Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hayye Sarah 5763/ November 27, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Hayye Sarah 5763/ November 27, 2002

A Parting Kiss

Dr. Admiel Kosman
Department of Talmud

This week's reading opens with Abraham mourning for his wife Sarah; he eulogized her and grieved for her (Gen. 23:2), but he had to put aside his grief to see to her burial. The cessation from mourning is briefly reported: "Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites" (23:3). Rabbi Abraham Seba, a 16th-century Spanish commentator, notes in his Tzeror ha-Mor that it might have sufficed for Scriptures to say "rose from his dead [me'al meto]," without adding penei "rose from beside his dead [me'al penei meto]." This led Rabbi Seba to conclude:[1]

Since it says of Abraham that after Sarah's death he "rose from beside his dead," we must relate carefully to the precise words of the text, "rose from beside [Heb. penei is literally: from over the face of] his dead." ... This tells us that it was a kiss of parting, as the Sages noted regarding Joseph of whom it is said: "and wept over him [Jacob] and kissed him" (Gen. 50:1). Hence we conclude from this that a person must kiss his dear departed; therefore, it says here "from over the face of his dead."

Note that this is a duty according to the Midrash ("as the Sages said") as cited by Rabbi Seba. It would seem from what he says, therefore, that a parting kiss to the deceased is obligatory, not optional, in paying one's last respects, as shown from what was said regarding Joseph's final parting from his father.[2]

This is rather strange and amazing, since the accepted tradition as we know it today does not require parting from the dead by a kiss, but in fact actually forbids us to do so. By way of example, Rabbi Danzig, author of Hayye Adam, states:[3] "One should not kiss one's children who have died, ... for it is a great danger."[4]

Examining Scripture itself, we see no indication that the custom of a parting kiss to the dead was censured. Quite the contrary, we observe that it was an admirable practice, for that was what Joseph did when he parted from Jacob: "Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him" (Gen. 50:1). According to the Midrash, Joseph was following the example that had been set by his father Jacob, who had kissed his father Isaac before his death, and that had been thought an act of particularly great merit. The same was deduced by the homilist in Genesis Rabbah,[5] from Isaac's words to Jacob: "Come close and kiss me, my son (Gen. 27:26) - He said to him: You, and not others, kiss me when I am buried." This Midrash provides incontrovertible evidence that in the time of the homilist the rabbis saw nothing wrong with giving the dead a parting kiss.
Further evidence can be found in the oft-cited story in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 2.7; 5b), that after the death of R. Eliezer, "Rabbi Joshua removed his phylacteries and flung himself on him, kissing him and crying, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi, the vow has been absolved, Rabbi, Chariot of Israel and his horsemen.'" Moreover, in Midrash we find that Jeremiah's fondness of his people, who perished at the hands of the Babylonian warriors, caused him to kiss the limbs of the dead that he found scattered by the roadside on his return journey after Nebuzaradan had taken him, "chained in fetters" (Jer. 40:1)."[6] Similarly, the Midrash describes those who longed to kiss the blood of saints:[7] "What would the blind say? ‘Would that we could see the blood of Zechariah!?' and what would the lame say? ‘Would that we could have the very place where Zechariah was killed, then we would embrace it and kiss it, as it is written, ‘They wandered blindly through the streets' (Lament. 4:14)."

Contrary to all the sources cited above, ranging from Scriptures through later homiletic literature, there are sources from 12th-13th century Ashkenaz that attest to the exact opposite. The first clear source comes from Rabbi Judah the Hasid. The Testament of Rabbi Judah the Hasid, section D, reads:[8] "One should not kiss[9] any of one's sons when they have died, for not a single one of them will remain alive." A similar formulation is given by Rabbenu Yeruham, citing Rabbi Judah the Hasid in Sefer ha-Kavod:[10] "Rabbenu Judah the Hasid wrote in Sefer ha-Kavod, that if a person kisses any of his dead sons, not one will remain."[11]

The formulation in Sefer Hasidim, par. 236,[12] states explicitly that this proscription also applies to a mother kissing her dead sons, and that neither are supposed to kiss their dead daughters, either: "A man whose son or daughter has died should not kiss them, nor should he let his wife kiss them, for that shortens the life of their sons and daughters, and the mother and father should be forestalled [from doing this]."[13]

