Affecting the Dead: Part II


Moshe Ben-Chaim


(The following is an email discussion in response to last week’s article “Affecting the Dead”. In that article, we reasoned that the living could not benefit the dead. After our subsequent, email discussion, I added some material for the benefit of our readers.)




Reader: I'd like to point out that there are many sources that talk about bestowing merit on the dead by learning Torah in their memory or Praying as Chazzan on the day of the Yahrtzeit. The source for this is none other than Rabbi Akiva who taught an ignorant orphan to pray in order to merit the boy's father. This may be connected to the deceased man being responsible for leaving behind an ignorant son and is part of his judgment. The Mitzvos his son performed still impacted him positively. See the Sefer Gesher HaChaim at length regarding these issues. Do you have a source that directly states that the living cannot benefit the dead by their Mitzvot?  - Shalom.


Mesora: I believe the article sufficiently addressed why the living have no bearing on the perfection of the deceased. See Sforno on Devarim 10:17, as pointed out to me by Rabbi Reuven Mann. There, Sforno teaches that a mitzvah (commandment) cannot expiate one’s sins. The only means by which man may remove his sins is repentance. This clearly teaches that if one failed to repent, and died, he failed to correct himself, and certainly others have nothing by which they may remove his sins. This makes sense: How can another’s actions atone for my evil? I was the corrupt one, so if I died with that corruption, another person has no relationship to my evil, and cannot affect change in my soul. Additionally, if death fixes one’s soul from that point forward, then there is nothing to discuss.


Please comment as to why you feel the sources I have already stated are inadequate, according to you. Please cite your sources as well in the Gemara and Rishonim. Where is the source for the account of Rabbi Akiva that you made mention of? Aside from sources, please also tell me your own reasoning as proof to this concept. Thank you.



Reader: I can try to address my rationale and understanding of the issue. It is partially based on the same premise you assert regarding accountability for ones own actions as well as reward and punishment for ones own actions.

In order to have full accountability for ones actions during a lifetime the impact of those actions also need to be judged as they occur later on such as if a person did evil and the impact carried on after they died - Hitler would be a good example. On the good side, if someone taught a child or a student wisdom, and that child was inspired to Teshuva and Mitzvos by that person - the outcome of the actions would be positively rewarded even after


Mesora: But does not "Reward and Punishment" exist in this world, both via G-d and Bet Din, thereby displaying an absolute measure of evil and good, and this is measured during life, with no regard to "outcome"? Man is punished and rewarded in this life, prior to his death, thereby displaying that he is measured by his actions in this life, and G-d does not wait to see if there is positive or negative outcome after he dies. Man is measured by the here and now, so he is punished or rewarded, based solely on his actions. As my close friend Rabbi Schwartz suggested, G-d said this to the angels when He provided a well for Ishmael, who in the future would kill Israel with thirst. (Gen. 21:17, see Rashi) The angels asked G-d how He could provide water for Ishmael, one who would become a murderer of Jews. G-d responded, “What is he now, good or evil?” The angels responded, “good”. G-d said, “then this is how he is judged now.”


However, according to your theory, one is unjustly rewarded or punished at ANY TIME, for the ultimate outcome of his acts has yet to be seen! There are an infinite number or repercussions, which may result from his actions: 1 year after his death his actions may cause others harm, and 2 years later – benefit; yet again 3 years later – harm, ad infinitum. Using your theory, it is impossible to ever calculate whether any given act is truly good or evil. Reward and punishment can never be administered according to this theory. Reasoning, not sources, forces us to arrive at the same conclusion cited by Rabbi Schwartz. Man is judged at that moment. This makes sense to our minds as well. For if man means well and follows the Torah to implement good, this is the true measure of his perfection, not whether his act – 20 years after his death – caused someone harm. Where is the justice in accusing someone for harm he could never have anticipated 20 years earlier?

