In the Bible
The Hebrew word for death is mavet (mawet) (Heb. מָוֶת) from the root mvt (mwt). For the Canaanites, Mwt (Mot) was the god of the underworld. Details of the myth of Mot are found in *Ugaritic literature. Mot fought against *Baal, the god of rain and of fertility; he was victorious and forced Baal to descend to his kingdom in the depths of the earth. But Anath, sister of Baal, avenged her brother and killed Mot. In the end Baal and Mot both returned to life, but at different times. Most commentators interpret this myth as a symbol of the changing seasons: Baal dies at the end of the rainy season, while Mot returns to life; the contrary happens when the rains begin again. In the Bible there are traces of such a myth in the belief that death is a destructive force distinct from God (see *Demons and Demonology) with its own messengers (e.g., war, sickness, plagues, cf. Hos, 13:14; Ps. 91:5–7; Prov. 16:14). In Jeremiah 9:20 it is said, "For Death (mawet) has climbed in through our windows, has entered our fortresses, cutting off children from the streets, young men from the squares." Mawet in this verse (see also Isa. 5:14; Hab. 2:5) may be compared to the Mesopotamian demon Lamashtu, who usually attacks children and pregnant women by climbing over the walls and entering through the windows (cf. Paul in bibl., where the widely held opinion that links this passage with the Baal myth is criticized). In the Bible there are two reasons given for man's death: the first states that God made man from the dust of the earth, and to dust he must return (Gen. 2:7; 3:19; Job 10:9). Genesis 3:22–24 gives a second reason: that of sin. By his expulsion from paradise, man was deprived of access to the tree of life, and thus eternal life was lost to him. The sentence of death passed on man in Genesis 3:19, "By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat until you return to the ground. For from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return," is opposed to other biblical passages that speak of the dead who go down into the tomb and enter the region of the dead (Isa. 14:9–12; Ezek. 32:17–32; etc.). Many names are given to this region: *sheʾol, always feminine and without a definite article as is usual in proper nouns, is found in no other language; ʾereẓ ("earth," "underworld"; e.g., I Sam. 28:13; Jonah 2:7; Job 10:21–22), which has the same meaning in Akkadian and Ugaritic; kever (qever, "grave"; Ps. 88:12), whose Akkadian parallel, qabru, is the normal form of designating the world of the dead; ʿafar ("dust"; Isa. 26:6, 19; cf. Gen. 3:19); bor ("pit"; e.g., Isa. 14:15, 38:18; Prov. 28:17; cf. Akk. bûru); shaḥat ("pit"; Ps. 7:16; cf. Akk. šuttu); ʾavadon ("Abaddon"; e.g., Job 28:22); naḥalei beliyyaʿal, "the torrents of Belial" (II Sam. 22:5,6). This region is in the depths of the earth; it is therefore called "the nether parts of the earth" (Ezek. 31:14); "the depths of the pit" (Lam. 3:55); "the land of darkness" (Job 10:21). Note the common Akkadian expressions for the region of the dead: "house of darkness" and "country of no return." The dead all inhabit this country, even those who were not buried (Gen. 37:35; Isa. 14:19; Ezek. 32:17–32; The Epic of Gilgamesh xii: 153). The dead are also called "*Rephaim" – in Ugaritic as well – but the origin of the word is obscure (Prov. 21:16). After death there is no contact between the dead man and his god (Ps. 30:10; 88:6, 12–13). Besides the idea that all the dead share the same unhappy situation, there is the notion that their fate depends on the attention bestowed on them by the living: whether or not they are properly buried, whether or not food or drink is brought to them (but not in the Bible), and, especially, whether or not their names are remembered. In the Bible great importance is placed on *burial, especially in the family tomb (Gen. 47:29–30; 49:29; 50:25; II Sam. 21:12–14). On the other hand, not to be buried at all is a serious punishment (cf. I Kings 14:11; et al.; note the Assyro-Babylonian malediction, "May he not be buried in the earth and may his spirit never be reunited with his loved ones."). Among the unfortunate beings in the next world, Akkadian texts name "the man who has no one to recall his name" (cf. II Sam. 18:18) and "he to whom neither food nor drink is brought"; he is reduced to "drinking fetid waters
In Talmud and Midrash
Though so complex a subject as death was inevitably not dealt with by the rabbis in an unequivocal way, their discussions on the subject incorporate a series of closely interconnected doctrines. Death itself, though imbued with mystery – contact with the corpse, for instance, meant defilement in the highest degree – was thought of as that moment of transformation from life in this world to that of the beyond. In terms of the mishnaic image, "This world is like a corridor before the world to come" (Avot 4:16), death is the passing of the portal separating the two worlds, giving access to a "world which is wholly good" (Kid. 39b).
