Elevating the Dead?


Moshe Abarbanel


Can the living elevate the status of the deceased?   In shul we often hear people wishing mourners that their deceased relative’s souls should have an “aliyah”, a rise. Can we really affect the dead?


In the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Daya, (Laws of Mourning; 377:4) Rav Moshe Iserlis (Rama) states  “And to lead the Evening Service after Shabbos, this is the time the souls return to Hell. And when we pray and say Kaddish in public we rescue our parents from Hell.”  This statement has many problems. Why is it that only on Saturday nights can we save the soul?  Where did the souls go on Shabbos?  If we do not pray and recite Kaddish, then their souls return to Hell? This is specifically for parents and their surviving children, so people without children never get a chance to be redeemed?


If the Earthly actions of the ‘deceased’ sent them to Hell, how can ‘our’ actions save them? And conversely, if one’s parents went to Heaven, then, if their children do not say Kaddash or pray, will the soul of the deceased now descend to hell?  If this is so, then evil people like Trotsky (whose children have become religious) are going to heaven. And righteous people like Moses (whose grandchildren became idol worshipers) are in hell.  What kind of Justice would this be? Man should be rewarded for “his” actions in this world, and for no one else’s.  Our actions are the only ones we can control, and it would make sense, that is what we will be judged upon. 


Things in the physical world can be measured, i.e., in time. Things in the non-physical world are not measurable in time.  Therefore, the idea of deceased souls relating somehow to the Sabbath cannot be the literal meaning: this statement of the Rama must exclusively address the living. I wish to suggest the following interpretation: On Shabbos our energies are restricted and need an outlet upon the conclusion of Shabbos. It is possible after the loss of a parent that we may be resentful towards God, and with that pent up energy, we could find ourselves in a rebellious activity. By praying and saying Kaddish, especially after Shabbos, we reaffirm our recognition of God’s greatness. This reflects well upon our actions and the values imbued in us by our parents. [Editor’s Note: Moshe Abarbanel means to say that in truth, we cannot affect anyone who has passed. His or her state is based on his or her merit, not ours. However, if we properly channel our energies when they seek deviation from Torah, as they might, upon the conclusion of the Sabbath, then we reflect well on our teachers, our parents, “as if” we spare them some retribution. This is a logical explanation of the difficult Rama.]


Examine Koheles 9:5,  “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all: there is no more reward for them, their memory is forgotten.”  What does this mean?  After death we can no longer affect our share of the world to come.  Only by living a correct life here can we affect our place in heaven.  Rashi explains: “But the dead know nothing and they have no more rewards for their actions after their death.  Rather he who prepares on the eve of Shabbos will eat on the Shabbos.”  On Shabbos work is forbidden. Therefore if one does all the preparatory work before the Shabbos begins, he will eat on Shabbos.  If not, then it is too late and he will go hungry on. So too with regards to heaven. One must prepare himself in this world before entering the world to come.  Nothing else will help once he arrives there.


Ethics of Our Fathers 4:21 states, “Rabbi Yaakov says: This world is like a vestibule before the World to Come:  Prepare yourself in the vestibule so that you may enter the banquet hall.”  Rabbi Yaakov is clearly instructing man to be involved in a proper life here [learning Torah, keeping the commands between man and his Creator and the commands between man and his fellow man].  Only by living the proper life can man attain his place in heaven.  Sforno confirms this idea in his commentary on this Mishna, with this statement:  “This world is like a lobby ‘this means that man’s presence here does not serve a purpose unto itself, but is for the purpose of preparing himself to enter the palace and find favor there [in the eyes of the King]. In deed, that is the ultimate goal.  He who does not grasp this truth will have spent his time there in vain, and so it is in this transitory life.  He who does not attain eternal life here [on earth] has lived in vain.”   One must direct his energy in the pursuit of good in this world in order to partake in the good in the world to come.


As Yom Kippur approaches we must each examine our actions and save ourselves through “Repentance, Prayer and Charity.” Let us concentrate on our behavior in this world for the coming year.  May all of Israel be inscribed in the book of life.


Moshe Abarbanel