Mitzvah, Not Magic
By Rabbi Allen Darnov
Parashat Emor begins with laws restricting the priests, the sons of Aaron, from contact with the dead: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any (dead) person among his kin” (Lev 21:1). Hizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, 13th century, France) comments that this passage appears here by design. It follows immediately upon the last verse of Parashat Kedoshim which condemns to death anybody who summons or communicates with the dead: “A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones…” (20:27). Hizkuni states, “…one must stone the necromancer, because Israel has no use for them; but were you to have need of an oracle, ‘speak to the priests’ and they will inquire for you through (the oracular device of) the urim and tumim.”
Hizkuni anticipates the view of modern Bible scholars regarding the laws of tumah and tohorah (impurity and purity) in Parashat Emor. Nahum Sarna, for example, believes that barring priestly contact with the dead obstructed the priests from practicing rites of the popular funerary cult, such as communication and adoration of deceased spirits (The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, p. 141).
The funerary cult, however, was very popular among Israel’s neighbors. Its observance fostered a pantheon of ancestral spirits to whom family survivors might pray and petition for help and prosperity. The deceased spirit was compensated with hymns and food offerings brought to the tomb. The surviving family would also make it a regular practice to pronounce the deceased’s name, guaranteeing him or her immortality in the other world. There seems to have been a particular cultic role in Mesopotamia for people called zakaru shemu, “those that mention names (of the deceased).”
Egyptian nobles often employed an elaborate priesthood to perform these functions. The noble’s estate would finance the priestly staff to continue these practices in perpetuity. A literature of Letters to the Dead show that deceased spirits acted as intermediaries between the living and their gods, absorbing attention and devotion otherwise intended for the major deities. The deceased spirits therefore became intervening spirits or minor gods in their own right, performing services such as eliminating evil spirits that plagued the surviving family (Ancient Egypt edited by David P. Silverman, pp.140-1).
Since ancient times, the Torah has therefore tried to block the funerary cult’s idolatry and magic from entering the burial and mourning customs of the people of Israel. This may also explains the Jewish avoidance of flowers at funerals, which were part of a magic rite to endow the deceased with spring-like life in the next world.
Rather than magic, Jewish tradition has emphasized mitzvah in rites of mourning, including the sanctification of God’s name, giving tzedakah, and remembering the mitzvot that the deceased did when alive: “…a son is more duty-bound to honor [his father] in death than in life. If the son walks in the proper path, improves his deeds, this certainly gives (the father) honor in the other world before the Holy One…” (Zohar to BeHuqqotai, in Hamadrikh by Hyman E. Goldin, p. 228).
As is well known, the kaddish has many uses in the prayer book. How it came to be recited by mourners is an interesting study. One explanation cites the fact that kaddish was always recited after the reading or study of sacred scripture. The custom then developed of giving this honor to mourners who had been present (Or Hadash by Reuven Hammer, p. 12).
I think it is not only spiritual but metaphorical to say kaddish after a death, for every person’s life constitutes a story which is sacred scripture. We study scripture to learn the mitzvot that Abraham or Moses of David did in their lives, so that we might walk in their ways. So, too, we eulogize and think of the dead – each person a sacred scroll – to incorporate the mitzvot they performed in their lives into our own lives. In this way, we sanctify the name of God, as well as the memory of the deceased, and we do so through mitzvah rather than magic.
Rabbi Allen Darnov is the rabbi of Reform Temple of Putnam Valley, New York. He and his wife, Cantor Avima Rudavsky Darnov, areÂ co-directors of The Hebrew Corner, a Hebrew learning center in Marlboro, New Jersey. He has servedÂ on AJR’sÂ facultyÂ for more than fifteen years.