Shabbos 152-153 Are the dead aware of what we do?

At the bottom of daf 152, Rav Yehuda tells us that if a dead person has no comforters, we need to get together 10 people during the mourning period and sit at his grave.

Rashi explains that this is referring to someone who has no relatives mourning him, and thus no people coming to comfort them.

The implication of Rav Yehuda’s ruling is that the comforting mourners that we perform is not only done to make the mourners feel better, but also to “comfort” the dead person during his transition to the afterlife.

The Gemara brings a case where someone died in Rav Yehuda’s neighborhood.

They brought 10 people to his grave for 7 days- at the end of the 7 day mourning period, the dead person appeared to Rav Yehuda in a dream and told him that his mind could now be at rest, seeing as he had put his mind at rest.

Rabbi Abahu then makes the incredible statement that whatever is said in front of a dead person can be heard by him, until the grave is sealed.

Another view is brought that he can hear everything said in front of him until the flesh of the body has disintegrated inside the grave.

Towards the end of the daf, the Gemara relates how a heretic once confronted Rabbi Abahu and asked him about our belief that the souls of the righteous are buried under Hashem’s throne of glory.

If this is indeed true, said the heretic, how could the sorcerer have brought back the prophet Shmuel from the dead, as accounted in Shmuel I 28- how could his calls be heard from so far away?

Rabbi Abahu answered that this was done during the 12 months after death, when the body has not yet disintegrated, and the soul still moves up and down between the gravesite and the throne of glory.

The idea that the soul somehow remains tied to the body as long as it has not disintegrated and keeps getting pulled back to the grave sounds bizarre enough and rather chilling indeed, but Tosfos is not content even with this.

Based on other sugyos, Tosfos claims that even after 12 months, when the soul has found its rest, it can still come back to the gravesite and hear what is going one there when it so desires.

The Gemara then makes another statement which seems to imply that a person can tell by listening to his own eulogies whether he is going to the world to come or not.

This is dependant on how much people cry for him, once aroused to do so by the person delivering the eulogy.

Abaya then asks a rather shocking question of his Rebbe, Rabbah, the leading sage of the time.

He asked how Rabbah would be able to tell at his funeral if he was going to the world to come, seeing as everyone in his hometown of Pumbedita hated him!

The idea that the Torah leader of the generation could be hated by the people might sound crazy to the modern mind, but Tanach and the rest of Jewish history are unfortunately full of such cases where the people resent their leaders for rebuking them and speaking truth to power.

Rashi explains that the people of Pumbedita were particularly dishonest and got into a lot of trouble in court with Rabbah.

It is even more bizarre to imagine that the leading Torah center of Babylon was filled with dishonest people who hated their Torah leader, but once again, unfortunately this is not such a novel phenomenon in our history.

We often have the worse situation where Torah leaders are exploited by the corrupt masses and unable to stand up to their pressure, but here, we how the leading Amora of the period stood up to them, like the prophets Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Amos, and other like them had done, and paid the price in terms of popularity.

Seemingly unphased by the question, Rabbah replied that Abaya himself and another sage called Rabbah bar Rav Chanan would deliver such effective eulogies that even those people would be stirred to tears, and that would be the sign he needs that he is going to the afterlife.

The idea that the dead are conscious of what is happening in this world, particularly at the site of the grave during the 12 months after death, is far from taken for granted in Torah sources.

The passuk (Koheles 9/5) says: והמתים אינם יודעין מאומה – “the dead do not know anything.”

In discussing the prohibition against saying words of Torah not related to the dead person at a grave, in order not to mock the dead, the Gemara (Brachos 18a ) questions this entire prohibition based on the above possuk- after all, if they do are not conscious of what is going on even at the grave-site, why should it matter to them if one learns Torah there?

After a long discussion, the Gemara fails to come to a conclusion in this matter, but does seem to hold that at least in matters that affect them, the dead are aware of what is happening, which would solve the issues raised in our sugya.

The Gemara (Taanis 16a) asks why we visit graves on fast days, and two answers are given.

The one answer given is that it is a way of declaring to Hashem that we are like the dead in front of him (totally lifeless and unable to help ourselves.)

The other answer given is that it in order that they will ask for mercy on our behalf.

Although even the first answer does not suggest that we direct our prayers at the dead themselves (something highly problematic), it does suggest that our presence at their graves somehow gets them to intercede on our behalf, something which seemingly would require them to be aware of what is happening at their gravesite, even after the initial 12 month period.

The author of the second answer, in contrast, might not be comfortable with the idea of the dead being aware of our visit, or alternatively, believe that even if they are aware, they are unable to pray on our behalf- “לא המתים יהללו קה”- the dead do not praise Hashem (Tefillin 115/17), nor do they perform other commandments such as praying.

For him, the visit might be less about invoking the assistance of the dead and more about humbling ourselves before Hashem.

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