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Mourning a Tzaddik

Mourning a Tzaddik

Is a righteous person’s passing an atonement or a warning sign for imminent catastrophe? Is there anything we can do to prevent approaching disasters? How does a tzaddik’s passing atone for his generation’s sins? What was the reward for those who were present at Rabbi Yehuda the Prince’s eulogy, and why? What is our individual obligation when a tzaddik passes away? Can a righteous woman’s death be the same? What is the reward for shedding tears over the death of a righteous or wise man, and what is the punishment for being lax in the matter? Is it obligatory to mourn the passing of a righteous man even if he was of advanced age? Of this and more, in the coming article.

Miriam’s Passing

In Parasha Chukkas, this week’s Torah reading in Eretz Yisroel, we learn of the laws of the Red Heifer. Immediately after that, we read: “The entire congregation of the children of Yisrael arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there” (Bamidbar 20:1). The Gemara, quoted in Rashi, learns a lesson from the proximity (Moed Katan 28a): “Why is the passage relating Miriam’s death juxtaposed with the passage of the Red Cow? To teach that just as sacrifices bring atonement, so the death of the righteous atones.” Later, in the Parasha we read of Aharon HaKohen’s passing, of which the Gemara (ibid) tells us: “Rabbi Elazar said: Why is Aharon’s passing juxtaposed with the priestly garments? To teach us that just as priestly garments atone, so too, a tzaddik’s passing atones.”

The Approach of the Shela and Nesivos

The Shela (Ta’anis, Torah Or, 160-162) asks how it is possible for a tzaddik’s passing to atone for sin if it is written in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 113b) that when a tzaddik passes from the world it is a sign of upcoming disaster? How can we say that the passing of a tzaddik atones for sin and prevents disasters?

Rabbi Yaakov of Lisa, author of the Nesovos (Drashos Mahari M’Lisa, Hesped) asks the same question. He says the answer can be found in the beginning of the pasuk: “The righteous man has perished, but no one takes it to heart.” When the tzaddik’s passing inspires us to do teshuva, his passing serves as an atonement. However, if teshuva does not follow in the wake of his passing — if “no one takes it to heart” — it serves as a sign of upcoming catastrophe. The Malbim (Bereshis 35:8) elaborates that it is the eulogies delivered upon the passing of a tzaddik that help  atone for sin, since when listeners are inspired listeners to do mitzvos and good deeds, the sins of the generation are atoned for.

Similarly, the Maharit writes (Tzofnat Pa’ane’ach, part II, Ki Tisa) that the passing of a tzaddik atones for sin only if Yisroel are united and feel for one another. Then, when something happens to one of them, especially a tzaddik, it atones for the entire nation, because all experience the pain. However, when one doesn’t care about what happens to his fellow — when the passing of a tzaddik is met with indifference – it does not bring atonement.

Atonement via Sorrow

Rabbi Yitzchak Karo (teacher and uncle of the famed Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch) asks (Toldos Yitzchak, Bamidbar 20:1): why does the Torah compare the passing of Miriam to the Red Heifer and not the ordinary sin-offerings that affect atonement?

He explains that Chazal saw similarity between the passing of the tzaddik and the Red Heifer because both have double function. Just as the Red Heifer purifies the impure, and causes the pure to be impure, so too, the passing of a tzaddik: one who feels sorrow in his passing, is atoned for. However, one who does nothing and feels no sorrow in face of a tzaddik’s passing, brings disaster to the entire nation.

Rabbi Yitzchak Karo derives this from the psukim (Bamidbar 19:5): “The cow shall be burned in his eyes [presence]” – the Red Heifer atones for sin when it is burned before his eyes: when he feels it should have been done to him, and he becomes humble. So, too, the passing of a tzaddik atones for sin only for those who feel the pain of his passing.

Rabbi Yitzchak Karo adds that the Zohar explains (Archei Mos 56b) this is the reason why we read about the passing of Aharon’s two sons on Yom Kippur. Hashem said: “If you feel sorrow in their death and learn this Torah portion, I will atone for your sins.”

Rebbe Yehuda the Prince’s Eulogy

The Gemara (Kesubos 103b) describes that when Rabbi Yehuda the Prince was eulogized at his funeral, a heavenly voice was heard inviting the attendees to eternal life in the World to Come. Tosefos (ibid) explains that every one of the attendees merited eternal life without judgement and suffering. Merely participating in the funeral sufficed. The Maharal (Chiddushei Aggdos, ibid) adds that while every Jew has a portion in the World to Come, not all are readily invited. While some come to an event with an invitation and are offered their appropriate seat, others, who drop in uninvited, are not given their proper place. Those who took part in Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s funeral became invited guests to the World to Come.

