
Death is conceived of as a person who has charge of the shades in the nether world (Ps. xlix. 15; see also Demonology). He is their general (Gen. R. xxvi.).
The following is the description of Death as one of God's messengers:
"When Abraham had refused to let the archangel Michael take his soul, God said to the latter: 'Call Me hither Death of the shameless countenance and the pitiless look, [this seems to allude to the name of Azazel——and the deadly look ( )]. Death shivered and trembled at being called to come before the Lord, when God said to him: 'Come hither, thou bitter and fierce name of the world [an allusion to both Azazel and , I Sam. XV. 32], hide thy flerceness, cover thy corruption, and cast away thy bitterness from thee, and put on thy beauty and all thy glory, and go down to Abraham My friend and bring him to Me.' Death put on a robe of great brightness and made his appearance like the sun, and became fair and beautiful above the sons of men, assuming the form of an archangel, his cheeks flaming with fire, and went to Abraham, a sweet odor and a flash of light announcing his coming to the patriarch, who took him to be an archangel, the chief captain of God, and welcomed him as the bringer of light and a most glorious helper. But Death rejoined: 'Most righteous Abraham, I am the bitter drop of Death' [, whence the name ]; and when asked for his errand, he said: 'For thy holy soul am I come.' Abraham again refused to give up his soul. Death followed him into his chamber, and when Abraham lay down upon his couch, he sat by his feet and would not depart, notwithstanding all the entreaties of the patriarch to let him live.
"On inquiry of the patriarch, he told him that only because of his great righteousness, his hospitality to men, and his love toward God, which became a crown of glory upon his head, did he approach him in such beauty and glory; to sinners he came in fierceness, corruption, and bitterness. 'Show me these,' asked Abraham; but Death replied, 'Thou canst not stand these looks.' Thereto Abraham answered: 'By means of the name of the living God——I shall be able to look.' So Death put off his sunlike glory and put on his tyrant-like robe and made his appearance fiercer than all wild beasts, and filthier than all filth, and he showed Abraham seven fiery serpents' heads and fourteen faces: (1) of flaming fire, (2) of darkness, (3) of a viper, (4) of a precipice, (5) of a fierce asp, (6) of a terrible lion, (7) of a cerastes, (8) of a basilisk, (9) of a fiery simitar, (10) of terrible lightning and thunder. (11) of a stormy sea, (12) of a rushing river, (13) of a three-headed serpent, and (14) of a cup filled with poison; and then he showed him every mortal disease emanating from the odor of Death. Seven thousand man-and maid-servants of Abraham died from the effect of this odor and sight, so that Abraham implored Death to hide his fierceness and to put on his former garb of beauty. Death complied with his request, and joined Abraham in a prayer to God to restore to life those who had died so suddenly by his fierceness; and the prayer was granted.
"Abraham, however, would not consent to surrender his soul until Death had explained to him the different forms and faces he had shown him in all their fierceness; whereupon Death replied that the seven heads of serpents indicated the seven ages during which he is to destroy all men, rich and poor, and to bring them to the bottom of Hades. Because people die by fire, by falling from precipices, by the sword, by rushing rivers, on the raging sea, and in storms of lightning, by wild beasts or cups of poison, he assumed all those aspects. Finally, he spoke of the seventy-two kinds of death [see Abraham, Testament of, and footnote,
Jew. Encyc.i. 95b] and of the death of the righteous. Then Death took the right hand of Abraham, and his soul clung to him."
Death appears here as the personification of psychical evil, with numerous traits borrowed from Ahriman in the Zend Avesta, but not of moral evil (see Test. Abraham, A, xvi.-xx.; "Texts and Studies," ii. 2, Cambridge, 1892; "Anti-Nicene Fathers," Eng. transl., pp. 183 et seq., New York, 1897; see also Dumah).
