Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne, Turkey by Ahmet Baris ISITAN, via WikiMedia Commons

Islamic Hadith and Elevating the Soul of the Deceased in Judaism

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin made an extensive analysis of the concept of bestowing elevation to a deceased person’s soul in the afterlife (“What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?” January 26, 2014 – PDF here) in Judaism. Briefly, the Talmud and other early sources say little about this concept. The position of the Gaonim and Rishonim is that little can be done to benefit the soul of the deceased, with the following general exceptions. Merit for the deceased in the next world comes as a result of:

  1.  charity the deceased had pledged to be donated posthumously,
  2. teaching and studying Torah that originated with the deceased,
  3. his/her children acting appropriately – they are God-fearing, and busy with Torah and mitzvot.

Here are two sources:

R’ Avraham bar Ḥiyya ha-Nasi (Muslim Spain, 1070 – 1136), the prestigious Jewish mathematician and philosopher, in his Hegyon HaNefesh HaAtzuvah pg. 32 wrote:

וכן כל החושב על מעשה בניו ובני עמו שהם עושים

בגללו אחרי מותו ומתפללים בעדו שהם מועילים לו, מחשבות בדויות

הוא ותוחלת שוא בעיני כל החכמים וכל אנשי מדע,

ולא מצאנו בתורה מקום שנוכל להבין ממנו

שמעשה החי בעולם הזה יהיה מזכה את המתים, כי אם דבר אחד

אשר המדע מורה בו והתורה מעידה עליו, והוא הגזלה אשר לא

השיב המת בחייו יהיה נענש עליה לעולם הבא, ואם השיב הגזלה

… לבעליה אחרי מותו ראוי הוא לפסוק הענש ממנו בעולם הבא

ויש דבר אחד לדברי החכמים

שהוא מלמד זכות, והוא תלמוד תורה בעולם הזה הוא מלמד זכותם

 על המלמד אותה אחרי מותו כל זמן שהיא מלמדת אחריו.
(http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=9428&st=&pgnum=127&hilite=)

R’ Moshe Chalava [1] (Spain, 1290 – 1370) wrote:

שו”ת מהר”ם חלאווה סימן יז

וכמה שבא פ”ק דקידושין היה אומר דבר שמועה מפיו לא יאמר כך אמר אבא, אלא כך אמר אבא מארי הריני כפרת משכבו והני מילי תוך שנים עשר חדש וכו’.-הרי שהצריכו לבן לומר כך מפני שימצא אביו תועלת בכך להקל ענשו, כל זה אמת ומשפט שהדין כך הוא נותן, כי אחר שהוא נטע צדיק עץ חיים עושה פרי, הצדיק יצדיק לרבים יש לו שכר אמת יצלנו מרעתו במקצת, כאשר תצילנו צדקה שנדר לתת אחרי מותו, אבל אין לו דרך אחרת של הצלה בכל מה שיעשה אחר בשבילו אחריו.

(here )

Fascinating is that similar ideas are found in early Islamic literature.
Many beliefs and practices in Islam originate from hadith. Hadith refers to reports of statements or actions of the prophet Muhammad by his companions. Though the Quran is the central source of Islamic law, hadith are regarded as important tools for understanding the Quran and commentaries on it. Prophet Mohammed’s acquaintance, Abu Hurairah (Arabian Peninsula, 603–681), was the most prolific narrator of hadith in Sunni hadith compilations.

Here is a hadith from Abu Hurairah:

Abu Hurairah reported, “The Prophet (saws) said, ‘When a person dies all his good deeds cease except for three:

  1. a continuous act of charity (which the deceased did in his lifetime),
  2. beneficial knowledge (which the deceased left behind),
  3. and a righteous son (children) who prays for him’.”

Related by Muslim and Abu Dawood (died 889, Basra).

Abu Hurairah reported, “The Prophet (saws) said, ‘The righteous works that continue to benefit a believer after his death include the knowledge that he taught and spread among others, a righteous son (children) whom he leaves behind, or a copy of the Qur’an that he bequeaths to his inheritors, or a mosque that he builds, or a rest house that he builds for the wayfarers, or a canal of water that he digs for the benefit of others, or a charity that he gives out of his property during his life while he is sound of health. He will continue to receive reward for all these even after his death.’
Related by Ibn Maajah (Iranian province of Qazvin, 9th century). (http://www.islamhelpline.net/node/6928)

It appears that Islam and Judaism borrowed from one another. Some of the concepts in these hadith may have been borrowed from Judaism; others may have traveled the other way as they appear in Muslim sources centuries before they appear in Jewish sources.

When R. Avraham ha-Nasi spoke of the “דברי החכמים” was he referring to the wise men of Islam?

Notes
[1] Though R’ Moshe Chalava lived in Christian Spain, he was familiar with the traditions of the Gaonim and early Spanish Rishonim.