THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Va’etchanan – פרשת ואתחנן
August 17, 2019 – טז אב תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Harold & Lisa Steinberg in memory of Raymond (ירחמיאל בן מנחם מנדל ז"ל) & Doris (דובריש דבורה בת משה ז"ל) Shatz, and David Steinberg (דוד בן יוסף הלוי ז"ל).
The Deathbed Shema
The deathbed recitation of Shema is widely considered to be a Jewish lifecycle ritual of utmost importance. With moments to spare before the soul’s departure, the gravely ill person professes his or her loyalty to the Jewish faith tradition by proclaiming “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One (Deuteronomy 6:4).” Since most people fall into some state of unconsciousness or are physically unable to speak for some time prior to death, it is often difficult to arrange for proper observance of the custom. If necessary, the rite is performed vicariously by a family member at the bedside. Yet for all the significance attached to the practice of reciting it, the deathbed Shema is a fairly recent innovation.
The dying person’s primary liturgical obligation is to recite the confessional. As Rabbi Eliezer exhorted: “Repent one day before your death (Avot 2:10).” Since people do not know when they will die, it is prudent to confess every day (Shabbat 153a). An ailing person, still holding out hope for recovery and reluctant to come to terms with his or her impending demise, might need some prodding before being willing to perform an end-of-life prayer ritual. The Talmud instructs those visiting a patient whose health is in steep decline to tell that patient that he or she ought to confess (Shabbat 32b). To soften the psychological blow, the visitor is bidden to remind the patient that the act of confessing does not itself necessarily mean that death will inevitably, or shortly, follow. Many people who never confessed died; many people who did confess while in critical condition thereafter recovered fully. “In the merit of confessing, may you be granted life (Semakhot 1:2).”
While generic confessions of wrongdoing are acceptable, there is a strong preference in halakhah for the penitent to offer a detailed accounting of his specific misdeeds when seeking expiation from God (Yoma 86b). Scriptural support for a personalized confession, as against using boilerplate, comes from the verse “He who conceals his sins will not prosper (Proverbs 28:13).”
Shulhan Arukh offers a standard formula: “I acknowledge before You, the Lord, my God and God of my fathers, that my recovery and death are in Your hand. May it be Your will that You heal me with total recovery. But, if I die, may my death be an atonement for all the errors, iniquities, and willful sins that I have transgressed before You. May You grant my share in the Garden of Eden, and privilege me for the World to Come that is concealed for the righteous (Orach Chaim 338:2).” Parenthetically, Shulhan Arukh notes that anyone wishing to recite a lengthier prayer (along the lines of the Yom Kippur confessional) is free to do so.
The deathbed Shema has no basis in the Talmud or early halakhic writings. In the famous Aggadic account of the dying Jacob’s final conversation with his twelve sons, it is the sons, not Jacob, who say “Hear O Israel” (Pesahim 56a).
The most commonly cited Talmudic source for the deathbed Shema is the gruesome account of Rabbi Akiba’s martyrdom at the hands of Roman governor Tineius Rufus (Berakhot 61b; Yerushalmi Berakhot 14b). While having his flesh raked with iron combs, Akiba maintained his composure and recited Shema. As he prolonged his utterance of “One,” his soul departed. A careful reading of the Talmudic texts, however, shows no evidence for the practice of the deathbed Shema. Consider: a) The Akiba story is not about someone dying of natural causes. At most, it could serve as precedent for someone on the brink of martyrdom. b) Both the Bavli and Yerushalmi make clear that Akiba recited Shema because the hour for the twice-daily recitation of Shema had arrived. Akiba was therefore fulfilling a Biblical commandment; he was not observing an end-of-life ritual. c) The story has a thoroughly legendary flavor to it. In the Bavli, Akiba’s disciples ask him whether the requirement to love God extends as far as submitting to horrific torture. He responds that all his life he wondered whether he would have the opportunity to fulfill the commandment to love God “with all your soul” and now that the opportunity had presented itself he was not going to squander it. In the Yerushalmi, it was the executioner who wondered whether Akiba was a magician who could withstand ordinarily unbearable pain. Akiba responded that he was not a magician, but that he was joyously fulfilling the command to love God “with all your heart.”
Quite likely neither version represents the real historical memory of Akiba’s death. Rather, the story is a literary and homiletic device employed to bolster the rabbinic contention that one must bless God regarding the bad occurrences in life just as one blesses Him for the good that one enjoys (Mishnah Berakhot 9:5).
Ivan Marcus, in his article “Performative Midrash in the Memory of Ashkenazi Martyrs,” shows that the Jewish victims of the First Crusade in 1096 were the first to recite Shema in connection with martyrdom. They were acting out the Midrashic version of Akiba’s death as well as repeating the profession of faith that, according to legend, the twelve tribes made to their dying father, Jacob.
