by R. Gil Student
The following statement is made in the Gemara (Yevamos 96b-97a):
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: What does it mean, “I will dwell in Your tent forever” (Ps. 61:5)? Is it possible for a man to dwell in two worlds? This is what David said to God, “Lord of the Universe, May it be Your will that they say a statement in my name in this world.” R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon Ben Yochai: Any scholar in whose name a statement is said in this world, his lips move gently in the grave.
The question is how is it possible for a dead man’s lips to move in the grave, even if gently. Is this statement to be taken literally or figuratively?
There is a condensed version of this passage in Sanhedrin 90b and an expanded version in the Yerushalmi (Shekalim 2:5). In his commentary Ha-Kosev to the Ein Ya’akov on the Yerushalmi Shekalim (1:8), R. Ya’akov Ibn Chabib explains it figuratively. In the afterlife, there is no opportunity to fulfill commandments and thereby gain additional reward. However, if your Torah is still being discussed in this world then it is as if you are accomplishing more and you gain additional reward. It is as if you are teaching Torah in this world, even though you are in the next world. This seems to me to be a perfectly viable explanation that avoids the physical and scientific problems of a literal explanation. However, later commentators reject this and adopt a more literal approach, for reasons that are beyond me.
The Maharsha, in his commentary to Yevamos, explicitly rejects the above approach and offers a “scientific” explanation for the phenomenon. Living in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, he wrote that speech is a force of the soul that emanates from the body. Every positive word creates a corresponding spiritual force that, when related to the origin of the statement, stimulates the spiritual and physical origin of the words. This means that there is a spiritual force that stimulates the lips that originated this statement, which explains their movement. This is quite difficult to understand within the framework of modern science.
The Toras Chaim on Sanhedrin states that normally a soul is rewarded immediately after death in the afterlife while a body does not receive reward until the messianic period of general resurrection. However, when someone repeats a Torah thought in the name of someone deceased, his body receives reward immediately in this world through the pleasure of having his lips move. Again, how his lips move is difficult to understand.
R. Ya’akov Ettlinger, in his Arukh La-Ner commentary on Yevamos, acknowledges the difficulty of lips actually moving since dead bodies decompose. Rather than adopting the explanation of R. Ya’akov Ibn Chabib, he takes a different approach. He quotes the Zohar that a person’s soul (nefesh) remains in the grave looking (spiritually) like the dead person but remaining connected to the person’s soul (neshamah) that is in the afterlife. That, he says, is why we go to pray at people’s graves; because the nefesh is still there. The (spiritual) lips of the nefesh are what move and not the physical lips of the dead body.
I’m still at a loss over why so many commentators reject the figurative explanation of R. Ya’akov Ibn Chabib.
(reposted from 2008)