Worrying Over Death

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by R. Gil Student

The Mishnah in Avos (2:4) tells us that you should not say that you will learn when you have time, because you might never have time. While it could mean that there are an infinite number of things that can appear and distract you from learning, it could also mean that you never know how long you will live. You should be concerned about pushing off learning because you might not live long enough.

Later in that chapter (2:10), we are told to repent one day before we die. As explained in the Gemara (Shabbos 153a), this means that you should repent every day because you need to be concerned that you might die tomorrow. From the two mishnayos, it seems that we should be worried about our mortality and the inevitability of death.

Franz Rosenzweig begins his Star of Redemption (p. 1) with a statement about how the fear of death hangs over us:

From death, it is from the fear of death that all cognition of the All begins… All that is mortal lives in fear of this death…

That’s the new translation. The old translation has it like this: “All cognition of the All originates in death, in the fear of death… All that is mortal lives in this fear of death…”

We have to keep in mind that Rosenzweig wrote those words in the trenches of World War I. We can ask whether from a talmudic perspective it is appropriate to be worried that we might die tomorrow. From an actuarial perspective, such death is possible it is highly unlikely (except for those extremely ill). But should we worry over that possibility?

The Talmud (Sukkah 23a; Nedarim 3b; Gittin 28a) quotes a debate between R. Meir and R. Yehudah over whether Jewish law is concerned about imminent death. The following three cases are all connected based on this dispute:

  1. Whether you may use a live animal as a wall for a sukkah. A dead animal is invalid and the issue is whether we are concerned that the animal might die.
  2. A man declares that he will be a nazir sometime during his lifetime. Are we concerned that he might die and therefore he becomes a nazir immediately?
  3. A kohen who gives his wife a bill of divorce and declares that she is divorced as of the die before he dies. Do we assume that he might die tomorrow and therefore she may not eat terumah (which is reserved for kohanim and their families) immediately?

It would seem, from the discussion in the Talmud, that these three cases are linked together. If we are worried that you may die soon then we are strict on all three. If not, then we are lenient on all three. However, the Rambam seems to rule inconsistently on these. Regarding the bill of divorce and the nazir he rules strictly and regarding the sukkah he rules leniently.

In a responsum regarding someone who is allowed to leave jail on a brief furlow to attend synagogue, whether he should wait for a holiday or leave immediately, R. Tzvi Ashkenazi (Chakham Tzvi, no. 106) discusses whether we should be concerned that this person might die before the holiday. He raises the issue of the Rambam’s inconsistency and leaves it unresolved. The Lechem Mishneh (Hilkhos Nezirus 1:1) attempts to solve the problem on the levels of both theory and the talmudic text.

However, the Arukh La-Ner (Sukkah 24a) complicates matters by pointing out other relevant cases:

  1. Someone who vows to bring voluntary sacrifices to the Temple may wait until the next holiday to do so, and we are not concerned that he might die before then.
  2. Someone who vows to fast may push off his fasts until the winter, when days are shorter, and we are not worried that he might die before then (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 168:3).
  3. Someone who vows to buy a new house must buy the first appropriate house because we are concerned that he might die before he finds another (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 219:1; Magen Avraham 168:13).

The Arukh La-Ner attempts to reconcile all of these different cases and the Rambam’s rulings by distinguishing between a defined period and an undefined period. In any given period during which most people do not die (e.g. one week, one year) we are not worried that you will die. However, if the law is regarding an undefined period of time, then we are worried.

Therefore, if someone makes a vow regarding becoming a nazir or buying a house without specifying the time period, we are worried about his eventual death and require him to fulfill the vow immediately. But issues with a specified time period, such as a voluntary sacrifice that must be brought by the next holiday or a sukkah that must be valid for only one week, we are not concerned.

The bottom line: Everyone dies eventually but don’t be so worried that your time is just around the corner.

(Reposted from Apr ’09)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Levi Y. Goldman

    The גמרא in קידושין דף ל ע”א says “מי יודע כמה חיי” regarding the obligation of שליש במקרא etc., and there seems to be a מחלוקת between Rashi (ד”ה ליומי) and Tosafos (ד”ה לא צריכא ליומי) whether this means we should be worried about dying within the week (Rashi), or even before the next day (Tosafos.)

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