Friday, October 23, 2009

Simhat Torah - Supplement (Erez Chipman)


Last Tuesday marked the sheloshim, thirty days since the passing of my infant grandson, Erez b. Yitzhak Meir and Leeza Sheina. In his memory, I would like to devote this (belated) supplement to several brief discussions relating to various aspects of the painful and difficult subject of infant death—in Mikra (Bible), halakhah, aggadah and Kabbalah. When a person has lived a full life, there is of course a feeling of sadness and loss, but there is also the sense that he has accomplished certain things, that one knew his/her personality, that there is a sense of “closure”—albeit the younger a person dies, the greater the sense of tragic loss and of something having been cruelly cut off before its time. In the case of Erez, or of any other infant who dies, there is a strong sense of injustice. If God is just; if in some sense, as we say on Rosh Hashana, continued life is the reward for goodness and death the punishment for evil—even if we do not comprehend how this works, and how it squares with everyday life experience—where then is His justice? An infant exemplifies purity, innocence; he is a person who has never in his life committed a single act that can even remotely be called sin or wrongdoing—indeed, one may question whether, in an infant of Erez’s age, one may speak of volitional action in any meaningful sense at all.

In Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik tells that when his grandfather, R. Hayyim of Brisk, was overwhelmed by thoughts of death and the accompanying feelings of dread, he would counter them by studying the laws of Tumat Met, the impurity of dead bodies—that is, that part of the Torah which deals with death as an objective phenomenon. In the (belated) spirit of Simhat Torah, one might say that the Torah somehow contains within itself the power to comfort people. There is an idea that study is the most sublime possible form of joy. “The edicts of the Torah are upright, rejoicing the heart” (Ps 19:9). (For that very reason, Torah study is prohibited during mourning, and mitigated or limited to certain texts and subjects on Tisha b’Av.) It would seem to comfort, among other things, by placing individual life in a larger frame of meaning, that connects us with Netzah Yisrael, the Eternal Life Source of the People Israel.

We shall begin with two brief passages from Kabbalah and aggadah that attempt to deal with the issues of theodicy raised by the death of children.


Avraham Leader, in a condolence note he sent me following Erez’s death, drew my attention to a passage in the Zohar, Heikhalot Pekudei , which speaks of how, when the God can stand the world no longer, He unleashes His rage—but then He gazes at the souls of children who died too young, and has compassion on the world (my paraphrase–AL).” The text in Zohar II: 248b reads:

And at that hour when wrath dominates in the world, the blessed Holy One gazes upon it, and has pity on his world. And all those children who did not live to compete their years, until thirteen years and a day, all of them are given into his hand.

Interestingly, the Zohar offers no real explanation or justification for the death of children (NB: until the age of mitzvot, even those wicked deeds that children may commit, they aren’t held accountable for, as they are still before the age of moral judgment and responsibility). Somehow, (if I read this correctly), the fact that children die for no good reason arouses elicits God’s compassion., and His sense (?) that some of the things He does in this world aren’t so nice.

Avraham concluded: “May all suffering cease, and when it does occur, may it make us more sensitive and compassionate, may the soul of little Erez bring a smile to the face of Atiqa Kadisha…”


The Talmud at Berakhot 5a-b contains a lengthy discussion of the meaning of yesurim, “suffering”—which may include illness, physical displacement, poverty, or the loss of loved ones. The general tenor of the discussion is that suffering is a form of punishment for transgression, but also a kind of warning to the person to repent and mend his ways before it is too late: If suffering comes upon him, late him search out his deeds.” Even should e honestly search his acts and find no wrong-doing (which admittedly, may often be a matter of self-delusion—after all, who is really perfect?) he should attribute his suffering to neglect of Torah study), or perhaps they are even יסורין של אהבה, “chastisements of love.”

But then our passage runs up against a brick wall, so to speak: what about the suffering, and even death of children? (an issue in which the classic question of theodicy, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is manifested in its most intense form). The only coherent answer our sugya can suggest is that their death somehow gratuitous—it is either a kind of vicarious atonement for its parents or, what is closely related, ייסורים של אהבה, “suffering of love”—a firm of suffering that is somehow meant to purify and refine the parents’ character. But in what way have the children deserved death? This question is left without answer.

Our passage concludes with the rather bizarre story of Rabbi Yohanan, who lost ten children in childhood, and used to carry around one of the bones of his last child (which, Rashi hastens to clarify, was too small to cause ritual impurity—ibid., s.v. bir). Whenever confronted by people who had themselves suffered greatly, he would produce this bone, saying דין גרמא דעשיראה ביר —“this is the bone of my tenth son”—as if to say: “If I have gone through what I have and somehow remained whole, so can you!” Beyond that there are no cut-and-dry answers.


