Ketubot 67 - 73
You Can Take it With You
How outstanding the Sage Mar Ukva was in his performance of the mitzvah of tzedaka, charity, is illustrated by one incident: Each year on the day before Yom Kippur he would distribute the generous sum of 400 zuz to a poor family in his neighborhood. One year the son he sent to deliver the money returned and reported that he was convinced that the family did not require assistance. When asked what he observed to create such an impression, he replied that he saw them indulging in the luxury of spraying their home with old wine to give it a fragrance. Upon hearing this, Mar Ukva doubled the amount he had intended to give and sent it, for he realized that if the recipients were so desperately in need of even such comforts then their dependence was even greater than he had anticipated.
Just before his death, Mar Ukva asked to see the record of his charitable gifts. Although he had given away an extraordinarily large sum, he was concerned that he had not done enough, exclaiming: "I take along such meager provisions for the long journey ahead of me." He thereupon distributed half of his fortune to charity.
How could he do so, asks the gemara, when we learned earlier in our Mesechta (50a) that the Sages prohibited a person from giving away more than a fifth of his resources to tzedaka? This rule, explains the gemara, applies only during one's lifetime, because such excessive generosity may impoverish him and make him dependent on charity. When one is about to leave the world and wishes to gain an extra measure of merit for his afterlife, no such restriction applies.
Why did Mar Ukva give away only half, and not all his fortune, in order to better prepare for his "long journey?" The answer is to be found in the attitude of our Sages towards disinheriting children. The Sages, says the gemara (Bava Batra 133b), were displeased with one who gave away his wealth to others and left nothing for his children. Mar Ukva therefore struck a balance between caring for his soul and for his heirs by giving away only half.
Is the formula this sage used the only one, or may one give away even more? Rema (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 249:1) rules that at the time of death one may give away as much as he wishes. How do we reconcile this ruling with Mar Ukva's caution to leave half for his heirs?
One possibility is that the text which Rema had in our gemara read that Mar Ukva gave away his entire fortune, a text which the Birkei Yosef suggests was the one known to some earlier commentaries. Another possibility is the one which emerges from the Bayit Chadash (Bach) in his commentary on the Tur. Mar Ukva gave away so much in his lifetime that there was no need for him to give away everything before his death. Someone who has not been that generous, however, may give away everything for the sake of his soul. This is not considered disinheriting because he is not giving away to enrich others but to save himself.
Taking Life and Death to Heart
"It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of celebration, for this is the end of every man and thus will the living take it to heart." (Kohelet 7:1)
Rabbi Meir explained the practical application of King Solomon's advice in this fashion: The living will take to heart the things that go along with death -- one who eulogizes others will himself be eulogized, one who buries others will himself be buried, one who cries out in sorrow for others will be wept for, one who escorts others will be escorted, and one who carries others to their final resting place will be carried by others.
Rashi understands this gemara as a lesson in the reciprocality which runs through human affairs. Don't feel uncomfortable at having to eulogize another, because you too will be eulogized -- and so it is with all the other expressions of respect to the dead.
This interpretation blends in beautifully with the preceding gemara which explains that a man who forbids his wife to go to funerals is compelled to divorce her, because he is denying her the opportunity to gain the respect of others when she dies.
Maharsha, however, suggests a very different approach. It is important for every living person to take to heart the fact that he is not immortal and that the "house of mourning" is the inevitable "end of every person." Such an awareness disciplines a person, but it is difficult to always reflect on human mortality. If a person involves himself, however, with those actions connected with death, he increases his awareness that he too will someday reach his own end. When he eulogizes or helps bury another, he will inevitable take to heart that what he is doing now for another will someday be done for him.
This same section of Maharsha contains another interesting observation. The preference King Solomon gives to participating in a funeral over participation in a celebration refers to a celebration which is not connected to a mitzvah such as a wedding. In an earlier part of our Mesechta (17a) we learned that a funeral procession must give the right of way to a wedding procession, an indication that celebration of such a mitzvah takes precedence even to the "house of mourning."