Reader: I believe Rav Chaim Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim translates the book of life and the book of death as literal (Sefer HaChaim-the book of those living and Sefer HaMeisim-the book of those who have died). The accounting of reward or punishment that precise judgment would warrant is revisited for the dead on
Rosh Hashana as well.

If this is the case then I could see how one logically can attribute Mitzvos done by someone to the merit of a dead person since obviously that dead person had inspired or educated that surviving relative or student in a positive way to be motivated to think of them even even after they had passed away. Hence, judgment would dictate rewarding the dead person.

I hope my ideas are clearly expressed. The only concern I have with your sources are that they are deductions and implications as opposed to direct proof for the literal words quoted. I believe data trumps opinion as well as
interpretation. Chodesh Tov.


Mesora: Let us make an important distinction here: The issue is not as you suggest, data versus opinion, the former assumed to be more substantial. Rather, when determining truth, we look for reason, and not fallacy. If reasonable ideas emanate from data, opinion, or any area, it is irrelevant. It is the idea itself that determines its validity, not its source. Again I ask you to please also offer your own rationale whereby you dismiss our interpretations of the sources, as quoted in our article. "Interpretation" or not, what is your dispute with our reasoning?


Perhaps here is a proper point to elucidate the underlying concepts of reward and punishment: “Perfection” refers to man’s own acts and thoughts, which adhere to Torah principles. Possessing free will, man is the sole cause of his actions. When man sins, Bet Din will punish him, and not another person. G-d’s Torah states, “Each man in his own sin will be killed.” Nowhere do we find that if Ruben sins, that we punish his son Simon. Certainly, no other person is punished. This is clearly unjust, and a crime. During life, no other, than the person himself, is responsible, or can affect his own perfection or corruption. Again, this is all based on G-d’s will that each man possess free will. Therefore, after death, this principle does not change. If on Earth, this principle is just, there can be nothing to render it unjust after death. A person’s passing cannot affect this principle, which is true, and just.


“Perfection” and “corruption” are two opposite poles on man’s scale of intelligence and morality. Man’s values, are attributed to him alone. Therefore, Simon’s perfection or corruption has no bearing at all on Ruben’s. Once this idea is seen clearly, I feel the other opinion of affecting the dead will be recognized as false.


Samuel II, 12:23: “Now that he has died, why shall I fast?…”   King David fasted and cried for his dying child. Once the child died, this was his response to his servants, astonished to see the king cease from his fasting and crying. Kind David expressed this idea: when someone has died, there is nothing others may do to affect he that has passed.


Who shall we study more carefully for taking lessons, our Kings, who acted from their immense Torah knowledge, and whose words form our Scriptures and prayers, …or others?




Reader II: I read your article “Affecting the Dead” in Jewish Times III, no. 22, with great interest. Please explain how the thrust of your article relates to the notion that saying kaddish for a deceased person elevates the neshama of the deceased. Is that a different concept from what you were writing about, or is that also a mistaken notion? If so, what is the point of saying kaddish? Thank you.


Mesora: I addressed the concept of elevating the neshama, and believe it to be untrue, as I attempted to convey by the sources I quoted. See the Sforno on Devarim 10:17 where he states that sin is only removed via repentance. This means that another person cannot affect your soul, in life or death, and you need to do teshuva yourself to improve your soul. Therefore, after death, the person' chance for teshuva has ended. His soul is now fixed in the level of perfection reached during his limited years.

Kaddish is recited for the relatives' own perfection, not for the deceased. I once heard an explanation, which makes sense to me: At a time of grieving, one may feel sentiments that G-d is not just. Kaddish addresses this. One is mindful through Kaddish to praise G-d's "great name." Man is thereby focusing on the greatness of G-d, and removes his personal feelings of loss from diminishing his appreciation for the Creator.


Reader II: Thank you for your quick reply. I am looking up the sources that I have access to, and I am asking around. If I come up with a different opinion with a solid source, I will let you know. Again, thank you for shaking up something I have never much thought about.