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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Halakhic Man and the Miracle of Modern Medicine

Beitzah 10 
Guest Post by Rabbi Jonathan Gross

Thank you to Rabbi Jonathan Gross for this beautiful guest Life Yomi post.  If you are ever learning the Daf and wish to share an insight for daily living on, please email  

One of the great privileges of living in Omaha is the opportunity to have a relationship with Rabbi Myer Kripke who lives here, and with his son, the great philosopher Saul Kripke, who comes to visit occasionally.

I once asked Saul Kripke if he had ever read any works of Rabbi Soloveitchik, and, if so, what were some of his impressions.  Saul had in fact read some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings.  He mentioned a few observations, but also noted that there was something that he read in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man that was very disturbing to him. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik describes some of the heroic qualities of the ideal Halakhic Man with a dramatic story about Rabbi Elijah Pruzna Feinstein (1843-1929).  Rabbi Elijah was summoned from his daily prayers to be with his ill daughter who was about to die:  

Rabbi Elijah went into his daughter’s room and asked the doctor how much longer it would be until the end.  When he received the doctor’s reply Rabbi Elijah returned to his room and…quickly put on his tefilin…for immediately upon his daughter’s death he would be an onen, a mourner whose dead relative has not yet been buried, and as such would be subject to the law that an onen is exempt from all commandments [and would then lose the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of tefilin on that day].  After he removed his…tefilin he wrapped them up and put them away and entered his dying daughter’s room in order to be present at the moment when his most beloved daughter of all would return her soul back to her maker (Halakhic Man, 77-8).

Saul Kripke was surprised that Rabbi Soloveitchik would consider this behavior virtuous.  How could this rabbi be so preoccupied with a seemingly unrelated and relatively trivial ritual observance in the face of his own daughter’s passing?

Indeed, The late Rabbi David Hartman asks the very same question in his book Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. 

He writes that “there is something abnormal – one might even say inhuman – about Rabbi Elijah’s behavior.”  One would expect a father to want to be with his daughter at the last moments rather than think about what mitzvoth he will or not be able to perform when his halachik status changes. 

The Talmud today quotes a Mishnah about the laws of ritual purity and defilement. 

If a person dies in a room, all of the objects under the same roof as the body become defiled and are rendered unfit for use until they undergo ritual purification.  This includes any objects situated in a window.  Even though the window creates an alcove that technically should count as a different roof, thus sparing the object from defilement from the body, the Rabbis decreed that all objects that are “in the way that the defilement would exit the room” are also subject to defilement. 

The Mishnah elaborates on this rabbinic decree with a few special cases:
If there is only one window in the room, any objects in that window are defiled because the defilement is forced to leave the room through that window.
If there are many windows in the room and they are all opened, then objects under any of the windows are defiled because we have no way of knowing out of which window the defilement exited. 
If there are many windows in the room and one of the windows is designated to be the exit window for defilement, then only objects under the designated window are defiled, objects under all other windows – opened or closed -  are saved from defilement and require no purification.  Beit Shamai say that the designation rule applies only if the window was designated while the person was still alive.

The words of Beit Shammai reminded me of the story of Rabbi Elijah.  While someone is lying on their death bed who would be sitting in the room thinking to themselves, “I had better designate a window to be the defilement exit window before he dies.  If I don’t I might have to take an empty mayonnaise jar to the mikvah.  That would be a tragedy!”? 

When I meet with families before a funeral I tell them about the oldest and most meaningful of all Jewish mourning practices, kriah – the rending of the garment.  This was the practice that Jacob did when he was informed that his beloved son Joseph had been killed by an animal.  Among other things, it is a dramatic demonstration that all material things are meaningless to the mourner and he would gladly give away all of his material processions if he could be with his loved one for even another minute.  

Of all modern practices, I believe the substitution of kriah with a cheap black ribbon is the most offensive.  The black ribbon says, “My mother just died, but I can’t rip this shirt!  It cost me ten bucks!”

David Hartman was a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik and held him in very high regard.   In his book he writes a great deal trying to understand and explain the point that Rabbi Soloveithcik was trying to make with the anecdote about Rabbi Elijah.  

When I read stories like this I only marvel at how lucky we are to live in the time and place that we do.  In our time, the death of a child is a rare occurrence.  In the times of the Gemara, and even in the 19th century when Rabbi Elijah lived, it was quite common for families to experience the death of a child.  Saul Kripke’s father, Rabbi Myer Kripke, may he live and be well, is 100 years old.  Rabbi Kripke was one of 9 children, only 7 of which made it to adulthood.  In earlier times that family would be considered lucky.  Most families did not fare so well.     In the not so distant past a man of seventy was considered ancient.  Today, when someone dies in their seventies it is considered before their time.

A world in which death is so common place is incomprehensible to us.  How different must the worldview of someone living at that time have been from our worldview today?  This is not an answer to Rabbi Hartman’s and professor Kripke’s question, but merely an observation that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s worldview was different than ours. 

Since in our time, we are less familiar with death, the way that a person experiences the death of a relative today is vastly different than it was in the past.  When we read a Mishnah or a story like this we must pause and remember how fortunate we are and give thanks to Hashem.  Every day, we must thank Hashem for our incredible advances in medicine - today, when we get ill, we believe that we will live.  In the past, that wasn't their assumption.  How fortunate we are to be living in the twenty-first century!

May Hashem remove all illness from our midst very soon and may we become even less familiar with death than we are today, as the prophet says of the messianic era, "Death will be swallowed up forever."

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