From these renditions of Rabbi Judah the Hasid's words it is clear that the prohibition was restricted to kissing a son or daughter who had died, and that the danger in this act extended only to the other sons (and daughters) of the person who kissed his dead child. In the process of copying by other authors, however, these words evolved eventually into a broader prohibition that applied to kissing any dead person. We see this in the commentary of a rabbi from Ashkenaz who relayed a tradition received from Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, author of Sefer ha-Rokeah, regarding kissing the dead:[14]

"Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him" -from Rabbi Eliezer ben Yehudah, of blessed memory, we have the tradition that it is dangerous to kiss the dead, since when the deceased is kissed, the deceased, in his fondness for he who kissed him, will lead him to the grave, except for a father or mother [who may be kissed]; and any person who kisses his son after his death will, it is known, have all his sons die in his lifetime. Hence Joseph was able to kiss his father. And what is more, Jacob never died, as follows from the first chapter of Ta'aniyot (5b).

Analyzing this source, we see two layers imposed one on the other: to the initial ruling attributed to R. Judah the Hasid, that "any person who kisses his son after his death will, it is known, have all his sons die in his lifetime," was added the extension prohibiting kissing the dead in general. Accepting the evidence at face value, it appears that the extension of the prohibition must be attributed to Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, author of Sefer ha-Rokeah, who was a close disciple of Rabbi Judah the Hasid. According to the way he is cited here - "it is dangerous to kiss the dead" - no differentiation is made between dead persons whom it is permissible to kiss and dead whom it is forbidden to kiss, save for the special exception permitting one to kiss a mother or father after their death, which will be explained separately, below.

The extent of the danger resulting from such action, according to this version of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms' ruling, is unique and different from what we encountered thus far in the traditions attributed to Rabbi Judah the Hasid himself. It would seem that the danger spoken of is a personal one, affecting the person himself who gives the kiss, insofar as the reason given by the text at hand for this prohibition is that "when the deceased is kissed, the deceased in his fondness of him will lead him [the one who gives the kiss] to the grave." On the other hand, this source also preserves the words of Rabbi Judah the Hasid in their original formulation, in which he viewed the prohibition against kissing the dead as a proscription that applied only to kissing one's sons, and the resultant danger as only extending to the siblings of the one who has died, as the text reads further on: "any person who kisses his son after his death will, it is known, have all his sons die in his lifetime."[15]

Thus it seems that in the context of the special permission given to kiss one's mother or father, an attempt was made at justifying the medieval custom which prohibited kissing the deceased, a custom which is challenged by the plain sense of Scriptures that ostensibly permits parting from the dead by a kiss (as Joseph did to his father). Therefore, even if it is forbidden to kiss any dead person (as we are told in the name of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms), the latter source specifically explains that one's parents are an exception.

However, insofar as this text also gives a reason for the danger to the person himself who gives the kiss - that out of love for him, the deceased will draw him to the grave - we are left wondering: do a person's parents not love him? And if so, why is there no fear that they too will draw him to the grave with them? Here we clearly see the tension between the ancient authoritative sources and the new custom that was gradually working its way into the Jewish community, the rough spots necessarily being smoothed in the process so that it not stand in blatant contradiction to these sources.

Sometimes, however, a new custom attains ever-increasing strength to the extent that it can stand openly against the plain sense of the ancient sources. In such instances commentators usually come out with new interpretations of the old sources, calculated to remove the tension between the current custom and the previous tradition. This stage, as well, can be seen in the last source which we have cited. After explaining that kissing any dead person is forbidden, save for one's father or mother, (as elucidated by Rabbi Eliezer of Worms), fear of kissing the dead apparently increased so that eventually people also refrained from kissing parents who had passed away. At this point commentators could no longer say that Joseph kissing his father had been altogether permissible, justifying this position on the grounds that there is no danger in kissing one's parents, as had been said earlier. Therefore a new explanation was presented, relying on the aggadic saying cited above that "Jacob did not die".[16]

Rabbi Eliezer of Worms solves this problem in a new and audacious way, writing as follows:[17]

Therefore, one who sees a likeness of the dead or a spirit should not kiss [the departed], since the spirit is none other than a danger to the person. As it is written, "Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him," ... as if he were saying, Why should I continue living? and in doing so Joseph acted measure for measure. For Jacob had earlier said, "Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive" (Gen. 46:30); so when he [Jacob] died, he [Joseph] kissed him, as if to say, "Let me be like you; would that my soul be with your soul."