There are different views among Jews concerning the cause of death. Some assign it to Adam's first sin in partaking of the forbidden fruit (Tanna debe Eliyahu R. v.). This view is somewhat modified by the Rabbis, who regard death as the fruit of personal sin; maintaining that, like Adam, each person dies on account of his own sin (Shab. 55a, b), as "there is not a righteous man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not" (Eccl. vii. 20). Still, the Rabbis speak of a number of "saintly men who died without sin and only in consequence of the poison of the serpent" ( ), e.g., Benjamin; Amram; Jesse, the father of David; and Chileab, David's son (Shab. 55b; B. B. 17a; compare Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, where thirteen persons are named). Another view is that death was ordained at creation, and that Adam by his sin merely hastened death (Ex. R. ii.; Tan. [Yelamdenu], Wayesheb, ed. Vienna, 44b). According to others, Adam was destined to live forever and not to taste death, but, owing to the fact that men like Hiram of Tyre and Nebuchadnezzar wanted to be worshiped as gods, God decreed death for man (Ex. R. ix.). The opinion is also expressed that God would have annihilated the power of the angel of death over Israel after its acceptance of the Law,but for the fact that the divine decree could not be reversed ('Ab. Zarah 5a). From the point of view that sin precedes and causes death in each person, the Talmud designates special reasons for the death of innocent children (Shab. 32b).Modes of Death.
There are 903 (, Ps. lxviii. 21) distinct deaths. The hardest is by asthma; and the easiest is called ("death by the kiss"), which is "like drawing a hair out of milk": that is the interpretation of ("by the mouth of the Lord," Deut. xxxiv. 5, Hebr.). Six persons are known to have died in that way; namely, the three patriarchs, and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (B. B. 17a).
Death coming after five days' illness is considered ordinary; after four days, a reprimand of Heaven; after three days, a severe rebuke; after two days, a hastened death; after one day, a sudden one, or, according to some, an apoplectic one (M. K. 28a). To die before reaching the age of fifty is ("to be cut off," Lev. xviii. 29). Sixty years is a ripe age; seventy is old age; and eighty, advanced age (M. K. 28a).Communication with the Living.
Many allegorical tales are related in rabbinical literature about the communication of the dead with the living. A pious man, being rebuked by his wife for giving away a dinar (denarius) to a beggar in time of famine, went to sleep in the cemetery. It was New-Year's eve, and he overheard the spirits of two women gossiping. One of them proposed to fly and listen behind the curtain in the judgment chamber to the promulgation of the future visitations in the world. The other spirit excused herself, saying, "I can not accompany thee because I am buried in reed matting; go thyself, and come back and tell me what thou hearest." Presently her companion returned and reported: "I heard that the hail will kill whatever is planted in the first rainy season." The pious man planted in the second season. The following year he again went to sleep in the cemetery on New-Year's eve, and overheard a similar conversation, gaining the information that whatever was planted in the second season would be consumed by blight. The pious man planted during the first season. His wife was curious to know how he managed to evade the calamitous visitations, and he, being pressed, related his story. A few days later the woman had a quarrel with the mother of the second spirit, and abused her for having given her daughter an indecent burial. The third year the pious husband again sought to obtain information regarding future crops; the second spirit said, "Hush, companion! our former conversation was overheard by mortal men" (Ber. 18a).
R. Ze'ira left his money with the mistress of a boarding-house. Returning, he found that she had died. He repaired to the cemetery and inquired of her: "Where is my money?" Said she: "Go, take it from the socket under the door-pivot. At the same time tell my mother to send me my comb and the eye-dye flask by a certain woman who will arrive here to-morrow" (ib. 18b).
A similar story is told of Samuel, who was absent when his father Abba died, and wished to find out where he treasured the money entrusted to him by orphans. Samuel went to the cemetery and inquired after "Abba," but was told, "There are many 'Abbas' here." Said he, "I want Abba, the son of Abba." "There are many by this name." "But I want Abba b. Abba, the father of Samuel [Samuel being more famous than his father]; where is he?" He was informed that his father was studying at the high yeshibah in heaven. On reaching it Samuel observed Levi standing outside, as a punishment for not attending R. Aphes' yeshibah below. Meanwhile Abba appeared. Samuel saw him crying and laughing, and asked him: "Why cryest thou?" "Because thou wilt soon join us." Why laughest thou?" "Because thou art very much respected here." "If so," said Samuel, "let Levi enter!" And Levi was allowed to enter. Then the father informed Samuel where to find the money (ib.).Continued Consciousness of the Dead.
