Talmud Tips

For the week ending 2 July 2022 / 3 Tamuz 5782

Yevamot 93 - 99

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
Library Library Library

Eternal Speech

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “Every Torah scholar whose teaching is quoted and attributed to him, his lips move in the grave.”

This reason is given in our sugya to explain why Rabbi Yochanan was distraught upon hearing that his student Rabbi Elazar had taught others something learned from Rabbi Yochanan without mentioning Rabbi Yochanan as the source.

We learn in our sugya that King David prayed to Hashem that people will continue to teach others words of Torah that were originally heard from him. As Rashi explains King David’s prayer, “May it be Your will that others continue to say words of Torah in my name because then my lips will move in the grave as if I were still alive in This World.” The main premise taught here seems to be metaphysical in nature despite being described in graphic, physical terms. Do we find any examples of this concept in the Torah? Is it possible for us to attain a “logical” understanding of this principle? I recall the first time learning this gemara that a Torah scholar’s lips quiver in the grave and how it astounded me and prompted me to ask others for further explanation. But first, let us examine a Torah source for this phenomenon that the Maharsha cites.

The Maharsha notes that the specific way that Yaakov Avinu described himself when expressing his distress when hearing that his son Yosef had died. He refused to be comforted and said, “I will go down to my grave in mourning.” (Ber. 37:35) The word in the Torah for mourning in this case is avel, and not yagon as is found in a different verse when he protested against the brothers taking Binyamin to Egypt. (Ber. 42:38) Why did the Torah express Yaakov’s mourning as avel and not yagon when hearing the news of Yosef’s death?

The Maharsha explains that besides Yaakov’s concern for losing Yosef, he had an additional grief for the special Torah teachings that Yaakov had taught Yosef and would now not be passed on to the next generation. This secondary concern is based on the Midrash saying that Yaakov Avinu had taught Yosef, in particular, all of the Torah teachings that Yaakov had learned in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever. For this reason, the Torah’s word expressing Yaakov’s grief when hearing of Yosef’s death is avel, which Chazal explain to convey that the mourner “has no mouth.” In one sense it means that the mourner is speechless, but it can also describe — as in this case of Yaakov and Yosef — that Yaakov was left literally without a mouth since Yosef would not be able to share his father’s teachings and Yaakov’s lips would therefore not move in the grave as if he were still alive. (See the beautiful, fuller explanation of the Maharsha, who also explains how the gifts that Yosef later sent to Yaakov to prove he was still alive alluded to the Torah teachings that Yaakov had taught him and had counted on him to teach to the next generation.)

Here I share one explanation explaining the meaning and significance of a Torah scholar’s lips moving when his words of Torah are recited by someone else after his passing. The Talmud Yerushalmi describes that the pleasure of the deceased when his Torah teachings are taught in his name after his passing is comparable to the pleasure of drinking aged wine, a pleasure that remains for a long time after the wine is gone. True, only in This World can a person fulfill mitzvahs, for which he receives reward in The World to Come. But a person can still receive a spiritual pleasure — an additional reward in The World to Come — whenever someone in This World teaches words of Torah that were originally heard from, and attributed to, a Torah scholar who no longer walks amongst us.

  • Yevamot 96b

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