Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 28 December 2013 / 25 Tevet 5774

Leaving Learning For Levayos

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

The recent spate of Levayos (funerals) for Gedolim that engendered a public turnout in the hundreds of thousands of mourners has left even the most jaded of secular pundits speechless. The unfortunate passing of such Gaonim as Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel zt”l, Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg zt”l, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe zt”l, and most recently, Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l, has exemplified how much of a priority it is for us to pay our respect and show our esteem and reverence for these luminaries, as testament to their vast accomplishments as Gedolei HaDor.

Their vastly different backgrounds and constituents notwithstanding, each of these giants’ Levayos had attendance well into the hundred thousands, consisting of the full spectrum of religious Jewry. There is precedent for this as well, as we find that even the Canaanite Kings, no friends of Bnei Yisrael, nonetheless joined in with the massive levaya for Yaakov Avinu1.

Indeed, the rewards for attending a levaya, and not just for Gedolim, are many. In fact, this Gemillas Chessed Shel Emes is referred to as a mitzvah that is ‘keren kayemes l’olam haba’ah’, an eternal one with rewards both in This World and the World to Come, with no diminished returns2.

Yet, we find that according to the Gemara and codified as halacha, although ‘Talmud Torah Kenneged Kulam’, Torah study is the greatest of all Mitzvos3, nevertheless, one is obligated to leave his Torah study in order to properly escort one who has passed on4.

Although the Gemara qualifies this rule, and asserts that it is relevant only to one who does not have ‘kol tzorcho’, his required needs, nowadays this is fulfilled with a ‘Chevra Kadisha’, a Burial Society, and one should not abandon his Torah study to attend a random levaya when basic requirements are being met5.

However, continues the Gemara, different people have different needs regarding their levayos. A basic minyan is only deemed sufficient for one who is not learned6. Yet, for one who is learned, his basic needs for a levaya is an astounding 600,000 attendees, the same amount of those present at Kabbolas HaTorah! This is due to the dictum of ‘Netilasah K’Nisinasah’; the same amount present at Kabbolas HaTorah should be present when the Torah departs, meaning when one who is filled with Torah passes away.

Lest one think that thishalacha is referring to a Gadol HaDor or at the very least, a famous Rosh Yeshiva, the Rema explains that, in his time, anyone with at least a rudimentary Jewish education (in Chumash and Mishna) is included in this category! Although the Aruch Hashulchan felt that this was only true in the Rema’s time, conversely, the Minchas Elazar of Munkacs remarked that in his day (around 85 years ago) this was certainly true; as “who doesn’t sit in shul over Shabbos and recite shnayim mikra v’echad targum?!”7

The Gemara concludes that for one who teaches Torah to others, also not only exclusively referring to a Gadol Hador or Rosh Yeshiva, but even a Rebbi, Rav, Posek, Maggid Shiur, or Rosh Chaburah, there is no limit, and everyone is obligated to attend his levaya8!

If so, why do we find such numbers of mourners only at Gedolim’s levayos? In large cities wouldn’t everyone be required to stop their talmud Torah many times a day, simply to escort their fellow man, whom they may not have ever met, to his eternal rest?

Although there are several approaches and rationales given to answer this question, it is important to note that many Gedolim grappled with this issue, implying that the question is still better than the answer9.

The main rationale for leniency is actually based on a machlokes in Even Ha’Ezer regarding attending a Chuppa, where the halacha parallels that of a levaya10regarding stopping learning to attend. The Chelkas Mechokek writes that this halacha only applies to one who sees a Chuppa occurring, who must stop his learning to attend the wedding. Yet, if one merely knows about a wedding taking place, he is not obligated to do so. The Beis Shmuel, however, argues, countering that even if one knows about a wedding, one is obligated to attend, even at the cost of his learning11.

The famed Netziv12, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, maintains that regarding levayos the halacha follows the shitta of the Chelkas Mechokek. He cites proof of this from the words the Gemara in Brachos (and later codified by the Shulchan Aruch) uses referencing levayos that refers to attending one as ‘HaRoeh es HaMeis’, seeing one who passed away. The Netziv explains this to mean that unless one actually sees a levaya occurring, he is not obligated to stop his learning to attend. Although several authorities seem reluctant to rely upon this13, nevertheless, the vast majority of decisors rule this way,14 that one is not required to attend a levaya and abandon his learning simply because he is aware of one taking place.

Other rationales for leniency include: that only Talmud Torah of an individual needs to be halted for a levaya, not public Talmud Torah15; that nowadays many levayos do not start at the appointed time, and one needs only to stop learning and attend when he is certain that the levaya is taking place16; and that the halacha was referring to when everyone in the city was part of one unified kehillah.Ergo, nowadays in large cities, where there is a plethora of kehillos, some with no interaction with another, the ruling would not apply17.

