By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 89 – What Kavod Can Do
A girl who is not halachikly an adult (and her father is no longer alive) can marry, but the marriage only takes effect m’drabbanan. Nonetheless, says the Braisah, even if her husband is a Kohein – who is generally prohibited from exposing himself to tumas meis – he is responsible for her burial needs in the event that she dies, even if that means becoming tamei in the process.
Understandably, the Gemara is bothered by this. M’doraysah, this girl is not the Kohein’s wife. That means that m’doraysah he has no heter to become tamei through burying her! How could the Chachamim uproot a prohibition of the Torah?! The answer, says the Gemara, is that since we have also allocated her inheritance to her husband, her relatives from her family of origin will not be willing to take responsibility for her burial. Were her husband to call out to them to bury her, they would not respond. Therefore, concludes the Gemara, she is a meis mitzvah. Even a Kohein has to take care of a meis mitzvah despite his becoming tamei in the process.
It would seem from this, says Tosafos, that whenever a particular individual is the sole inheritor of the deceased, we consider it to be a situation of meis mitzvah since everyone else will abdicate any responsibility towards the deceased.
Tosafos proves though, with an array of sources and logical arguments, that this is an impossible assertion. The one which is directly relevant to this case is this: the language of the Braisah and the Gemara clearly indicates that the halacha is that the Kohein-husband is to be involved with his ketana-wife’s burial regardless of the particular, attendant circumstances. That means that even if there are plenty of non-Kohanim around that are willing to take care of the burial for him, there is no reason for him to ask them to do so.
This apparently contradicts the rule we know from a Gemara in Nazir that says that if there is a meis mitzvah and either a Kohein or a Yisrael could take care of the burial, the Yisrael must be the one to do so, and not the Kohein. As such, were this deceased ketana-wife to be literally considered a meis mitzvah, her Kohein-husband would have to ask a Yisrael to take care of her burial. However, the language of the Braisah and the Gemara is clear that this is not the halacha!
Therefore, concludes Tosafos, it must be that the Gemara does not mean that this deceased ketana-wife is literally a meis mitzvah just because her husband is the one who has exclusive rights to her inheritance. Rather, since her family of origin does not inherit her (and therefore are inclined to abdicate responsibility for her burial), we consider he like a meis mitzvah. Not literally, but similar. This, asserts Tosafos, is enough to enable Chazal to uproot a prohibition of the Torah. When something is similar and akin to that which is mutar m’doraysah, even though not all the technical requirements are fulfilled to actually have that heter, Chazal have the authority to permit it.
Aside from the obvious question that this raises regarding what could be the source and/or logical reasoning for such a rule and what are the specific, defining parameters of that rule, there is another point that comes sharply into focus. Chazal considered kavod ha’meis, the dignity of the deceased, a consideration of paramount importance. To the extent that they are willing to stretch the limits, so to speak, and borrow the concept of meis mitzvah in order to enable this deceased child to have a proper burial ceremony. The truth is that the enormous extent of halachos that all have to do with kavod ha’meis is more than enough to recognize the supreme significance Chazal attached thereto, but the point that we see in this Daf brings it perhaps to a whole new level.
Now, a lot can be said on the topic of why kavod ha’meis is designated as such a high-level value and priority in the Torah. For the moment, though, let’s zoom in on a fascinating explanation provided by the Sheim Mi’Shmuel.
“My father, zt”l, explained that the reason Chazal made such an incredibly big deal about kavod ha’meis is that the kochos of evil and tumah that exist in the world are practically dying to take up residence in a dead body. This would cause much anguish to the deceased. Therefore, we shower an incredible amount of kavod on the deceased, because kavod comes from the upper world of kedusha, and the kochos ha’tumah cannot bear anything which is from that realm. Those kochos ha’tumah are banished by the tremendous outpouring of kavod on the meis.”
Of course, we are not involved with the hidden aspects of the Torah, and we don’t really understand what these kochos ha’tumah are, why they want so badly to take up refuge in a dead body, and how it is that kavod is considered from the upper spheres and chases them away. Nevertheless, what we can garner from this intriguing statement is an entirely new appreciation of what it means to treat people – living people – with honor, respect, and dignity. In addition to the chesed of making the person feel good and possibly helping him in other ways as well; you are also thereby showering him with an influx of connection to the kedusha of the upper world, albeit without knowing exactly how you are doing that. But you are doing it.
And, for that matter, it is also gives us pause to consider how we afford our own selves a healthy sense of respect and dignity. Of course, as we all well know, by no means should anyone start running after kavod. That, as the Mishna in Pirkei Avos makes abundantly clear, is a misappropriation, not a positive connection. But what is important is that one should feel a strong, healthy sense of self-respect and dignity. Not only to conduct oneself in a dignified manner; but, perhaps even more importantly, to feel an internal, inherent sense of dignity.
Not inflated, but solid.
This positive feeling of self-esteem is not only an impetus in a this-worldly sense for a person to be motivated and strong; it also creates within the individual a crucial bond to the kedusha that emanates from the upper spheres. We may not understand what exactly that means or precisely how it works, but one thing is for sure: it will go a long way to creating a positive force within the person that will in turn constructively impact everything he does.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.