The Dead Know Nothing II


Moshe Ben-Chaim


“The dead know nothing” - a statement of King Solomon - is part of a few verses in Ecclesiastes IX, where King Solomon exposes the sentiments of those with false views, before correcting them with Torah truths. 

King Solomon states in the previous verse that a living dog surpasses a dead lion. Of course a lion is more formidable than a dog, but King Solomon wishes to identify the false opinions of man, and then correct them with his own words. So, King Solomon first articulates “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4) presenting man’s false philosophy...but the falsehood must be analyzed.  

I believe this fallacy to be man’s overestimation of “life”. Thus, even a measly dog that is alive, man falsely “assumes” to surpass a lion, since it is dead. But this is man’s error, for man praises life as an “inherent good”, a reaction generated from man’s fear of death, and not derived from intelligent study. In fact, death cannot be evil, for God wills it to be so. In verse 9:2, King Solomon again describes this human error: “there is one event for the righteous and the wicked”, referring to death. With this, King Solomon articulates not his own view, but that of ignorant men: “Regardless of my righteousness [man thinks] I will die, just like the wicked”. With these words, man exposes his distorted barometer of human value. He means to say, “what good is righteousness, if I die like the wicked person?!” But this is an error, since the Torah teaches that “death” is no barometer of one’s perfection, since “all” men die, even the righteous. Therefore, King Solomon teaches we must look past the reality of death, if we are to determine man’s merit. 

The King first exposes man’s false sentiment, viewing righteousness as useless since “all” men die. We are then to realize this fallacy through the subsequent address of the King, as he urges man to live properly in the following verses. Why does the King urge this? It is because these acts he subsequently lists, are good acts, and are in fact the true barometer of perfection. Conversely, ignorant man assumes death as inherently evil, rendering worthless any good one performs in life. To correct this latter fallacy, the King first articulates the false view, and then follows with the true means of measuring one’s perfection: good actions. 

But I state all this to teach one simple point: the King is not contradicting ignorant man on every point. For King Solomon is firm: “the dead know nothing”. He argues not on that, but whether this reality should be any barometer of man’s perfection. The King openly accepts the dead as knowing nothing, and this is why he entertains the argument of the fools. He accepts the premise that the dead know nothing, because it is true. What is false is “how” man views this reality: is it any barometer of the deceased’s perfection? The King says it is no barometer. But King Solomon could not make his argument, had he felt the dead are aware. For if the dead are aware of the living talking to them, then the entire statement would be false, and the King’s response, baseless. 

Thus, we conclude, King Solomon in fact said and meant, “the dead know nothing”.  

Based on this reasoning, I remain with this view, also shared by Otsar Tefilos, who never retracted it, regardless of who in the Talmud did retract their opinions. Maimonides also teaches that the Talmud is not the last word, if it violates reason. Maimonides himself argued on the Talmud and the words of certain Gaonim as being false:


“Guide for the Perplexed” (Book III; chap. XVII)

“But they contain an additional doctrine which is not found in the Law; viz., the doctrine of “afflictions of love”, as taught by some of our Sages. According to this doctrine it is possible that a person be afflicted without having previously committed any sin, in order that his future reward may be increased; a view which is held by the Mu’tazilites, but is not supported by any Scriptural text.”


In summary, although the dead can be informed of matters via God, it does not appear to be true that living people might inform them. This makes sense, for talking to a corpse is like talking to a rock. The soul is not “in the grave”. Man is then wrong to attempt such futility.