Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the ethical and legal concept of a מִצְוָה לְקַיֵּים דִּבְרֵי הַמֵּת
It is a mitzvah to fulfill the directives of the dead. There are halakhic discussions over what extent it is legally binding, and under what circumstances, but there also seems to be some consensus that, regardless of the legality, there is a moral obligation to fulfill the wishes of the deceased. Why is this so?
There seems to be a tradition that as a person gets close to death one is able to achieve a level of prophecy because of the closeness of their soul to the next world. This is true for even a relatively average person, let alone a righteous person. (For some sources see Abravanel Devarim 33:3, and Sefer Chasidim 729.)
In fact, there seems to be a similar mystical tradition that we share with the ancient Greeks, or they intuited it on their own as well. In Socrates’ closing speech to the people of Athens before he is unjustly executed (Plato’s Apology of Socrates, which we referred to in Psychology of the Daf Gittin 13), he states:
And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power.
The moral imperative to fulfill the wishes of the deceased, represents a textual problem for the Baale Tosafos (Paaneach Raza Vayishlach) regarding Yaakov’s changing Binyamin’s name. We saw earlier in Psychology of the Daf Gittin 11 that Binyamin’s mother named him after the pain she went through, as an expression of sorrow, and perhaps also dedication and sacrifice. However, since his mother died during childbirth, his father re-purposed his name with a more optimistic connotation (Bereishis 15:18):
וַיְהִ֞י בְּצֵ֤את נַפְשָׁהּ֙ כִּ֣י מֵ֔תָה וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ בֶּן־אוֹנִ֑י וְאָבִ֖יו קָֽרָא־ל֥וֹ בִנְיָמִֽין׃
But as she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni (son of my pain); but his father called him Benjamin (right-hand son).
Paaneach Raza asks how could Yaakov override the dying wishes of Rachel and use a different name? Before we get to Paaneach Raza’s answer, I would like to explore a number of other answers, and why they are not necessarily viable. The simplest answer is that he did not override her wishes, but instead gave him an additional name. The fact that Paaneach Raza does not give this answer, is a proof that in ancient times they did not use multiple names. In fact, there is an interesting Teshuva of the Noda BeYehuda (II:OC:113) where he asserts that even in Talmudic times it was inappropriate to use multiple names. We might answer that since in general, a wife is supposed to defer to her husband, perhaps Yaakov is under no obligation to follow Rachel’s directive after death, any more than he is obligated when she is alive. But I would say that Paaneach Raza did not use this answer, because if it is, indeed, considered a prophecy, then this night trump ordinary everyday communication, and it is legitimate to wonder why Yaakov did not heed her words.
Paaneach Raza answers that he only changed his name later in life to give recognition to the fact that, as his youngest son, he was his right-hand support in his old age. Another possible answer, though not given by the Paaneach Raza, is that since Yaakov’s chosen name was phonetically similar to Rachel’s chosen name, perhaps both her intention and his intention can be represented in the same name, and therefore not considered thwarting her wishes. If I am correct about this, there will be a halakhic outcome. Sometimes people want to name after a relative, but there are reasons why they cannot use that name so they use another name to symbolize the name. For example, when my son Hillel Eison was born, there was nobody yet named after my father’s father, Avraham. The reason for this is because my maternal grandfather’s name was also Avraham and he felt it was a bad sign to have somebody use his name while he was still alive. As a compromise, I gave my son the name Eison which is a Midrashic name for Avraham, as we say in the Yamim Noraim liturgy, עוד יזכר לנו אהבת איתן. In a similar vein, one might argue that if one name symbolically hints at the other, it is a sufficient expression of the name.
The Ups and Downs of Exile Gittin 16 and 17
Our Gemara on 16b and 17a tells us a story about how Rav Yehuda and Rabba visited Rabba bar bar Ḥana when he was unwell.
רַבָּה בַּר בַּר חָנָה חֲלַשׁ, עוּל לְגַבֵּיהּ רַב יְהוּדָה וְרַבָּה, לְשַׁיּוֹלֵי בֵּיהּ. בְּעוֹ מִינֵּיהּ: שְׁנַיִם שֶׁהֵבִיאוּ גֵּט מִמְּדִינַת הַיָּם, צְרִיכִין שֶׁיֹּאמְרוּ “בְּפָנֵינוּ נִכְתַּב וּבְפָנֵינוּ נֶחְתַּם”, אוֹ אֵין צְרִיכִין? אָמַר לָהֶם: אֵין צְרִיכִין – מָה אִילּוּ יֹאמְרוּ “בְּפָנֵינוּ גֵּירְשָׁהּ”, מִי לָא מְהֵימְנִי?! אַדְּהָכִי, אֲתָא הָהוּא חַבְרָא, שְׁקַלָה לִשְׁרָגָא מִקַּמַּיְיהוּ. אֲמַר: רַחֲמָנָא! אוֹ בְּטוּלָּךְ, אוֹ בְּטוּלָּא דְּבַר עֵשָׂו
The Gemara relates: Rabba bar bar Ḥana was weak, and Rav Yehuda and Rabba entered to visit him and to inquire about his well-being. While they were there, they raised a dilemma before him: With regard to two people who brought a bill of divorce from a country overseas, are they required to say: It was written in our presence and it was signed in our presence, or are they not required to issue this declaration? He said to them: They are not required to say it, for the following reason: What if they said: She was divorced in our presence, wouldn’t they be deemed credible? Therefore, they do not have to state the declaration. In the meantime, while they were sitting there, in came a certain Persian priest [ḥabbara] and took the lamp [sheragga] from before them. It was a Persian holiday on which the Persians prohibited the public from maintaining light outside their temple. Rabba, who was from Eretz Yisrael, said: Merciful One! Let us live either in Your shadow or in the shadow of the descendants of Esau, the Romans.
