Shekalim 2 - 8
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “The righteous require no monuments — their words are their memorials.”
This would appear to be a revolutionary concept in terms of modern (and, perhaps, not so modern) secular thought and custom. However, the Torah teaching expressed by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel manifests itself in Jewish custom and tradition throughout history.
First, perhaps we should ask ourselves: “Why are there people who want monuments built to themselves or for their idols? Oops, I mean to their heroes?”
Some great Rabbis, and even secular philosophers, offer this innate desire to be remembered as a logical proof that a person’s soul and “being” does not end at the time of passing from this world. If so, they contend, why should a person care if and what anyone thinks of him after departing this world, if his fate is oblivion and nothingness. Rather, there is a human instinct — perhaps one might call it a “knowledge” — that his existence lives on, and he is therefore interested — at least to some degree — that his name be remembered in this world, as exhibited by a monument or something that will continue to exist in this world that will remind others of him. He thinks this will offer his soul, which remains after his death in this world, satisfaction and comfort for eternity. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tuchachinsky (Belarus to Jerusalem, 1871-1955) wrote this idea, along with many Torah sources for the eternity of the soul and the eventual resurrection, in an important work called Gesher Hachaim. It is available in English under the name The Bridge of Life, and is one of the most inspiring and fascinating books I have ever read.
I have also heard this teaching of Rabban Shimon ben Gamiliel taught as a “practical application” of another fascinating statement in Shas. “Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: ‘When any Torah scholar’s words of Torah are said, he merits that his lips move/speak in the grave.’” (Yevamot 97a) While everything physical decays, the spiritual can live forever. The Torah is eternal and provides eternal life for any person connected to it. Such a person does not require a monument to signify that, although he is now gone, he was once here among the living. He is actually still living, through his connection to the Torah and Hashem, and is even continuing to speak words of Torah forever.
Some burial places may look like monuments due to their size and design, but they are only structures near gravesites that others decided to build in this manner for practical purposes, such as serving as a places for visitors to gather on the yahrzeit to say prayers to Hashem, and a sheltered place for reciting Tehillim for continued elevation of the soul. My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein elaborates on the linguistics of tombstones and their significance in the following way: “Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky writes in Gesher HaChaim that three different synonyms for tombstones reflect three different reasons as to why such monuments are erected. The word matzeivah connotes the tombstone's role in making sure that the deceased's tomb is visible and known for anyone who wishes to visit it and pray there. The term tziyun connotes the tombstone's function in delineating exactly where the deceased is buried so that others can refrain from exposing themselves to ritual impurity (especially pertinent for kohanim, who are forbidden from coming into contact with human corpses, see Vaykra 21:1-4). Finally, the term nefesh conveys the tombstone's function in honoring the deceased, and especially paying homage to his soul which may loiter around the final resting place of its former body.” So, we see that a tombstone is not a mere monument, but rather a construction at the burial site that serves a special, practical function.
Story Time: I will never forget an occasion some years ago, when I accompanied a few other Rabbis from Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem on a Lag b’Omer educational and recreational outing. A large number of mostly university-age students had come to the Yeshiva for a special experience that combined learned Torah in the classroom, and learning Torah from travelling the Land of Israel to absorb the unique historical and modern sites. First, we all walked over to the tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik, a few minutes from the Yeshiva, where chalaka festivities were taking place. Three-year-old boys were enjoying their first haircut, and plenty of refreshments were on hand. We also said some Tehillim together and offered personal prayers to Hashem.
Afterwards, we all headed by foot to the Silwan Cave and Spring — also known as Mei Shiloach in the Torah — that was located in a predominantly Arab village. While in the area, one of the Rabbis told us a story. His name is Rabbi Yisroel Gellis, and he was a teacher in the Hebrew-speaking department of Ohr Somayach. He hailed from a Yerushalmi family who had been in the city for many generations. He told us that he had made a discovery and would try to share it with us. In a rocky setting, not appearing to be in any current cemetery, after much toil, research and verification, he had located the burial site of none other than Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura. He had left his own markings there, so he could identify it at any time, without the local residents realizing its significance and without there being a risk of the site being defiled. Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, also known as “the Rav” or “the Bartenura,” is arguably the most well-known and studied commentary on the Mishna.
One of the student participants asked, “How could it be that such a great Rabbi was buried in such an unassuming and ‘unmonumental-like’ way? One of the Rabbis present replied that it is not the way of Judaism to erect monuments to great and righteous people who preceded us. He quoted the teaching on our daf: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “The righteous require no monuments — their words are their memorials.” The words of Torah that a person learns, speaks, writes — and words of Torah that the person originally said, that were afterwards attributed to him and said in his name — are truly the only and the best “monument” for a person.
Then, the Rabbi taught the first mishna of Pirkei Avot to everyone present, and explained it according to the commentary of the Bartenura. We all proceeded to dance and sing there in the valley, on this festive day, while the nearby neighbors stood in amazement on their porches. Then, together, we returned to the Yeshiva to have lunch and continue our Torah studies and experiences.
- Shekalim 7a