The Washerman

The Gemara continues and describes a washerman who was used to come to Rabbi Yehuda every day. On the day of the funeral, he didn’t come. When he heard that he had missed the funeral he went up to the roof and fell to his death. Again, the heavenly voice was heard inviting the washerman to the World to Come.

What is the meaning of this story? Why is it inscribed in the Gemara for posterity, and what lesson can we take away from it? Had he committed suicide, he would have been banished from the World, not invited with honors. Simply explained, the washerman lost his mind from anguish and jumped to his death, or went up to the roof and due to negligence attributed to his anguish, didn’t notice the edge and fell to his death.

The Maharal, however, offers a deeper explanation (ibid). The washerman was a sinner who was struggling to overcome his negative desires. He was on the way, on the path to teshuva. The Gemara calls him a washerman because he was in the process of washing himself from his inequities, washing his soul and spirit. Apparently, he had been coming to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi every day for guidance. Upon hearing that Rabbi Yehuda had passed away and his guide to repentance was no more, he lost his mind. His was the feeling of a missed opportunity – he had forfeited his only chance to reach the World to Come! His anguish drove him to immediate repentance, and he “leaped” spiritually to the highest level he could reach, the figurative “rooftop” of his spiritual advancement. However, knowing he had no tools to maintain this lofty level, his soul exited his body, and went right into Gan Eden. He was at his pinnacle, and at that level, he went on to be an invited guest in the World to Come. (See Maseches Avoda Zara 17a, for a similar story).

Tzom Gedaliah

The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 18b) tells us that the Fast of Gedaliah which was instituted to commemorate the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam is one of the fast days that commemorate the Temple’s destruction. This is to teach us that the passing of a tzaddik is equal to the destruction of the Temple. The Toras Chaim (Sanhedrin 97a) explains this only refers to when a tzaddik is taken prematurely (as was the case with Gedaliah Ben Achikam). However, the passing of a tzaddik who lived a long life, although we are obligated to mourn and feel sorrow in his passing, is not equivalent to the destruction of the Temple.

Mourning the Passing of an Elderly Tzaddik

The Kli Yakar (Bamidbar 20:2) explains why as soon as Miriam passed away, the well disappeared and the Jewish people didn’t have water, even though the well soon reappeared in the merit of Aaron and Moshe: The well disappeared, so her passing would be noticed, because she was not eulogized properly. This is alluded to in the psukim: “The entire congregation of the children of Yisrael arrived… Miriam died there and was buried there” (Bamidbar 20:1) – she died, was buried, and forgotten. The well had to disappear so the nation would become aware that it had been there in her merit. When she died Hashem wanted the nation to know that their most basic necessity – water – had been in her merit, and they must mourn their loss.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (HaDeah v’Hadibur, volume III, chapter 31:2) explains why the Jewish people didn’t mourn Miriam’s passing and required punishment. In that generation, the average lifespan was 70, and at most – 80. Especially after 40 years in the desert in which all the people who left Egypt between 20 and 60 died, anyone past 60 saw himself as being old. Miriam, who had been 86 when they left Egypt, passed away at 126 – an exceptionally long life, above and beyond anything her generation had seen.

Miriam’s passing is compared to the Red Heifer, which purifies the impure, and impurifies the pure. A tzaddik properly mourned and eulogized atones for sin like a sacrifice, but if his death is attributed to old age it arouses prosecution, causing the death of other righteous people. The Gemara brings proof to this (Yevamos 78b): the Jewish people did not mourn King Shaul’s death, and were punished with famine, causing other righteous people to die of hunger. When Miriam passed away the nation didn’t mourn her properly either, and only when Aharon passed away both were mourned together. It was only the passing of both Miriam and Aharon that atoned for the generation’s sins.

Mourning a Righteous Individual

The Gemara (Shabbos 105b) writes that everyone is obligated to mourn the passing of a talmid chacham, because all are considered his relatives. The Shulchan Aruch rules (YD 340:7) that everyone must rend their clothing as a sign of mourning. The Rama rules that the custom today is only to tear clothing for the passing of one’s own rebbe. The Shach (footnote 17) writes that today, even this is not practiced, because it is uncommon to find today a talmid chacham who can be asked anywhere in the Gemara, and answer without hesitation. The Aruch Hashulchan (22) writes that a G-d fearing individual should preferably make a small tear at the edge of his clothing in this case (an old garment can be used for this purpose.)