Ben Yehoyada observes that the rabbinic exchange involved reasoning through a Kal V’chomer, which is a segulah for Refuah. How does a Kal V’chomer assist healing? He says the Benei Yisaschar holds that the 13 derivational principles of the Torah ( https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/hermeneutics ) correspond to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirteen_Attributes_of_Mercy ). (This is also found in Zohar Yisro 90) Thus, the first one, “E-L”, stands for absolute kindness, as we see in Tehilim 52:3. And, Kal V’chomer is the first of the Thirteen Derivational Principles. Thus studying Kal V’chomer leads to an activation of God’s absolute kindness. Indeed, we see that when Moshe prays to Hashem (using the name “E-L”) to forgive Miriam, Hashem himself uses a Kal V’chomer (Bamidbar 12:13-14) :
וַיִּצְעַ֣ק מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל ה לֵאמֹ֑ר
אֵ֕-ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ
Moshe cried out [in prayer] to Hashem saying: “Please, God, please heal her.”
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה וְאָבִ֙יהָ֙ יָרֹ֤ק יָרַק֙ בְּפָנֶ֔יהָ הֲלֹ֥א תִכָּלֵ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים תִּסָּגֵ֞ר שִׁבְעַ֤ת יָמִים֙ מִח֣וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְאַחַ֖ר תֵּאָסֵֽף
Hashem said to Moshe: “If her father were to spit in her face would she not be in shame for seven days? She shall be closed off for seven days, beyond the encampment, and after that, she may join again.”
We should ask ourselves how does this actually work? On a simple level, since all of Torah and the world and God are interrelated, referencing a part of the Torah where God heals and states a Kal V’chomer, creates some kind of theurgical resonance, even if we do not know how it works. And since we have another principle of Binyan Av, which essentially allows us to make broad comparisons and inferences from one similar situation in the Torah to another, if one of the 13 Attributes of Mercy corresponds with one of the 13 Derivational Principles, we might assume that they all do. However, later on as we discuss what occurs in the rest of the story on Daf 17, we can see more spiritual mechanisms at work.
Further in the story, we experience our protagonists being harassed by the Persian priest who extinguishes a fire and forbade them to have a light due to their idolatrous observance. Upon experiencing this disruption in their Torah study, they declare, “Merciful One! Let us live either in Your shadow or in the shadow of the descendants of Esau, the Romans.”
Maharam Schiff explains that the nature of exile under the Romans, the descendants of Esau, is different than the nature of exile under the Persians. This is because the prophecy and blessing given by Yaakov states (Bereishis 25:23):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י (גיים) [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃
And Hashem said to her (Rivka), Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
Our tradition holds that so long as Yaakov is strong in Torah study and observance, he will have dominion over Esav. However, should he slack off, then the seesaw moves in the other direction and Esav becomes dominant. Therefore, the Maharam Schiff says that the Rabbis who are studying Torah naturally preferred to be under Roman dominion, because Torah would have rented them immune. On the other hand, such protections were not available from the Persian exile. This is why the Persian was able to extinguish their lamp (and the light of their Torah).
The Chasam Sofer (see Oros Hasofrim, p. 19) observes that Persian dominion versus that under Esav was different in a key and traumatic manner. The Persian homicidal rage was chaotic and unpredictable. On the other hand, the Romans were methodical, and made their intentions clear. Without being an expert on trauma psychology, the Chasam Sofer correctly intuits that it is more painful to not know when and where your enemy is going to attack, than to live under an consistently oppressive regime, whose intentions and motivations are clear. Psychologically, this is similar to someone having constantly abusive parents versus somebody who has chaotic and disorganized abusive parents. It is easier for the former person to find resilience and recover from trauma than the latter, because in the former case, the very predictability of it makes it manageable and understandable. In the latter case, the trauma is the confusion of sometimes receiving kindness and other times receiving hatred.
This can give us insight as to why a Kal V’chomer represents and activates absolute chessed and kindness. A Kal V’chomer is one of the most logical and orderly inferences of the 13 hermeneutical principles. It simply follows the logic; If such and such is true in regard to a more permissive law, surely it must be true in regard to a stricter law. If you think about it, it is the mechanism of kindness itself. The one who has more power understands intuitively that he therefore has an obligation to be forgiving and more accepting of the one who has less. Our relationship with our “brother” Esav still follows some kind of orderly rules. It might seesaw, where one is on top, and the other is on bottom, but it follows predictable rules based our attachment to God. So, engaging in the Kal V’chomer, not only activated some kind of divine kindness and healing mechanism but it may also have been an effort to protect them from totalitarian oppression of Esav. Unfortunately, because they were under Persian rule, which was random and chaotic without clear motivations and unpredictability, they could not use the force to protect them.