Acharei/Kedoshim: The Realm of the Undertaker ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this essay we will explore the different words for gehinnom (commonly translated as “hell” or “purgatory”). The Talmud (Eruvin 19a) cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement that there are seven Biblical terms which refer to gehinnomsheolavadonbe’er shachat, bor shaon, tit hayaven, tzal-mavet, and eretz hatachtit. In the following paragraphs we will explore the literal and esoteric meanings of these seven terms, as well as several more.

The word sheol and its various forms appear close to seventy times in the Bible. Sheol’s literal meaning is “grave.” Interestingly, Ibn Ezra to Gen. 37:35 criticizes the Christian Vulgate for translating sheol in that verse as the Latin infernus (“inferno”), because Ibn Ezra maintains that sheol literally means grave. However, Rashi (there) explains that although the plain meaning of sheol is “grave,” exegetically it can refer to the post-mortem purgatory of the soul. The Malbim writes that sheol literally means a deep pit from which it is impossible to get out. This may apply to both a “grave” and gehinnom.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that the root of the word sheol is SHIN-LAMMED, which denotes something “thrown away” or “negated.” That meaning extends to the grave because death marks the onset of a plane of existence which is “away” from the realm of the living. My friend Rabbi Tzvi Matisyahu Abrahams takes a more exhortative approach in his book Root Connections in the Torah. He writes (p. 274): “The grave is called sheol because at the time when we will be placed into the ground, there will be a big question (sheilah) mark hanging over our heads as to where we will be headed.”

A second word for gehinnom is avadon (Ps. 88:12), which either refers to the destruction/rotting of the body after death, or the fact that souls are “lost” (avad) there for some time.

The third term for gehinnom is shachat or be’er shachat (Ps. 16:10, 55:24). In many cases the word shachat in the Bible does not clearly refer to the grave or gehinnom, but refers to a pit. Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) explains that a shachat is a pit dug for the purpose of capturing wild animals. He connects this to gehinnom by noting that the wicked sometimes set up traps in order to ensnare the righteous. He also explains that shachat is an expression of “destruction” (hashchatah), for the body rots and decomposes in the grave.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the root of shachat is SHIN-CHET, which refers to “bending.” This is connected to a “pit” because when one is stuck in such a cramped place he is forced to “bend” his body. Other words which are derived from this root include hishtachavah (“bowing,” by which one “bends” his posture) and mashach (“anointing,” because applying oil to hard things softens them, leaving them more pliable and “bendable”).

The fourth term cited by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is bor shaon (literally, the “Pit of Noise”), found in Ps. 40:3. Rabbi Yonah ibn Janach and others explain that shaon — which means a “ruckus of noise” — and shaanan — which means “quiet” — are actually related to each other. This is an example of a common phenomenon in Hebrew where words with diametrically opposed meanings sometimes have related roots. In light of this it seems that bor shaon might actually means “Pit of Silence,” and refer to the fact that one can no longer complain or even speak after death.

Rashi (to Isa. 9:4) and Radak in Sefer HaShorashim explain that the word shaon has the same root as the word shoah (“holocaust” or “destruction”). This fits with the terms avadon and shachat,which are also related to “destruction.”

The fifth term proffered by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is tit hayaven (literally, “slimy mud”), also found in Ps. 40:3 (alongside with bor shaon). Gehinnom restricts one’s freedom of movement like somebody stuck in quicksand, and in death the dead lie lifelessly in the grave. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the word hayaven is derived from the root YUD-NUN, which refers to “trickery” or “deception.” This root is related to the word onaah (essentially “to profit by ripping somebody off”), and yayin (“wine,” which deceives the drinker by tasting good but then taking away his capacity to think properly). In the same vein, quicksand also “deceives” people by appearing to be dry land that one can walk on top of, but, in reality, if one attempts to do so he will drown in the slime. (Similar explanations are offered by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary to Gen. 9:20 and by Rabbi Aharon Marcus in Keset HaSofer to Gen. 10:2.)

