Ghost Story

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March 18 2005

R. Yonatan Eibshutz (Chiddushei Rabbeinu Yehonatan to Berakhot) suggests an interpretation to the mysterious story about the spirits of the dead that appears in Berakhot 18b. In that story, a man fights with his wife and goes to sleep in a cemetery. R. Yonatan suggests that this is a parable for an individual’s internal struggle between his spiritual and physical elements. In an attempt to strengthen his spiritual side, he takes the Talmud’s advice to “remember the day of death”.

In this experience, he hears two spirits communicating. These spirits represent the positive and negative drives. The former says to the latter, “let us travel behind the curtain”, meaning the Torah, which is the border between man and G-d, and “going behind” it is thus a reference to delving into the Torah, “to see what disasters are coming”, to see what is the cost of neglecting the Torah.

The “negative” spirit declines, claiming to be buried in a box of reeds, i.e. too submerged in material considerations to explore the Torah. The spirit who investigates discovers that whoever plants in the first quarter finds his crops destroyed by hail. This is a reference to the stage of youth, when priority must be given to creating a foundation of Torah education. During thls stage of life, one who attempts to tackle the world without first laying that foundation is destined to failure. That failure is represented by hail, which during the plagues in Egypt consisted of fire inside of ice. As fire represents Torah, this imagery suggests a small vestige of learning trapped and obscured by outside elements.

The spirit's next mission discovered a different scenario, that one who planted in the second quarter would find his crops afflicted with shidafon. This represents the stage of life where one who has built his spiritual foundation must now arrange for support for himself and his family. If he pushes this off, into the second quarter, he will again be uncsuccessful.

Now the individual, having received the message, is complete, and the husband and wife are no longer fighting. The wife then argues with the mother of materialistic spirit, again representing negative inclinations, and tells her that she will show her that her daughter is buried in reeds. The message is thus that chasing after material desires exclusively leads to the next generation being trapped within temporal concerns.

The next year, this man again revisits the cemetery experience. This year is representative of the later stages of life, when people are more contemplative and reflective upon mortality. This time, the spirits are talking again, and the invitation to explore Torah is suggested anew. This time, though, the materialistic spirit says, leave me alone, our argument has already been settled in your favor; in old age, it is clear to all (“is already known among the living”) that obsession with materialism is ultimately empty and a life without spiritual meaning will be regretted.


Collections: Rabbi Feldman Mini Shiur (Daf)

References: Berachot: 18b  

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