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July 29, 2014 / 2 Av, 5774
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The Death Of Rebbi


When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah known as “Rebbi,” lay dying, he made his sons promise him that after his death they would set the Shabbat table and light the candles for him every Friday night.

There is a connection between the righteous, the world to come and Friday night. All are invested with kedushah (holiness). Kedushah is synonymous with peace. Shabbat is synonymous with peace. Shabbat Shalom. Peace is a state of harmony between body and soul when they no longer fight each other and no longer pull in different directions.

Perhaps nobody suffered more from internal strife than King David. Abigail’s words of farewell to King David as he lay dying were “May your soul be bound up in the bundle of life.” In the world to come, when the body is separated from the soul, there is eternal peace.

The soul, having left the body, settles in its eternal resting place under God’s heavenly throne. This, however does not happen immediately. According to the Talmud, for the first twelve months after death, the soul wanders restlessly between heaven and earth trying to reunite with the body. The lifelong partnership with the body, however volatile it may have been, is not easily terminated. It is only when the soul has reached the eternal level of holiness that it finally comes to rest in the presence of God.

Hence the Kaddish is recited during the first eleven months of restlessness to assist the soul in its quest for peace. On Friday night we rest in peace from the physical toil of the week and have a taste of the world to come. Indeed, Shabbat is referred to as a mirror of the world to come.

Few people have managed to live in eternal peace during their own lifetime. One such person was Rebbi, who lived in the second century. As he lay dying, he lifted his ten fingers toward heaven and said, “You know that I toiled with my ten fingers in the study of Torah. May it be your wish that there be peace in my place of eternal rest.” The Torah is a tree of life to those who cling to it. Its roads are harmonious and its ways are peaceful. No wonder, then, that Rebbi, who toiled his whole life in the streets of the Torah, found peace during his own lifetime. Indeed, he was known as our holy Rebbi, Rabbeinu Hakadosh.

It seems that Rebbi was so content in this world that he did not want to leave. “Why are you crying?” asked Rabbi Chiyah, the disciple of Rebbi. “You know it is a good omen to die with a smile.”

“I am crying on account of the Torah I will no longer be able to study and the commandments I will no longer be able to perform,” answered Rebbi.

Rebbi’s disciples did not want him to leave either. Neither, of course, did his “maidservant” (Amtei deRebbi). So they decreed the day a public fast and gathered around Rebbi’s home in the mountain village of Tzipori and prayed for his recovery.

“Anybody,” they warned “that breaks the news of Rebbi’s death will himself be put to death.” And as long as they prayed, Rebbi did not die. But he suffered terribly. And his “maidservant” could see him suffer no more. So she ascended to the roof carrying an earthenware jug. She turned her eyes heavenward and cried out, “the angels seek to take Rebbi and the people seek to keep Rebbi. May it be Your wish that those above overcome those below.”

But the disciples would not stop praying and would not release Rebbi from his suffering. So Rebbi’s “maidservant” held the earthenware jug aloft and cast it down into the street below where the disciples stood praying. The crash of the earthenware on the street below silenced their prayers for an instant and Rebbi’s soul departed. “Bo b’shalom” – come in peace – the angels greeted him.

The soul of Rebbi was equally at peace both in this world and the next. His soul did not suffer the distress of the wandering souls. And so we are told that each Friday night when Boi B’shalom was recited, he would return home, sit at the Friday night table and say Kiddush for his family. One Friday night, however, a neighbor saw him. Fearing that those who saw him would elevate him in their minds above his peers, he departed and was never seen again.

About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.


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