The sixth synonym for gehinnom is tzal-mavet, literally “shadow of death” (Ps. 107:10, Iyov 10:21). The connection is obvious.

The seventh and final term that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi mentions is eretz hatachtit (literally, “the underworld”). When discussing this term the Talmud cannot find an example of Biblical usage, and so it simply concludes that there is a tradition linking this term with gehinnom.

Another version of Rabbi Yehoshua’s list, found in Sefer Russiana and in Menorat HaMaor by Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhab (14th century Spain) has eretz chittit (literally, “the Land of the Hittites”) instead of eretz tachtit. In fact, the Tosafists actually prefer this version. They argue that the term eretz tachtit actually does appear in the Bible (several times in Ezek. 31, see also Deut. 32:22), so if eretz tachtit was a term for gehinnom the Talmud would not have had to resort to a non-Scriptural tradition to prove so. The term eretz chittit, on the other hand, does not appear in the Bible. This substantiates the position that the Talmudic passage in question should indeed read eretz chittit, which was inadvertently changed toeretz tachtit by a scribal error. In other words, if we assume that the seventh term is eretz chittit, the Talmud’s entire discussion makes more sense.

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), also known as the Maharsha, explains that these seven names for gehinnom correspond to seven different places in gehinnom (see Sotah 10b). Indeed, Midrash Konen (printed in Rabbi J. D. Eisenstein’s Otzar Midrashim, p. 256) writes that different types of sinners occupy different places in gehinnom: Korach and his companions occupy sheol; the lost souls of the wicked occupy avadon; robbers, thieves, and those who withhold wages from workers occupy be’er shachat; those who violated the laws governing intimate relations occupy tit hayaven; slanderers occupy tzal-mavet; those who argue with Torah Scholars occupy eretz tachtit; and so forth…

The Tosafists cite several sources that presume that alukah (literally, “leech” or “sanguisuga”) — a word that appears in Prov. 30:15 — is another term for gehinnom (although they also discuss the possibility that it is an alternate name for King Solomon). Maharal explains that just as a leech sucks out a person’s blood, so does gehinnom “suck out” a person’s soul. Similarly, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) explains in Nefesh HaChaim (1:12) that gehinnom is called a “leech” because a leech sucks out a person’s bad blood and then dies. This is comparable to gehinnom which cleanses a person of his sins, thus causing all impure pollutants created by his sin to disappear.

Before continuing with the Talmud’s reaction to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, I must state that other sources have alternate versions of his list: Midrash Hallel (Otzar Midrashim, p. 134) omits bor shaon and eretz hatachtit, and instead includes gehinnom and tziyah (literally, “place of desolation). Midrash Din HaKever (Otzar Midrashim, p. 94) replaces bor shaon with be’er shaon; eretz hatachtit with bor hatachtit (literally, “the underpit”)andtzal-mavet with chatzar-mavat (literally, “Courtyard of Death”). The Targumic Tosefta (beginning of Ezek.) replaces bor shaon with dumah (literally, “quiet” — in Kabbalistic sources, dumah is the name of the angel in charge of gehinnom). It also replaces eretz hatachtit with arka (Aramaic for “earth,” see Jer. 10:11), and tzal-mavet with gehinnom.

After citing and finding proof-texts for the seven words in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s list the Talmud then turns to another two words which he seems to have neglected: gehinnom and tophet. Those two words do not explicitly refer to the netherworld in the Bible. In the Bible the terms gei ben hinnom (the “Valley of Ben Hinnom,” from which the word gehinnom is derived) and tophet refer to sites in Southern Jerusalem where idol worshippers served the Baal, in part with child sacrifices (see Jer. 19).