At death the soul leaves the body with a cry that reverberates from one end of the world to the other (Yoma 20b), to pass into a state of existence, the exact nature of which was a matter of considerable dispute amongst the rabbis (cf. Shab. 152b–153a; Ber. 18b–19a; Maim. Yad, Teshuvah 8:2, and the critical remark by Abraham b. David of Posquières (Rabad); see also *Afterlife, *Body and Soul, *World to Come). Whatever the nature of the world beyond, it was generally accepted that there the dead reap the deserts of the acts they performed while alive, that they were free from Torah and the commandments (Shab. 30b), and that death served as an atoning process (Sif. Num 112). One confession formula before death, particularly prescribed for the criminal about to be executed, is "May my death be an atonement for all my sins" (Sanh. 6:2). The atoning value of death received greater emphasis after the destruction of the Temple, with the abolition of sacrificial atonement, so that complete forgiveness for more serious sins was dependent, despite repentance, the Day of Atonement, and suffering, on the final atoning value of death (cf. the discussion in Urbach, Ḥazal, 380–3).
Death and birth are viewed as parallel processes: just as man is born with a cry, tears, and a sigh, so he dies. He is born with his fist clenched as if to say "the whole world is mine," and he dies with open hands as if to say, "I have inherited nothing from this world" (Eccles. R. 5:14). The rabbis considered that there were 903 forms of death, the most severe way of dying being from asthma, or croup, which is compared to a thorn being torn out of a ball of wool, and the lightest is described as "the kiss of death," specially reserved for the righteous, which is like a hair being removed from milk (Ber. 8a; BB 17a; see *Death, Kiss of). The way in which a person dies, and the day on which he dies, were thought to be significant as good or bad omens for the deceased. Thus, for example, should he die amid laughter, or on the Sabbath eve, it is a good sign, whereas to die amid weeping, or at the close of the Sabbath, is a bad omen (Ket. 103b). To die from a disease of the bowels is considered a good sign (Er. 41b), no doubt because the suffering involved was thought to cleanse a person of his iniquities. Thus it was said that many of the righteous died from bowel illness (Shab. 118b), this being an opportunity for any
Concerning the very necessity of death there was some dispute amongst the rabbis. On the one hand there is the rather extreme view, which did not win general acceptance, that death was the wages of sin: "There is no death without sin" (Shab. 55a), and it is the inevitable fate of man only in that no man is sinless, "… there is not a righteous man upon earth, that … sinneth not" (Eccles. 7:20). Even Moses and Aaron died because they had sinned (Shab. 55b). The few exceptions, the really righteous such as Elijah, were thought not to have died (Lev. R. 27:4; Eccles. R. 3:15), or in other cases to have died only as a consequence of the machinations of the serpent in Eden, who caused Adam to sin and thus bring death to the world (Deut. R. 9:8; Shab. 55a; in the Talmud this view is ascribed to those who maintain that death is not dependent on sin, but the impact of the original passage is unclear; see Urbach, op. cit., 376–7). In this vein it is said that "charity delivers from death, not merely from an unnatural death but from death itself " (Shab. 156b), and that did not the truly righteous request their own death, they would not die (Mid. Shoḥer Tov, Ps. 116).
On the other hand an older view, stemming from the tannaitic period, stresses the inevitability of death, its naturalness as part of the very fabric of the world since creation. Thus when God had completed the creation of the world He saw that "it was very good" (Gen. 1:31), concerning which R. Meir remarked, 'it was very good,' that is death" (Gen. R. 9:5; see Maimonides' comment on this passage in Guide, 3:10). The idea behind R. Meir's enigmatic statement would seem to be that death is an integral part of the natural order, making way for new life and continued creation. The naturalness of death is also explicit in the saying that the angel of death was created on the first day of creation (Tanḥ., Va-Yeshev 4; see also BB 10a, where death is described as the strongest thing in the world). The Mishnah in Avot (4:22) stresses: "Those who are born will of necessity die … for perforce you were created … born … live, and perforce you will die." According to this view sin only hastens death, but does not cause it in the first place. Lack of sin therefore either enables a man to reach his predetermined span of years, thus saving him from an untimely demise, or helps him to live longer than his allotted span (Shab. 156b).