The dead are supposed to take an active interest in worldly affairs. The assertion of Kohelet that "The dead know not anything" (Eccl. ix, 5) is interpreted. "The wicked who are considered dead while yet alive." R. Isaac said, "The sting of a worm to the dead is like the pricking of a pin in the flesh of the living" (Shab. 13b). The dead are very sensitive. One must not tell tales around the death-bed of a scholar (Ber. 19a). Inasmuch, however, as the dead are exempt from performing the precepts, they feel slighted if such performance should take place in their presence by the living, as it would be like "mocking the poor" (Prov. xvii. 5). R. Ḥiyya, on his way to the cemetery with R. Jonathan, noticed the ẓiẓit of the latter's garment untied, and admonished him to pick them up, else the dead would remark, "To-morrow they will join us, and now they scoff us" (Ber. 18a; compare Yer. Ber. 4c, d; Eccl. R. ix. 5; see Bacher, "Ag. Tan." ii. 526). From this it is inferred that where the custom prevails to wrap the dead with a ṭallit over the shroud, the fringe must be removed or made unfit for purposes of prayer (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 351). Also, in burying a scholar it is customary to deposit in his coffin a scroll that is unfit for reading (ib. 351; Maimonides, "Yad," Sefer Torah, x. 36).
The Zohar obviously disapproves this practise of making use of the cemetery as a genizah for defective scrolls, and tells the following story of R. Hezekiah and R. Jose, who were passing the ruins of Aleppo in Syria, the latter carrying along a fragment of a scroll. While resting they heard a rumbling noise arising from a grave, and a cry: "Wo, wo, the world must be in trouble, for the Torah has appeared here. Or perhaps they come again to laugh at us and disgrace us?" The rabbis were frightened and asked, "Who art thou?" "I am a dead man. Once upon a time, when the world was in trouble, R. Ḥiyya came here with a scroll to pray. I and my comrades went out to meet him, and introduced him to the patriarchs in paradise; but on examination the scroll was found to be defective, having a superfluous letter 'waw' in the word [Lev. xi. 3], and because we admitted him we were expelled from the high yeshibah" (Zohar, ed. Cracow, ) 127.
The practise of praying for the intercession of the dead is of early origin. Caleb on reaching Hebron visited the cave of Machpelah, and prayed to the patriarch to be saved from cooperating in the conspiracy of the scouts sent by Moses to make a report of the conditions existing in the Holy Land (Soṭah 34b). The Talmud mentions the custom of visiting the cemetery to request the dead to pray for the living (Ta'an. 16a; compare ib. 23b).The Soul of the Dying.
The noise of the soul's departure from the body reverberates through the world from one end to the other, and yet the sound is unheard (Yoma 20b). Prior to the soul's exit it sees the Shekinah (Pirḳe R. El. xxxiv.). The soul after death is in the same condition as it is in life when one dreams (ib.). Until the body is entirely consumed the soul hovers over the grave (Shab. 152b).
R. Judah ha-Nasi in his last will commanded his sons that on every Sabbath eve after his demise they should continue to light the candles, set the table, and prepare the couch in their customary places, as on every Sabbath eve he would visit his home. Once a neighbor knocked at the door for entrance, and Rabbi's servant answered: "Hush! Rabbi is at home." After this, Rabbi ceased his visits, so as not to reflect on the righteous men who died before him (Ket. 103a). Samuel said: "If one wants to have a taste of death, let him sleep with his shoes on" (Yoma 78b). "And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. i. 31). "This includes death," wrote R. Meïr on the margin of his Bible, playing on the similarity of and (Gen. R. ix.). "The day of death [is better] than the day of one's birth" (Eccl. vii. 1) is explained in Eccl. R. ad loc. and Ex. R. xlviii. to mean that "death tells of the meritorious life of the departed; it is like the vessel entering port laden with goods." The great ones of each generation must die to make room for the greatness of successors; "the righteous themselves ask for death as a favor" (Midr. Teh. to Ps. cxvi. 15). The Zohar calls death a festal day (; Zohar, Shemini, in referring to the death of Nadab and Abihu; compare also Heilprin, "'Er Ke ha-Kinnuyim," fol. 20c.) The day when Adam died was made a holiday (Tanna debe Eliyahu R. xvi.).