Nonetheless, these two terms were borrowed as expressions of the sinner’s afterlife. Based on that borrowing, the Talmud asks why Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi did not include these two terms in his list. The Talmud answers that gehinnom and tophet are not additional names for the underworld or places within that realm, but are actually allusions to the reasons why somebody might end up there. Meaning, the Talmud expounds on the word gehinnom as referring to the deep “valley” (gei) into which those who engage in “pointless” (chinam, which Rashi explains refers to sexual impropriety) activities descend. Similarly, the Talmud expounds on tophet as referring to the place into which those who are “convinced” or “seduced” (mifateh) by the Evil Inclination fall. In light of this, gehinnom and tophet do not fit into the theme of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s list (i.e. Biblical terms which refer to gehinnom) and he therefore left them out.

Coronavirus: Facing Death with Mushrooms ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The Torah introduces the laws of the sacrificial services of Yom Kippur by noting that G-d relayed them to Moses after the deaths (acharei mot) of Aharon’s two sons (Lev. 16:1). The Torah then continues to discuss various other topics, running the gamut from sacrifices outside of the Temple, the prohibition of eating blood, forbidden relationships, and various interpersonal and agricultural laws (Lev. 16-20). All in all, the theme of death underlies all of these passages and, in fact, permutations of the Hebrew words mavet/mitah (death) appear twenty-four times in the parshiot of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim that we recently read — more than any other two joined parshiot in the Torah. The Talmud does not generally use the word meit (died) to refer to someone’s passing on, but rather uses the expression nach nafshei (literally, “his soul has rested”). Regardless, the Hebrew word commonly used when colloquially referring to someone who died, or “passed away”, is niftar and the noun for death is known as petirah. In what way is the Hebrew word niftar different from the seemingly synonymous word meit?

The term niftar in reference to somebody dying is first found in the Mishnah which uses the expression “niftar from the world” (Peah 8:9). The root of the word niftar is peh-tet-reish (exit) which can refer to a firstborn animal exiting its mother’s womb (peter rechem) or somebody who takes leave of his friend (niftar). In the context of death, a person is niftar when he exits This World in anticipation of entering the Next World. However, the most common use of the word patur is in the legal sense of a person who is exempt from a given punishment or obligation. This, of course, begs the question as to why the death of a person is connected to the concept of a legal exemption.

In contemporary times, the controversy over the changing definition of death rages on. However, in Judaism, the definition is pegged to the exit of the soul from one’s body. Based on this, we can understand the correlation between death and the idea of being exempt. All the while a person’s body houses his soul, his inner soul obligates his outer body to live for a higher purpose and existence. It represents his accountability to law and order, as well as G-d’s oversight of the world. When a person’s soul leaves his body, then the body is no longer bound to those higher callings — it is exempt from all obligations. For this reason a person who dies is said to have been niftar — a word related to patur (exempt).

In truth, only a person who lives for a higher purpose is considered living. A person who lives for no other reason than to enjoy life itself is considered dead even as he breathes and walks and bungee-jumps off the Empire State Building. To this effect, the Talmud (Berachot 18a-18b) unequivocally states that the righteous (tzaddikim) — even when dead — are considered alive (chaim), while the wicked (reshaim) — even when alive — are considered dead (metim). A person who lives a life that looks to a higher purpose is niftar when he dies because his physical life was not his end-all objective, but was simply a means to reaching a higher goal. Such a person is akin to somebody who exits one room to enter another. The term mitah, on the other hand, can be applied to any living being (even an animal) that experiences the separation of body and soul. Mitah is the conclusion of life; it does not connote anything to come afterwards. Even the wicked experience what is called mitah, while the term petirah is reserved for the righteous.

The late Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) observes that plants, which are firmly rooted in the ground, are also connected to their lifeline in the soil, just as man is attached to his soul. That very connection shows that the plant does not simply grow of its own accord, but connects to something loftier. On the other hand, mushrooms, like other fungi, rise from the ground without roots. They are disconnected from any sense of responsibility or accountability. They are free-floating, self-serving entities. For this reason, mushrooms are called pitriyot in Hebrew — they are patur from any obligations. While they too might technically be considered alive, such a life is more akin to death than to life. Thus, what scientists call the largest living organism on Earth — a certain honey fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon — is actually dead!

