Atonement for the Deceased

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by R. Gil Student

Our time in this world is limited. We strive to do all the good we can and avoid doing wrong. When we sometimes misstep, we try to do teshuvah and atone for our misdeeds. The time for doing mitzvos ends with our passing, at least on a basic level. Is that also the end for our ability to atone for our sins or can we also achieve atonement in death?

I. Posthumous Atonement

The Gemara (Kiddushin 31b) says that when a child repeats a Torah idea in the name of a parent who died within the past year, he should add “hareini kaparas mishkavo, may I be an atonement for his resting.” Rashi (ad loc.) explains that you are asking to receive the punishment that would otherwise go to your parent’s soul, thereby offering an atonement to your recently deceased parent.

When performing the rite of eglah arufah, the sages of the city nearest to where a dead body is found must say, “Our hands have not shed this blood nor have our eyes seen it. Atone, Lord, for Your people Israel whom You have redeemed” (Deut. 21:7-8). Which people did God redeem? The Gemara (Horayos 6a) says that this refers to the generation of the Exodus. The eglah arufah atones not only for people today but for all past Jews, going all the way back to the time of Moshe.

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 46a-b) discusses the process of a court’s execution. Following the execution, the deceased’s relatives do not mourn him. Rashi (ad loc., 46b, s.v. ve-lo) explains that the failure to mourn the executed disgraces him, which in turn serves as an atonement for his sins. Later in the discussion, the Gemara (46b) asks whether, in general, burial is to avoid disgrace or to provide atonement. If it is to avoid disgrace, then even if someone asks not to be buried when he dies, he must be buried because the family will also be disgraced by the lack of burial. If it is a matter of atonement, then it is just for him and he can refuse it.

II. Atonement is For the Living

From all these sources, it seems that there can be atonement even after someone dies. However, other sources indicate the contrary.

The Gemara (Zevachim 5a) says that a woman who gives birth and brings a chatas offering but dies before it is sacrificed, her heirs cannot bring that sacrifice. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that a chatas is intended to achieve atonement but there is no atonement after death.

If you bring a chatas sacrifice and slaughter while having in mind that it should be for Nachshon, the chatas is kosher (Zevachim 9b). The general rule is that if you have in mind someone other than the sacrifice’s owner, and that person is obligated to bring a chatas, then you have done a sacrificial rite with the wrong owner in mind which invalidates a chatas. If the person you have in mind is not or cannot be obligated to bring a chatas, then the sacrifice is kosher. The Gemara explains that since Nachshon, the leader of the tribe of Yehudah in the desert, is long deceased, and there is no atonement for the dead (ein kaparah le-meisim), the sacrifice slaughtered with Nachshon in mind is still kosher.

III. Some Atonement For the Dead

Rav Yosef Engel (20th cen., Poland; Beis Ha-Otzar, vol. 1 section 7:3, section 86) attempts to resolve these conflicting texts about whether there is atonement for the deceased. Rav Engel suggests that there are different types of atonement. The pain of death, of the separation of soul from body, achieves the same atonement as a sacrifice. Rav Engel acknowledges that even though Rava holds that a person’s death atones for his sins (Shevu’os 8b, Kerisos 26b), this cannot mean that death atones completely because then there would be no punishment in the afterlife, no need for the living to give charity on behalf of the deceased or to say they will serve as an atonement for the deceased’s resting. Rather, death achieves the limited atonement of a sacrifice and not a full atonement.

Rav Shalom Mordechai Schwadron (early 20th cen., Russia; Responsa Maharsham 3:216) quotes Tosafos (Pesachim 61a s.v. ve-yeshno) who say that someone deceased cannot achieve complete atonement. This implies that he can achieve partial atonement. I am not clear on the distinctions between different types of atonements. Does a sacrifice atone without repentance? Maybe in a limited way, and similarly death atones in this limited way when not accompanied by repentance.

In a different vein, Rav Engel quotes the Gemara (Kerisos 6a) which exempts from punishment someone who applies sacred oil to a corpse. The punishment does not apply because someone dead is not legally considered a person. Similarly, suggests Rav Engel, a dead person cannot own a sacrifice because he is not a legal person. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, 19th cen., Poland; Emek Ha-Netziv, Shofetim 67) seems to explain similarly. The deceased need atonement and can achieve it through a sacrifice. However, they cannot bring a sacrifice on their own. If they are part of another sacrifice, such as the eglah arufah, then they can achieve atonement through that sacrifice. In other words, the deceased can achieve atonement but for technical reasons they cannot bring a sacrifice for it.

The children and students we leave behind affect our eternal lives. Our footprints continue to grow even after our times in this world have passed. Even someone’s misdeeds can be corrected, at least to some extent, after his death.

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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.

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