The windows of the death-chamber should be opened to allow the spirits to enter and to depart (, s.v. , vi.; see Birds as Souls).Superstitions.
The angel of death is supposed to wipe his bloody knife in water near the dead; hence all water of the adjacent houses must be emptied on the ground (Yoreh De'ah, 339). As the "shedim" are supposed to follow the dead or to hover around the graves, those who follow a funeral cortége must wash their hands on their return, before entering a house (ib. 376, 4); but should not dip them in the river. A special lavatory for this purpose is usually provided at the cemetery. On returning from the funeral one should sit down and rest on the way several times, so as to drive away the spirits that follow him (Ṭur Yoreh De'ah, 375). The board upon which the dead is cleansed must not be turned over. One should not visit the same grave twice during one day (Will of R. Judah the Pious); nor sleep in the cemetery (Nid. 17a); nor look closely on the face of a dead person; nor kiss the dead, not even when a near relative ("Sefer Ḥasidim," § 236).Omens of Death.
A common superstition is current that if the shadow of one's head is invisible against the wall in a house where a light is burning on Hosha'na Rabbah eve, it is a sign that the person is destined to die within the year; if visible, he will live (see Naḥmani, commentary on Num. xiv. 9). R. Ammi says: "If one wishes to know whether he will live during the following year, let him during the ten Penitential Days burn a candle in his house where no wind can blow it out. If it does not become extinguished he will live; otherwise, not" (Hor. 12a). To discover whether the husband or the wife will die first, calculate the numerical value of the letters in the names of both. If the amount is even, the man will die first; if odd, the woman (, letter Mem, § 6).
Superstitions concerning death in connection with dreams are numerous. One of them, the vision of a scroll in the Ark, foretells death, as the death of Aaron follows the description of the tablets placed in the Ark ("Sefer Ḥasidim," § 533). See Dreams.
A dying child may be released from death's grasp if nominally sold by the parents to a friend for a shekel ("Sefer Ḥasidim," § 245). A change of name may save from death (R. H. 16b). Removal of a feather pillow from beneath the head of a dying person helps the soul to depart more easily. But some rabbis objected to this treatment, on the ground that it disturbs the sinking person and hastens his death ( to Ṭur Yoreh De'ah, 339; "Sefer Ḥasidim," § 245-246). The iron keys of the synagogue, if placed under the pillow, have the same effect (ib.). In accordance with Prov. x. 18: "He that uttereth slander [ = "evil news"] is a fool." Announcement of death should be made indirectly (Pes. 3b); it was for this reason that the shofar was blown in Talmudical times when death occurred in a town (M. K. 27b). The beadle who summons the congregation to early morning prayer by three knocks at their doors or windows, announces a death in the town by reducing the number of knocks to two. It is a good omen to die with a smile on the face, or to die on one's birthday. Rain on the day of a funeral is a sign of compassion and forgiveness toward the dead (Ṭur Yoreh De'ah, 353).
It is customary to bend the thumb of the corpse so that the whole hand resembles the word "Shaddai" (Almighty), and to bind it in this position with the ẓiẓit. A shard is placed on the eyes, a little stick in the hands, a piece of metal on the body, a little bag with earth from the Holy Land under the head, and a three-toothed wooden fork in the hands, to enable the dead to excavate a subterranean way to the Holy Land on the day of resurrection, when all the Jewish dead will arise in Palestine. A towel is hung up and a glass of water placed beside it, so that the soul might bathe when it returns to the body.