This unusual solution is the only one that explicitly claims that the kiss Joseph gave his father was none other than a "suicide kiss," resulting from the weakness of heart that overcame him at the moment.

Be that as it may, the conclusion to be drawn, both from the tradition as received in the name of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms in the above-cited commentary, and from the words of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms in his book, Hokhmat ha-Nefesh, is that one must take care not to give a parting kiss to any dead person,[18] including one's mother and father.

We have a recently found source which solves the difficulty by repeating the claim that Jacob was not dead. This is a Bible commentary included in Oxford Manuscript 862, printed not long ago and apparently authored by an anonymous Ashkenazi Hasid:[19] "And kissed him - whoever kisses the dead, his sons die. But Jacob was not dead, for his lips moved."[20] This source is particularly interesting, since it simply juxtaposes the layers of custom and explanation we have seen above, but not in a smooth way. On one hand, it says that kissing any dead person is forbidden ("whoever kisses the dead") yet on the other hand it follows this immediately with the information that only the sons of the person who kisses the dead are endangered—a reason related to the custom not to kiss one's own son.

In the light of this, it is clear why the author of this commentary had to opt for the solution that "Jacob was not dead." At this point it was no longer possible to argue that kissing one's parents was permissible, since custom had already forbidden that; nor could the author of the commentary say, as Rabbi Eliezer of Worms had said in Hokhmat ha-Nefesh, that at that moment Joseph was like a person committing suicide, since he had said that the danger in kissing the dead affected the person's sons and not the person himself, and that being so, Joseph would not have been committing suicide, rather, Heaven forfend, he would have been threatening the lives of his sons. Thus, one could not present Joseph's action as measure for measure against Jacob's words, "Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive"; nor is it conceivable that Joseph, out of love for his father, would risk the lives of his sons.[21] Thus the only option left was to explain that Jacob had not really died, hence kissing him was not an issue.[22]