The Gemara also mentions (Shabbos 105b) the obligation to rend one’s clothing when a righteous person dies. A righteous person is one who is not known to have sinned and of whom there are no rumors, because he is like a burned Sefer Torah. According to the Shulchan Aruch (340:6) this obligation is only between the time of death and burial. Practically, the Shach writes (note 12) that even though the custom is to be lenient on this matter, sorrow at his passing remains an obligation.

Defining a Righteous Person

The Achronim define who meets the criteria of a righteous person. According to the Shach (note 11) it is only one who looked for ways to perform kindness with his fellow. The Tiferet Le’Moshe (ibid) wonders if it is specifically for one who learned Torah, in which case rending clothing is an expression of sorrow for the Torah he learned and resembles the halacha of rending clothing for a burned Sefer Torah. This explanation would exclude righteous people who did not learn Torah or women, and include laymen who learned Torah but may not be g’dolim b’Torah.

Shedding Tears

The Gemara (Shabbos 105b) writes: “Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said . . .in the name of Bar Kappara: Anyone who sheds tears over an upright person, the Holy One, Blessed be He, counts his tears and places them in His treasury, as it is stated: ‘You have put my tears into your bottle, are they not in your book?’ (Tehilim 56:9).”

Sefer Charedim (Ase, 2:3) quotes the Zohar (Pikudei 245b): “All tears that are shed over the death of the righteous . . . are inscribed by the angels in the hall of the Livnat HaSapir, as it is written: ‘…And the Lord G-d shall wipe the tears off every face’ (Yeshaya 25:8).”

On the other hand, the Gemara writes (ibid): “Why do a person’s sons and daughters die when they are young? They die so that he will cry and mourn over the death of an upright worthy person.” The Charedim explains that shedding tears over the death of a talmid chacham is part of the mitzva of “Love your fellow”(Vayikra 19:18). Here we learn that there is a mitzva to love talmidei chachomim who are connected to Hashem. Since we are obligated to love them like we love our sons, one who fails to shed tears upon their passing is punished to shed tears upon his own sons’ passing, G-d forbid.


The Gemara (ibid) further details the punishment: “Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: Anyone who is lazy in eulogizing a Torah scholar, is befit to be buried alive, as it is stated: ‘And they buried him (Yehoshua) in the border of his inheritance in Timnat-seraḥ, which is in the hill-country of Ephraim, on the north of the mountain of Ga’ash’ (Yehoshua 24:30). This teaches that the mountain raged against them to kill them because they did not eulogize him appropriately.” There was apparently, a geophysical reaction to the Jewish nation’s failing to eulogize Yehoshua.

And the Gemara continues: “Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yocḥanan said: Whoever is lazy in eulogizing a Sage does not live a long life, and his punishment is measure for measure.” The sages who lived after Yehoshua did not outlive him by much because they were lazy in eulogizing him.

Death’s Atonement – The Maharal’s Explanation

The Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Bamidbar 20:1) explains the mechanism that brings atonement for sin through the death of a righteous person. When a person completes his life’s mission and his body returns to dust, the body, which was the catalyst for sin disintegrates. Then, everything is recalibrated, and a new beginning emerges. This is why the atonement or purification process for producing the red Heifer involves burning it to soot. When it is burned until it is only ash, that is when a new reality is born.

When the tzaddik, who gives the Jewish nation the power and inspiration to serve Hashem passes away it is as if the entire nation is no longer. It resembles Yom Kippur, in the sense that all sins are now gone, and the nation is able to open a new page.

The Passing of a Tzaddik

The Shela (Ta’anis, Torah Or, 160-162) outlines several details that can help us to mourn the passing of a tzaddik:

1) The Gemara writes (Shabbos 33b): “A tzaddik is caught in the generation’s sin”—we must mourn the passing of the tzaddik since he was taken due to our own sin.

2) His passing should be a fortiori lesson: If middas hadin was so exacting with the tzaddik who was so careful to adhere to the Torah and its mitzvos, how much more so we, regular people, must exercise more precaution.

3) The tzaddik’s prayers and Torah protected the generation. Once he is gone, the Attribute of Judgment can prosecute uninhibited unless we follow in his footsteps.

Those who understand the danger involved in the passing of tzaddikim and take the necessary steps, are saved future anguish. Apathy can be lethal.


When a tzaddik passes away we must take inspiration from him and his life, learn from the way he served Hashem and follow in his footsteps.

So when you hear of a levaya, take a minute to stop and listen to the eulogy. Learn the lesson the easy way, so you won’t have to learn it the sad way.


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