The Bible contains a dramatic story of the death of a small child. In 2 Samuel 11, we read of David’s adultery with a woman named Bathsheba while her husband, Uriah the Hittite, was off fighting one of his (David’s) wars. This sin was compounded when, after an attempt to cover-up her illicit pregnancy failed, David arranged for Uriah to be killed, placing him in the thickest part of the battle. In due time, Bathsheba came to live with David as his wife, and delivered a baby boy.

In Chapter 12, Nathan the prophet takes David to task for the double sin of adultery and murder, using the famous parable of כבשת הרש, “the poor man’s lamb.” The latter immediately admits his guilt: חטאתי לה'—“I have sinned before God.” Nathan replies that, because David repented, the dire punishment prophesied in vv. 11-12 will not occur; nevertheless, the child born to this sinful union will die. We then read that the child or infant—it does not say how old he was, but I always imagine him as a very small child, perhaps still an infant; in any event, he is not given a name, but simply referred to as hayeled, “the child”—falls ill, and they fear for his life. David fasts and prays, sits on the ground, and is utterly distraught. When after seven days the child indeed dies, David’s servants are fearful of breaking the news to him: if he carried on so while the child was still alive, what might he do to himself upon hearing of his death? David hears them whispering, and understands what has happened.

At this point David does a strange and unexpected thing: he gets up from the floor, washes himself, changes his clothes, goes to the “House of the Lord” (a kind of pre-Temple building or tent that housed the ark of the covenant?) to worship God, and then sits down to eat a hearty meal. His entourage are puzzled: how is it that he is not even more distraught now that “the worst has happened”? His answer is very sage: so long as the child was alive, he still had hope; perhaps God would respond to his prayers, and to the fasting and weeping and mourning-like behavior that went with it, and spare the child’s life. But now אני הולך אליו והוא לא ישוב אלי—“I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (12:23). The story ends with David comforting Bathsheba, sleeping with her, and her conceiving and bearing a second child, Shlomo (Solomon), who in due course becomes the heir to the throne, the paradigm of wisdom, and God’s beloved king.

What does David’s response in v. 23 mean? I would like to suggest that this may be read as a kind of tzidduk hadin, albeit not in the conventional sense. Liturgically, the Tzidduk ha-din refers to a series of verses received at a funeral in which the mourner accepts or justifies God’s judgment: “The Rock, whose acts are perfect, for all his ways are just…” etc. I refer here to a more basic level: of accepting, emotionally, the facticity, the reality of the death that has just occurred—and its corollary, the inevitable reality of death in general: the fact that we are all mortal, that life is a “one-directional” stream, in which the living move towards death, but not vice versa.

At the sheloshim held in Erez’s honor last week at Ika’s home, my daughter Tanya read an aggadic passage (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, A, Ch. 14) about how the sages tried to comfort Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai upon the death of one of his children. In its wake, the people present discussed what it means to comfort a mourner. Is it really possible to comfort a person who has lost a loved one? And indeed, the grieving young parents said that the stereotyped words of comfort so often heard during shivah tend to ring hollow and empty. I remember how I once made a shivah call to an elderly man whose wife—the love of his life, with whom he had lived for more than 60 years—had just died. The mourner addressed me, quite simply, with the words תנחם אותי!— “Comfort me!” I realized that any answer I could possibly give—the loving family they had built together; that God has his mysterious reasons; the life of Torah and mitzvot, that can be deeply satisfying—would not provide the answer he wanted. He had deeply loved and been loved by another person, and now it was ended. Ultimately, a person can only comfort himself, by accepting the bitter pill, because there is no other choice. The “comforters” who come to shivah do not really come to say any particular words of wisdom (although Hazal so speak of the obligation to say דברי כיבושין, things that “win over” the heart), but simply to be with their friend in his time of loss.

Perhaps this is the meaning of the strange words of comfort, the Birkat Avelim, “Blessing of the Mourners,” recorded in Ketubot 8b in the name of Hiyya bar Abba: “O, brethren who are worn out and depressed in this mourning. Turn your hearts to this, it is something that has been forever, a path from the Six Days of Creation. Many have drunk, many will drink; like the drinking of the former is the drinking of the latter. Brethren, may the Master of Comforting comfort you. Blessed are You, O God, who comforts the mourners.” What is the comfort in these words? Simply put: “This is how life is; everyone has to ‘drink’ of the cup of mourning sooner or later!” All one can do is accept it; and God, somehow, comforts, not by words, but by the healing process inherent in ongoing life itself.