Rabbi Avraham Chaim Schor (d. 1632) takes a slightly different approach to explaining the difference between seemingly synonymous words niftar and meit. Almost by definition, righteous people do not focus on the carnal pleasures of This World, while the wicked generally tend to indulge in such pursuits. As a result, the worldly existence of a pious man can be characterized as relatively full of suffering. When the righteous man dies and moves to the Next World, he has effectively become “exempt” from the life of suffering in This World and can now move forward. This is why the term niftar applies specifically to the death of a tzaddik, while mitah refers to death in general.

Coronavirus: Coronation of the Crown ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The Bible uses three different words to mean “crown”: keteratarah, and nezer. Some explain that the word keter is a general term, which refers to crowns, while the other two are specific types of crowns. However, most commentators assume that the three words represent three different types of crowns.

The Malbim defines these three words by explaining the differences in their physical properties. He explains that an atarah is the type of crown which completely surrounds the circumference of one’s head, and rises about the head’s height, while the keter is a crown which circles around one’s head, but does not rise above the head’s height (i.e. a coronet). A nezer is a type of crown which only encircles half of the wearer’s head (i.e. a tiara). Others explain that an atarah refers specifically to the type of crown which is covered on top, while the others refer to crowns which are not necessarily so.

The conceptualization of the physical aspects of keter and atarah — which surround the wearer’s head — are used metaphorically in the Bible to refer to any type of surrounding (similar to the English word “circlet” — a type of crown — which conjures the word circle). Similarly, the Aramaic word for “crown”, klil, also refers to something which encompasses another. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) reveals that kallah, the Hebrew word for bride, is derived from the Aramaic word for crown. He explains that just as a crown wholly surrounds the head of the one who wears it, a kallah is wholly surrounded with adornments and jewelry.

In addition to the physical characteristics which set apart these types of crowns from one another, the Malbim explains that they also differ on a more abstract, thematic level. He explains that a keter specifically denotes a royal crown, while an atarah may denote any type of crown. In fact, all three times that the word keter appears in the Bible (Esther 2:17, 6:8, 1:11), it appears in the construct phrase keter-malchut, royal crown.

The word nezer is related to the word zer (diadem), which appears ten times in the Book of Exodus, when describing the golden ornamental “crowns” which adorned some vessels in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). But, the word nezer connotes much more than that. For example, it serves as the root of the word nazir, Nazirite. The Torah explains that a Nazirite — one who has foresworn drinking wine, cutting his hair, and ritual impurity — is considered especially holy “because the nezer of G-d is upon his head” (Numbers 6:7). The physical manifestation of this “crown” is the Nazirite’s long hair, but the spiritual manifestation of the Nazirite’s uniqueness is the way that he separates himself from the common folk. The same expression is used when explaining the reason for the special laws concerning the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). About those laws the Torah says, “Because the nezer — anointing oil — of his G-d is upon him…” (Leviticus

21:12). The Kohen Gadol is also separated from the rest of the nation in both physical (e.g., the priestly vestments) and spiritual ways. From this we see that the word nezer connotes a crown specifically used as a means of demarcation or separation, which shows one’s significance and sets him above the rest.

In addition to the three Hebrew words and the one Aramaic word mentioned above, there is a fifth word for crown used in rabbinic idiom: tag/taga. This word is commonly used when referring to the “crowns” drawn on top of certain letters in a Torah Scroll (known as tagin). Linguists claim that tag is a Persian loanword that was later adopted by Aramaic. Interestingly, in light of our understanding of the role of a crown in marking its wearer as special, we can easily see how the Aramaic word tag became the English word “tag”, which also serves as a marker of sorts.