But one thing is certain. Many Gedolim stress that if one does come across a levaya, he is obligated to stop what he is doing and attend, accompanying the niftar at least four Amos along his final journey18.

Another interesting related issue is that the Tur and Shulchan Aruch rule that the only constituency that should never stop its learning for any levaya whatsoever is Tashb”ar, Tinokos Shel Beis Rabban, or cheder school children19. Yet, nowadays, it is accepted that for the passing of a Gadol, Talmudei Torah are let out, with the children being urged to participate in the levaya as well. How is this allowed?

Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, when asked this question, replied that the Gedolim of previous generations felt that having children stop learning to attend the levaya of a Gadol was acceptable in order to show honor to the Torah. He added that, anyway, children nowadays have intersession and vacation on other days when they are not learning. If so, paying last respects to a Gadol is certainly no worse than Bein HaZmanim. Others add that it is done purposely so that the children learn to appreciate the greatness of Torah. Moreover, in this case ‘bitulo hee kiyuma’, this brief break will undoubtedly engender more and greater Torah learning on the children’s part20.

In the final analysis, if one is attending a levaya, he should not bemoan the fact that he is missing seder. On the contrary, he should focus on the great Mitzva he is performing. By escorting the recently departed to his eternal rest, he is earning his own eternal reward.


1 See Parshas Vayechi (Bereishis Ch. 50, verses 7 - 13), Gemara Sota (13a), Yerushalmi Sota (Ch. 1, 10), and Rashi, Targum Onkelus, and main commentaries on those pesukim.

2 Recited daily as part of ‘Eilu Devarim’ in Birkas HaShachar, based on Mishnayos Pe’ah (Ch. 1, Mishna 1) and Gemara Shabbos (127a). There are several other ma’marei Chazal detailing the rewards of those who are melaveh a meis, and the punishments of those who do not - see Gemara Brachos (18a), Moed Kattan (27b), and Kesuvos (72a). See also Rambam (Hilchos Avel Ch. 14, 1) and Aruch Hashulchan (Y”D 361, 1).

3 Mishna Pe’ah and Gemara Shabbos (ibid.).

4 Gemara Megillah (3b and 29a) and Kesuvos (17a - b); Rambam (Hilchos Avel, Ch. 14, 9), SMa”G (Ase’in DeRabbanan 2), Tur / Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 361), Chochmas Adam (155, 3), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (198, 8 & 9), and Aruch Hashulchan (Y”D 361, 2 - 4).

5 See Rashi (Kesuvos 17b s.v. lais) and Tosafos (ad loc. aval).

6 The Gemara’s choice of words is ‘lma’an d’lo kari v’tani’, which Rashi translates as one who has not learned Chumash or Mishna.

7 Rema (Y”D 361, 1; based on the Ritva’s comments to Kesuvos ibid.), Shu”t Minchas Elazar (vol. 1, 26, in the footnote). The Chochmas Adam (153, 3) and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (198, 9) follow this assessment as well. Interestingly, and as a counterpoint to the Minchas Elazar’s assertion, the Aruch Hashulchan (Y”D 361, 3) writes that the Rema’s comment was only ‘l’fi doroseihem, kemuvan’. As to the importance of reciting Shnayim Mikra, see previous article titled ‘Understanding Shnayim Mikra V’Echad Targum’.

8 The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chessed vol. 3, Ch. 5, s.v. v’afilu) writes that even a ‘zakein m’chachmei hador’ is obligated in the Mitzva of Levayas HaMeis, as the Gemara (ibid.) stresses that R’ Yehuda b’Rebi Ilai would bemevattel Torah for Hotza’as HaMeis.

9 For example, the first time the Minchas Elazar addressed this issue (Shu”t vol. 1, ibid.) he wrote several pages unsuccessfully trying to find a proper solution. It is only in later responsa that he hit upon, and agreed to the Netziv’s approach. Likewise, in Halichos Shlomo (Tefilla, Ch. 13, footnote 22), a story is told of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Moshe Feinstein, who both admitted to being very bothered with this issue, and not being fully satisfied with the general hanhaga.

10 See Rambam (Hilchos Avel ibid.) and Rema (Even Ha’Ezer 65, 1). In, fact the actual words of the Gemara (Megillah and Kesuvos ibid.) are ‘Mevattlin Talmud Torah l’Hotzaas HaMes Ul’Hachnosas Kallah’. The Yad Eliyahu (Shu”t 39, cited by Pischei Teshuva E.H. 65, 3) cites proof to this from Koheles (Ch. 3, verses 1 - 8). All of the different ‘times for actions’ are written with a lamed, except two: ‘eis sefod v’eis rikod’, ‘a time to eulogize and a time to dance’, to teach that exclusively for these two times one is required to be mevattel his limud.

