“Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain.”
The topic of today’s Daf Yomi concerns the dead. It is a fitting topic for a day of extreme weather, with tropical storm force winds and driving rain. I know it is not logical, but there is a hope that maybe this heavy rain will rid us of the coronavirus and simply wash it away along with all the death and suffering. There is so much sad poetry among today’s text that is accompanied by the howling wind outside.
We are told that one may care for all the needs of the dead on Shabbat. This includes smearing oil on the body and rinsing it with water, as long the limbs are not moved which would violate set aside rules on Shabbat. One may remove a pillow from the head of the corpse and tie its jaw shut so that it does not flap awkwardly open. It is permissible to place cool metal on the dead’s stomach in order to prevent swelling and to prevent the ingestion of air by sealing bodily openings.
We are told that King Solomon said when he was old and nearing death: “Before the silver cord is snapped asunder, and the golden bowl is shattered, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel falls, shattered, into the pit.” The voice of the Gemara tells us that the snapping of the silver cord is a reference to a spinal cord, the shattering of the golden bowl is a reference to the member (membrane?), the broken pitcher signifies the stomach, and the fallen wheel is an allusion to bodily fluids.
We are told that on Shabbat one may not shut the eyes of the dead or on any day of the week while the soul departs. Doing so is tantamount to murder because one has hastened a death when a person may have lived a little longer. We are told that this is like turning off a lamp that had a bit of oil left or blowing out a candle when it could have burned for a little while longer.
We are told that one must live his life when he is able and do good deeds while he has the financial means and the wherewithal. King Solomon and Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar refer to old age in today’s reading as “the evil days.” Rabbi Shimon said: “And the years arrive when you will say: I have no desire for them; these are the days of Messiah, in which there is neither merit nor liability.”
Shmuel said that the Messianic era might not bring the time of wine and roses that so many hope for. He said that the poor will continue to be poor after the times comes, and one should provide for one’s brother and the poor here and now, rather than waiting a utopian dream.
The Gemara quotes the following verse that relates to death and old age: “Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain.” We are told that the sun and light refer to one’s forehead and nose, the moon refers to the soul that “shine within a person,” the stars are cheeks and the clouds that return after a rain represent the light of a person’s eye that is extinguished when he cries, or perhaps when he gets old and dies.
Over the last few months I have been fearful of dying from COVID-19 while on a respirator in a tent in Central Park, and very much alone. Today’s reading reminded me of the times in my life when I was at someone’s bedside in their final days. There is the heavy breathing with the mouth wide open, the coolness of their flesh, the dryness of their mouth as they stop eating and drinking, and despite the sound of rattling breath, a descending stillness. And then there is just silence.