These arguments concerning the inevitability of death or its dependence on sin turn on several factors, among them possible interpretations of the account of Adam's sin in Genesis. According to one view Adam brought death into the world by disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit. The Children of Israel had an opportunity of overcoming the power of death when they received the Torah at Sinai, but they lost this opportunity when they sinned with the golden calf (Mekh., Ba-Ḥodesh 9; Ex. R. 32:1; cf. also Num. R. 9:45). The way Adam's sin was interpreted amongst the amoraim may have been influenced by apologetic considerations, particularly the need to negate the Pauline doctrine of original sin as an inheritance from Adam to all mankind (Rom. 5:12). Perhaps the view that each man's sin causes his own death is influenced by the need to stress individual responsibility as opposed to the Christian position that in Adam we have all sinned (ibid.).
That both the wicked and the righteous die was explained as follows. The wicked perish so that they should cease angering God, while the righteous die so that they may have rest from their continual struggle against the evil inclination which has no power over them after death (Gen R. 9:5). As noted, the process of dying also may serve the righteous as a means of ridding themselves of their sins (see also Tosef., Yoma 5 :6). Nevertheless, though mortality affects both wicked and righteous alike, the rabbis were sure that the whole quality of their respective lives, on this earth and in the hereafter, differed greatly. For the wicked are considered as if dead while still alive, and the righteous even in death are called "living" (Ber. 18a, b; Tanh., Berakhah 7).
Laws and Customs
Jewish tradition emphasizes respect for the dying and the dead, and deference for the last wishes of a dying man, of adherence to such last wishes: the final requests of Jacob (Gen. 49:29), and Joseph (Gen. 50:25), and the advice of David (I Kings 2:1–9) were all faithfully heeded and observed. The Talmud states that the oral testament of a goses (גּוֹסֵס – the term applied to a dying man) has the same legal force as written and witnessed instructions (Git. 13a; see also *Gift, *Wills). The permission to transgress the Sabbath in order to ease the discomfort of the dying, however slender their chances of recovery, is not affected by the talmudic dictum that "most gosesim die" (Git. 28a). A dying person should not be left alone, and it is a great mitzvah to be present at yeẓi'at neshamah ("departure of the soul"). A candle is usually lit in the presence of the goses to symbolize the flickering of the human soul. A sick person, nearing his end, should be encouraged to confess his sins before God. He is urged: "Confess your sins. Many confessed their sins and did not die, and many who did not confess died; and as a reward, should you confess, you will live." (D 338:1; see also Sanh. 6:2, and Shab. 32a). Should he not know a formula of confession, he should be told to say, "May my death be an atonement" (see Sanh. 6:2). This rite may be performed on a Sabbath and on holy days, but should not take place in front of women and children because it would cause them distress and thus trouble the sick person (Sh. Ar., YD 338:1). One brief confession reads: "I acknowledge unto Thee, O Lord my God,
In Tunis and other communities, the custom prevailed of putting a loaf of bread or a nail on the corpse immediately after death took place. In Yemen the mezuzah was removed from the door, and sacred books removed from the room of a dying man who was in great pain. It was believed that their presence weakened the power of the Angel of Death and that their removal would bring a speedier end to the suffering. Sometimes the shofar was sounded. The deceased was dressed in his best clothes (if a woman, in her wedding dress) under the shrouds because "he is going to meet the Messiah." Rose water was sprinkled on him and fragrant leaves put in his clothes. In Salonika the deceased was put in a coffin and his sons formally asked his forgiveness and kissed his hand. If the deceased was a rabbi the whole community did so. The custom of professional women mourners was widespread. Lime was sometimes put on the body to hasten decomposition.
ANCIENT TIMES: A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (19492), 137–223; H.H. Rowley (ed.), Studies In Old Testament Prophecy (1950), 73–81; idem, The Faith of Israel (1956), 150–76; M.R. Lehman, in: VT, 3 (1953), 361–71; H.L. Ginsberg, ibid., 402–4; J. Blau, ibid., 7 (1957), 98; W. Baumgartner, Zum Alten Testament und seiner Umwelt (1959), 124–46; J. Zandee, Death as an Enemy According to Ancient Egyptian Conceptions (1960); S.N. Kramer, in: Iraq, 22 (1960), 59–68; M. Dahood, in: Biblica. 41 (1960), 176–81; S.M. Paul, ibid., 49 (1968), 373–6; S.E. Lowenstamm, in: EM, 4 (1962), 754–63. IN TALMUD AND MIDRASH: A. Buechler, Studies in Sin and Atonement (1928); G.F. Moore, Judaism, 3 vols. (1949); S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909); E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1969). LAWS AND CUSTOMS: H. Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life (1964); J.J. Gruenwald, Kol Bo al Avelut (1947); Y.M. Tukaczynski, Gesher ha-Ḥayyim (1947); R. Yaron, Gifts in Contemplation of Death in Jewish and Roman Law (1960).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.