11 Chelkas Mechokek (E.H. 65, 2), Beis Shmuel (ad loc. 3). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu”t Igros Moshe O.C. vol. 2. 95, s.v. u’lchein) has an interesting teshuva regarding one who wants to attend a chasuna during Sefiras Ha’Omer, but it is still ‘Sefira’ for him and consequently prohibited to take a haircut. Rav Moshe writes that if he is embarrassed to show up without a haircut, he may get one. He explains that according to the Beis Shmuel it a chiyuv to attend a wedding one knows about, and although the Chelkas Mechokek maintains that it is only obligatory when one sees a Chuppa occurring, that is only regarding whether one is required to stop his Torah learning; he certainly would agree that one who is not currently learning still receives a mitzvah for attending a wedding.

12 Ha’amek Sheilah (on the Sheiltos, Parshas Chayei Sara, Sheilta 14, 2 and Parshas Vayechi, Sheilta 34, 2), Gemara Brachos (18a), Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 361, 3).

13 See Shu”t Yad Eliyahu (39; cited by the Pischei Teshuva both in Hilchos Levyas HaMeis Y”D 361, 2 and Hilchos Kiddushin E.H. 65, 3), and Gesher HaChaim (vol. 1, Ch. 4, 7, pg. 127 - 128, see extensive footnote 3, and vol. 2, Ch. 10, 4, s.v. v’Habeis Shmuel).

14 Including the Sheilas Dovid (end Shu”t vol. 1, Chiddushim to Y”D 361 pg. 16), the Minchas Elazar (Shu”t vol. 2, Kuntress Shirei Mincha on vol. 1, 26, s.v. uv’inyan and vol. 4, 2, s.v. uv’hemshech), Sdei Chemed (Maareches Chassan V’Kallah 22 and Aveilus 192), Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld (Shu”t Salmas Chaim, new print Y”D 194), the Debreciner Rav (Shu”t Ba’er Moshe vol. 4, 98), the Tzitz Eliezer (Shu”t vol. 5, Kuntress Ramat Rochel, 50, 2, 3, s.v. ukmo”k and vol. 7, Kuntress Even Yaakov 21), Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos vol. 4, pg. 323, 13), Rav Chaim Kanievsky (in an unpublished teshuva to R’ Yitzchok Winkler, dated 6 Kislev 5768), Yalkut Yosef (Hilchos Aveilus, 10, 4, pg. 237), and Pnei Baruch (Ch. 5, end 3, pg. 53).

15 Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (vol. 4, s.v. v’nirah). Additionally, in Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (vol. 2, 452 s.v. ula”d) Rav Sternbuch writes that the Gr”a’s kavanna in his comment (Y”D 361, 2) based on the Yerushalmi (Pesachim Ch. 3 and Chagiga Ch. 1), is to explain the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling differently, that one is only required to leave learning if he is not actively ‘osek baTorah’, then one should not go back to learn, rather attend the levaya. But one who is currently immersed in his learning would not be mandated to stop and attend the levaya.

16 Halichos Shlomo (ibid.) and Yalkut Yosef (ibid.).

17 Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (vol. 4, 213 s.v. v’yeish and pg. 323, 13).

18 Several poskim maintain that this applies even if one is in a car or bus, or if one sees the levaya while in another reshus. See Gesher HaChaim (vol. 1, Ch. 14, 9), Halichos Shlomo (ibid.), Shu”t Shevet HaKehasi (vol. 4, 284 and vol. 5, 214). Shu”t Ba’er Moshe (ibid. end s.v. aimasai), Maaseh Ish (vol. 2, 122), and Yalkut Yosef (Aveilus pg. 244). Interestingly, some wish to draw a parallel from the halachos of Kibud Av V’Eim and Kibud Rabo [see Chayei Adam (vol.1, 67, end 7) and Ben Ish Chai (Year 2, Parshas Ki Seitzei 13)] that one is not required to stand up for a father or Rebbi while in a different reshus.

19 Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 361, end 1), Shach (ad loc. 6), Gr”a (ad loc. 3), Chochmas Adam (155, end 3), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (198, 9), Aruch Hashulchan (Y”D 361, 3). The reason being that Chazal state that the breath of children learning Torah holds up the world (Gemara Shabbos 119b), and should not cease even for a Gadol’s levaya. This is not like the opinion of the Rashal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Kesuvos Ch. 2, 5) who maintains that for a Gadol’s funeral, children should stop learning to attend.

20 Shu”t Salmas Chaim (new print, Y”D 192), Gesher HaChaim (vol. 1, Ch. 14, 4), Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (vol. 4, pg. 323, 13 and footnote 13 s.v. mihu), Shu”t Yabea Omer (vol. 2, O.C. 25, 9 and vol. 4, O.C. 35, 1), Pnei Baruch (Ch. 5, 3, and footnote 13), and Yalkut Yosef (Aveilus Ch. 10, 4).


Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.


L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!

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