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Can the dead hear the living?

Can the dead hear what the living say about them? This question is addressed in a Talmudic passage. Initially, I paraphrase it without any comment whatsoever:

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A certain pious man made a charitable donation that he could not afford. It was a year of famine. His wife berated him for giving away what, according to one commentary, was their last penny.

So the man went and spent the night in the cemetery, where he heard the spirits of two deceased children conversing. One spirit said, “My friend, let us roam the world and hear what misfortune awaits it.”

The other spirit replied: “I can’t do it. Iam buried in a mat of reeds. But you? Go ahead and come back and tell me what you hear.”

The first spirit roamed the world and returned and said: “I heard that crops planted at the time of the first rain will be destroyed by hail.”

So the pious man went and planted crops at the time of the second rain. Everyone else’s crops were destroyed by hail, but not the pious man’s.

The next year, the pious man again spent the night in the cemetery. He heard the same two spirits conversing. One spirit said, “My friend, let us roam the world and hear what misfortune awaits it.”

The other spirit replied: “I already told you that I can’t do it. I am buried in a mat of reeds. But you? Go ahead and come back and tell me what you hear.”

The first spirit roamed and returned and said: “I heard that crops planted at the time of the second rain will be destroyed by hail.”

So the pious man went and planted crops at the time of the first rain. Everyone else’s crops were blasted, but not the pious man’s.

His wife said to him: “Why was it that last year everyone’s crops were destroyed, but not yours? And now, everyone’s crops were blasted, but not yours.”

So he told her the whole story.

A few days later a quarrel broke out between the wife of the pious man and the mother of the child whose spirit he heard in the cemetery. The pious man’s wife said: “I will show you your daughter buried ignominiously in a mat of reeds.”

The next year the pious man slept in the cemetery and again heard the same two spirits conversing. One spirit said, “My friend, let us roam the world and hear what misfortune awaits it.”

The other spirit replied: “My friend, leave me be. Our conversations have already been heard among the living.”

The Talmud concludes:

Apparently, the dead know what the living say about the them, since this spirit was aware of what her mother had been told about her daughter’s burial in a mat of reeds.

But . . . perhaps the dead do not hear the living. Perhaps another person died in the interim and told the spirits what was said about them. That is to say, even though the dead cannot hear the living, a recently deceased person can inform the dead of recent events.

In any event, the living can hear the dead. The pious man heard the spirits of two deceased children conversing.

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What is one to make of this provocative passage from Talmudic tractate Berachot 18b? It raises so many issues. On the ethical front, is it pious to give away one’s last dollar — was the wife correct to object? Does piety surpass self-need? But is this not why the pious man was rewarded with “insider trading,” knowing when to plant and when not to plant? Was it right for the pious man to act on this “insider information” for his material benefit, rather than to share it with others? Was he permitted to share it?

On the spiritual and mystical front, what is a “spirit”? Can the dead converse? If so, can only the living who are pious overhear them? If so, what is the nature of this piety? Can anyone acquire it? Is the “residence” of the dead restricted to the cemetery, where these conversations took place? If so, how could one of the spirits “roam the world”? What is it about being buried in a mat of reeds that precludes one spirit from roaming the world?

On the esoteric front, how does this spirit learn of the misfortunes awaiting the world? The spirit learns of them, says this Talmudic passage, “from behind the curtain” — another baffling metaphor. It is taken to mean a place where authoritative, indeed Divine, information is disclosed. But if one can hear “behind the curtain,” does this make the recipient of this Divine information a prophet of sorts? How is this possible, given that the period of the Prophets ended long before this Talmudic metaphor came into usage? Be this as it may, “behind the curtain” is where the roaming spirit learned of the coming misfortune, and then disclosed it to the pious man.

Perhaps more basic than any of these questions is this one: Are any of these questions of any relevance? Is this passage simply outlandish, unworthy of any analysis at all?

I venture to answer only this last question. The passage has meaning, profound meaning. The passage’s symbolism clearly conveys many messages — but what are they? How is one to decipher all of these metaphors, stories and images? And if one symbol can be deciphered, how might it fit in with the others? What is the big picture?

Halachah, Jewish law, is authoritative. Aggadah, Jewish lore — such as the passage cited above — is also authoritative. However, halachah is precise and quantifiable, aggadah is not, as this passage makes eminently clear.

I am not competent to weave the meaning embedded in all of these dialogues and post-mortal symbols. Scholars and poets far more learned than I need to be consulted. However, I can say this: Whatever else this passage means, one point is perfectly clear and accessible. It an ethical point: Whether the dead can “hear” the living or not, it behooves the living not to speak ill of the dead, just as it behooves the living not to speak ill of the living. Either the dead can hear what the living say about them or, if not, the relatives, friends and other survivors of the dead can certainly hear what is said about the dead. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “Wise ones, be careful with your words!”

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