One of the halakhot that was discussed in connection with Erez’s death relates to the minimum age that requires mourning. When an infant dies before the age of thirty days, his parents and other relatives are exempt from the usual obligations of shivah (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 374.8-9; Rambam, Hilkhot Evel 1.6-8; on the laws of burial for infants, see Y.D. 353.4). The essential idea underlying these halakhot is the presumption that such a baby was born prematurely—a nefel—was not completely formed in the womb, and hence died shortly after birth; the halakhah then brings various signs that may indicate that a given infant was an exception to this rule. After thirty days, whatever his medical condition, the child has a presumption (hazakah) of viability; hence one mourns him or her. The same criterion—which, like any fixed number, is by its nature somewhat arbitrary—underlies the rule that Pidyon Haben, the “redemption” of the first-born male from the kohen, is also performed at the age of thirty days, as his viability is then established. Some contemporary authorities demur, suggesting that in a case where the infant’s health and survival was uncertain throughout his lifetime—as was indeed the case with Erez—one doesn’t mourn even after thirty days. Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, one of the leading world experts in medicine and halakhah, explained to me that the latter approach is based upon the law of terefah—i.e., of an infant considered moribund and bound to die within twelve months. However, the dominant halakhic approach is to sit shivah even in such cases—at least where there are no conflicting issurim involved.

Interestingly, this halakhah is mentioned in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in conjunction with two or three other categories of persons for whom one does not mourn: those executed by fiat of the rabbinic court, for violating certain cardinal laws of the Torah; הפורשים מדרכי צבור, those who “separate themselves from the ways of the community” by their actions, as well as evil-doers, heretics, etc.; and one who takes his own life. Rambam’s gloss to this rule sounds rather extreme to us: “his brothers and other relatives dress in white and enwrap themselves in white and eat and drink and rejoice [as on a festive day!], for [one of] the enemies of the blessed Holy One has gone.”

What are the underlying principles on these cases, and is there unifying thread connecting them all? It seems to me that the reason one does not mourn a nefel—a stillborn or premature infant who dies shortly after birth—is that he or she was never part of what one might call “the community of the living.” The fact of reaching a certain minimum age, and with it the halakhic presumption of viability, makes one part of the living human community, whose subsequent death is mourned. Those who separate themselves from the ways of the community, by definition, remove themselves from that community seen as relevant to the halakhah, the covenant community of the Jewish people; one who commits a cardinal crime for which he is executed does likewise. Finally, I would suggest that those who commit suicide are not mourned (at least according to the classical halakhic conception) because their action so-to-speak contradicts the “thrown-ness” of life: “Against your will you are born, against your will you live, and against your will you die” (m. Avot 4.29). Life and death are existential facts which, in the broadest sense, belong to God. Even if a person is murdered, or killed in an accidence that is clearly due to human carelessness, his death is in some sense a kind of Divine fiat. The suicide somehow “steals” his own death from מלך ממית ומחיה, the “King who gives Life and Death,” and—perhaps to stretch the point a bit—removes himself from those who are born and die at God’s will.

To this theoretical discussion, I must add a very important caveat: in terms of practical halakhah, all three of these categories are effectively interpreted out of existence. I once asked Rav Aharon Lichtenstein about the law of one who “departs from the ways of the community.” What does one do in a world in which assimilation and abandonment of Jewish religion, and even ethnicity, are rife? Practically everyone has, or at least knows of, a person, close or distant, who would fall into that category! His answer was, quite simply, that “we are not so judgmental as in the past.” The parents who sit shivah when their children intermarry these days are few and far between. And, Rav Lichtenstein added, w are more forgiving and understanding of the suicide; the halakhah goes out of its way to find rationales, at times far-fetched, to allow mourning any specific case of suicide: mitigating circumstances, last-minute regrets, temporary insanity, etc. I can testify that I have personally, in my own life, visited at least two shivah houses where Orthodox people mourned known suicides—and, in my opinion, they did so rightly.

As for death in infancy: On the one hand, modern medical science enables us to maintain life in situations that would have been impossible even a generation ago, possibly changing the definition of those who ought to be considered as nefel. On the other hand, in contemporary culture we are much more attached to children. Infant mortality, at least in developed countries, is regarded today an exception, an unusual and unexpected event, not the way things should be. As against that, both my parents reported that they had siblings who died in infancy, and this was more-or-less usual in their day, ca. 1900-1920. Parents feel a stronger bond even to very young children. Hence, the tendency of the halakhah (again, per Rabbi Steinberg), even in those cases where there is some doubt about the viability of a given infant, is to err in the direction of allowing the parents to mourn properly, as they would for an adult or an older child.


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