Not all the martyrs in Worms and Mainz were killed by Christian marauders, however. Many were killed by their own family members; this was a precautionary measure to spare such people from likely extreme torture and pressure to renounce Judaism. Some recited Shema shortly before their own deaths; others said Shema after carrying out the “mercy killing” of a loved one; and others said Shema as bystanders witnessing the carnage. The recitation of Shema is also referenced in the poetic remembrance “Ein Kamokha ba-Ilmim,” by Rabbi Isaac bar Shalom, which relates to the 1147 massacre at Wurzburg, and also in the piyyut “Ana Hashem Elokei ha-Shamayim,” by Rabbi Hayyim ben Makhir, which refers to the 1285 killings at Munich.
But, as noted by Marcus, the practice initiated in Germany by the victims of 1096 did not catch on everywhere. There is no mention of Shema in connection with the blood libel at Blois in 1171, the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190, the murder of the wife and daughters of Rabbi Elazar ben Judah of Worms in 1196, the blood libel at Troyes in 1288, the Lepers and Shepherds Crusade of 1320, the pogrom against the Jews of Spain in 1391, or the persecution of the Jews of Portugal in 1497. Moreover, in the legendary account of the death Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, the dying sage composed and recited U’netanah Tokef, not Shema.
The Jews of the Ukraine, who fell in the pogroms of 1648 orchestrated by Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki, did recite Shema. In his semi-historical work Yeven Mezulah, Nathan of Hanover recalls how the town elders assembled the Jews, warned them not to become apostates, urged them to sanctify the Name of God, and prompted them to proclaim “Shema Yisrael.”
But what about Jews who die peacefully of old age? The earliest rabbinic text calling upon even non-martyrs to make a deathbed profession of faith is Sefer Toldot Adam v’Chava, by Rabbenu Yerucham ben Meshulam (14th century Spain). He cites a no longer extant passage from the works of Nachmanides urging the dying person to say the following: “The Lord God is true, His Torah is true, His prophet Moses is true, blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.” The ailing person is then to recite Psalm 145 followed by a heartfelt confession. Lastly, the dying person verbalizes his or her belief in the Maimonidean Principles of Faith including: the fact of God’s existence; His uniqueness and oneness; His incorporeality; His chronological precedence; His worthiness to be worshipped; the existence of prophecy; the supremacy of Moses’ prophecy and the giving of a heavenly Torah through Moses; that our current Torah is the same as the original Torah; that the Torah is not to be replaced with another revealed corpus; that God knows all of man’s actions; that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked; that Messiah will come and that the dead will be resurrected. Throughout the declaration the dying person is bidden to think about God and the Sinaitic Revelation (Netiv 28a).
The one verse most conspicuously missing from Rabbenu Yerucham’s deathbed formula is Deuteronomy 6:4. The great halakhic codifiers and commentators Rosh, Tur, Karo, Isserles, Levush, Bach, and GRA all make no mention of Shema Yisrael as part of the deathbed liturgy. Rabbi Abraham Danzig (1748-1820) appears to be the first halakhist to incorporate Shema into the deathbed rite. He cited Rabbenu Yerucham almost verbatim, but added this ending: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity (Chochmat Adam 151:12).” Presumably, Danzig was codifying an existing popular practice. But we have no way of ascertaining how old that practice was and whether it was initiated by the laity or was originally suggested by rabbinical authorities. Likely, the custom developed in East Central Europe in the 18th century.
Ashkenazic Jewry developed no uniform way for dying persons to proclaim their faith. Even among the communities in Germany, a range of liturgical practices emerged. In Frankfurt am Maim it was customary to say “The Lord alone is God (I Kings 18:39)” seven times, followed by Shema, followed by a silent utterance of “Blessed is the Name...” In other communities it was customary to say Shema once, “Blessed is the Name…” three times, and “The Lord alone is God” seven times, similar to the common custom for the close of the Yom Kippur Ne’ilah service. In Halberstadt, the above custom was observed, except that Shema was recited once more at the very end of life so that the soul might depart with the word “One” on the dying person’s lips. In Berlin it was customary to recite “Blessed is the Name…” three times, followed by “The Lord alone is God” seven times, followed by an unlimited number of repetitions of Shema until the soul departed. In some communities, the rite included “The Lord reigns, the Lord has reigned, the Lord will reign for all eternity” as well as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).”
The laws of prayer as formulated in the Talmud (Berkahot 25a) and codified in the Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 76:4) make clear that the daily recitation of Shema may not be done in the presence of filth, excrement, or bodily fluids because God’s Name may not be invoked in such an environment. Yet death rarely occurs in pristinely clean or sterile conditions. Does the gravity of the situation warrant a lenient application of the law for those wishing to recite the deathbed Shema in otherwise impermissible surroundings? Surprisingly little has been written on this subject by the modern halakhists, though it seems that the laity have decided the matter leniently for themselves.
The deathbed Shema must be regarded as a positive innovation in Judaism. For the final moments before death to be occupied exclusively with confessions and feelings of regret about life’s mistakes would be for the demands of religion to crush a person already far down and nearly out. The recitation of Shema is, instead, a positive affirmation of religious identity. It allows the individual Jew, irrespective of how devoted a practitioner of Judaism he or she was over the years, to spend his or her last moments verbalizing a powerful feeling of solidarity with the entire Jewish people and reciting the key tenets of the Jewish faith.