[1] Tzeror ha-Mor, ed. Joseph al-Nakaveh, Jerusalem 1985 (first printed in Venice, 1522), Parashat Hayye Sarah, s.v. "ve-amar, vayakom Avraham," p. 99. Also see his comments on Parashat Va-Yehi, ibid., p. 263: "‘Joseph flung himself upon his father's face ... and kissed him' - hence they said this was a kiss of parting; therefore one must kiss the deceased when parting from him."
[2] It should be noted that the version of Genesis Rabbah with which we are familiar does not include this midrash, rather a slightly different text that does not mention kissing the dead in general, nor Joseph's kiss to his father in particular; see Gen. Rabbah, Theodore-Albeck ed., p. 118. Apparently the source for Rabbi Seba's remarks was the version of Bereshit Rabbati, H. Albeck ed., Jerusalem 1940, p. 752: "And kissed him - this teaches us that one must kiss the dead when parting from them."
[3] See his book, Hokhmat Adam - Hilkhot Avelut, rule 157.5.
[4] Also see: Ba'er Heitev, on Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah, par. 394.1; Pit'hei Teshuvah, loc. sit.; Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, par. 197.7.
[5] Ch. 65, Theodore-Albeck ed., p. 740.
[6] Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, ed. D. Mandelbaum, vol. i, Divre Yirmiyahu, 9, p. 232.
[7] Lamentations Rabbah, loc. sit., ch. 4 [14], p. 941. The printed version in Midrash Eikhah is somewhat different and does not serve as conclusive evidence for the case at hand.
[8] Sefer Hasidim, ed. Rabbi Reuben Margaliyot, Jerusalem 1957, pp. 11-12.
[9] A variant text reads, "one should not grasp" (Margaliyot ed., loc. sit.), but "not kiss" is the version cited by Rabbenu Yeruham.
[10] On Sefer ha-Kavod see Y. Dan, Ha-Basis ha-Iyuni le-Torat ha-Musar shel Hasidut Ashkenaz, doctoral dissertation, Jerusalem 1964, pp. 76-86, 85-95; Y. Dan, Tarbiz 30 (1961), p. 372, n. 2; Y. Dan, Hasidut Ashkenaz be-Toledot ha-Mahashavah ha-Yehudit, Everyman's University, Tel Aviv 1990, Unit 1, pp. 731-831.
[11] Rabbenu Yeruham Meshulam, Sefer Adam ve-Havah, Havah, sect. 28, end of part 1, Venice ed. 1553, p. 231d.
[12] Margaliyot ed., p. 210.
[13] This passage is cited at the end of a lengthy discussion that also mentions spirits. The passage continues, "When he falls before him, he will ask the Holy One, blessed be He, that he [the spirit] not harm him; and if he was coming to kiss him, he should not kiss him." This passage, as understood by the author of the "interpretation" printed there in section 3, apparently meant that if the dead were to come to kiss the other person, "that person should take care not to kiss him." In other words, since the dead had already kissed the person, that person can do no more than refrain from returning the kiss, since in this joining there lies a great danger.
[14] Perush Rabbenu Ephraim b. R. Shimshon u-Gedolei Ashkenaz ha-Kadmonim al ha-Torah, redaction of the Y. Klugman manuscript, I, Jerusalem 1993, p. 168, s.v. va-yipol.
[15] See the attempt at harmonizing these sources, made by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Lerner, Shemirat ha-Guf ve-ha-Nefesh, II, Jerusalem 1988, p. 579, par. 197b: "We explain from his words that it is dangerous to kiss any dead person, but that the greatest danger lies in kissing one's son."
[16] Looking at the Talmudic discussion there, one sees that the matter is far from simple, as might seem at first glance. See H. Milikowsky, Midrash ha-Aggadah - Metzi'ut o Metaphora, Mahanayim, 7, 1994, pp. 43-73.
[17]Hokhmat ha-Nefesh, p. 68.
[18] It is evident from the words of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms himself, in his above-mentioned book, that he was also aware of the version that associated the danger in kissing the dead with the brothers of the deceased, for he continues there and says: "and kissing one's son or daughter after their death poses a danger to all their brothers and sisters, for it hastens their death." Later he adds, "Father and mother, brothers and sisters - all who see in a dream that the deceased is kissing them, it is an intimation that the departed loves him and is as if saying that he should send him one of those who love him." Once more, we can detect the various traditions becoming intertwined in each other.
[19] Published in Bnai Brak, 1979, under the title, Perush ha-Rokeah al ha-Torah le-Ehad me-Rabboteinu Ba'alei ha-Tosafot Takefei Kedma'ah H. H. Rabbeinu Eliezer me-Garmeize ha-Noda be-Shem Ba'al ha-Rokeah Z"L. It has been shown by Y. Dan, Kiryat Sefer 59 (1984), p. 446, that this is not a commentary by Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, but rather by another anonymous rabbi from among the Hasidim in Ashkenaz.
[20] Loc. sit., Genesis, p. 331, s.v. va-yishak.
[21] In contrast, see Reuben's words to his father, in Genesis 42:37, and the sharp comment aimed at Reuben in the aggadah (Gen. Rabbah, ch. 91, Theodore-Albeck ed., p. 1125, and notes there). Also note the embarrassment that this caused traditional exegetes, referenced in Torah Shelemah by Rabbi Kasher, Part 6, vol. vii, New York 1948, p. 1590, note 103.
[22] It is interesting to note that in all these sources from the Hasidim of Ashkenaz there is no reference to the question raised in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat, mentioned above, about the parting kiss giving by Rabbi Joshua to Rabbi Eliezer, which cannot be reconciled with any of the explanations given above. Indeed, when this question was raised by the aharonim (later rabbinic authorities), there were forced to say that a great scholar of Torah may be kissed, even if he is not one's father. For example, see R. Nissim Abraham Ashkenazi, Nehmad le-Mar'eh on the Jerusalem Talmud, Part II, Shabbat 11.2, s.v. ve-nistalka, from which it is apparent that the prohibition applied only to kissing sons who had died. On the other hand, he stresses that kissing and hugging a tzaddik when he dies is surely permitted, from which it seems as if he had doubts about permitting kissing other dead persons who are not tzaddikim. Also cf. R. Shalom Mordechai Schwadron, glosses on Sefer Hasidim, in the edition of Sefer Hasidim published by Rabbi H. D. Laufer, Jerusalem 1992, p. 60 (2nd numbering), and Rabbi Y. Y. Lerner, Shemirat ha-Guf ve-ha-Nefesh, sect. C, loc. sit.