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Understanding The Mitzvah of Hesped
Yitzchak Kasdan

Understanding The Mitzvah of Hesped

by Yitzchak Kasdan[1]

The mitzvah of hesped, i.e., of eulogizing the deceased, like many other halachos dealing with the departed and with bereavement/mourning in general, is not routinely studied. Indeed, the custom is such that most people never delve into halachic issues dealing with death until (rachmana l'tzlan) the need actually arises.

In this respect, the mitzvah of hesped gets even shorter shrift as it is one of the first matters to be undertaken after the loved one's departure, thus leaving precious little time to review its purpose or requirements. In addition, shock and/or grief over a death, especially within a family, may derail proper preparation of the eulogy -- let alone leave individuals with the mind set to review the details of the mitzvah of hesped.

The passage of time after the passing of a loved one affords the opportunity to examine the mitzvah of hesped in more depth and in a calmer atmosphere than during the period immediately preceding the funeral. Indeed, as discussed below, a review of the purpose(s) of hesped is particularly appropriate in conjunction with the end of the sh'loshim period of aveilus,[2] based on an approach to understanding the mitzvah set forth by a recently departed posek in Israel, Rabbi Chaim Dovid HaLevi zt'l, in his sefer on the Shulchan Aruch the "M'kor Chayim." In this spirit, let us review the particulars and purposes of the performance of the mitzvah of hesped.

The Shulchan Aruch's Description of the Mitzvah of Hesped

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deeah 344, 1) states:
Mitzvah g'dolah l'haspid al hamas karauy. Umitzvaso sheyarim es kolo lomar alav d'varim hamishabrim es halav, k'day l'harbos bechiyah, ul'hazkir sh'vacho.

It is a great mitzvah to eulogize the dead person appropriately. And the mitzvah is to raise one's voice to say over [the departed] things that break the heart, so that there will be much crying; and also one should mention his [the dead's] good deeds [lit. praises].
The Shulchan Aruch's description of hesped leads to a number of points and questions.

First, it is noteworthy that the Shulchan Aruch characterizes hesped as a "mitzvah g'dolah" -- "a great mitzvah." There are only two other instances[3] where the Shulchan Aruch uses this phrase: in describing the mitzvos of (a) pidyon sh'vuyim,[4] redemption of captives and (b) halvaah laaniyim,[5] lending money to the poor. Thus, the first question is: what is the common thread that runs between hesped, pidyon sh'vuyim and halvaah laaniyim that make them each "a great mitzvah."

Second, what is the purpose for eulogizing, as the Shulchan Aruch notes, to the point of saying things that "break the heart"?

Third, what is the significance for the hesped to stimulate tears?

Fourth and finally, what is the reason for mentioning the departed's "shevach "?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand the purpose(s) of the mitzvah of hesped and what it is designed to accomplish.

Is Hesped for the Living, the Dead or Both?

The g'marah in Sanhedrin 46a poses the question whether hesped is "y'karah d'shachvei" -- the honor[6] of the departed -- or "y'karah d'chayei" -- the honor of the living.[7] The question itself, as well as the give and take of the g'marah in reaching an answer, leaves the clear impression that hesped has dual aspects -- it is something for both the living and the dead. The fact that the g'marah ultimately resolves that hesped is "y'karah d'shachvei", does not necessarily mean that the two concepts -- "y'karah d'shachvei" and "y'karah d'chayei"-- are mutually exclusive or that hesped has implications for the dead only. Rather, application of the g'marah's conclusion simply may be narrow in scope[8] but does no harm to an understanding that hesped impacts the living and the dead, individually and collectively, as confirmed by the sources discussed below that explain the purposes of hesped.

The Purpose(s) of Hesped

There are three basic ways to understand the objectives of hesped.

          (a) Hesped as part of the living's t'shuvah process

The first approach is that hesped primarily is for the living. The goal is for the hesped to be a means through which the living begin to achieve atonement by learning from the deeds of the dead and doing t'shuvah. This theme has been expounded most recently by R' Nissan Alpert z"tl in his posthumously-published work on Chumash, "Sefer Limudai Nissan," and much earlier by the Pairush haRif in the "Ein Yakkov."

According to R' Alpert: "The purpose of hesped is [so to speak] to 'bring the dead to life,' to recount his praises and good deeds, so that people will learn from him." [Emphasis added.] Sefer Limudai Nissan, B'raishis, Chayai Sarah, 23, 2. Similarly, according to the Pairush haRif (Ein Yaacov, Shabbos 105b, "Amar"):
. . . [T]he essence of hesped is for the living to recognize in his heart that . . . his end will be death and that [with his burial] he will be infested with worms and shall stink [see Sh'mos 16, 20]. And with this [realization] he will repent fully ["yashuv b'tshuvah sh'laimah"] . . . . [Emphasis added.]
In this regard, hesped simply is an initial step in the larger aveilus process which, in its entirety, is a process of t'shuvah.[9] As R' Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt'l ( the "Rav"), has noted in a lecture entitled "Sitting Shivah is Doing Teshuvah" [re-published in "Man of Faith in the Modern World", edited by R' Abraham Besdin, p. 125]: "The observance of shivah, sh'loshim, and yud bais chodesh (for parents) not only is a catharsis of sorrow, but also an experience of self-judgement and teshuvah. The aching heart is a contrite heart, and a contrite heart seeks atonement."

From this perspective, we now can appreciate the words of the Shulchan Aruch regarding the goals of hesped and how ideally it is to be performed. The maspid is directed to deliver words that "break the heart" and that lead to tears because we want to break the person down, to induce tears, all in the manner of leading the living to do t'shuvah. And we retell the shevach of the niftar so that we can learn from the way he conducted his life in order for us to emulate him and do better.

         (b) Hesped as a defense of the dead

The second approach to understanding hesped is based on the words of Rav Yehudah HaNassi ("Rebbe") (in K'suvos 103a) who, prior to his death, exhorted to all: "Al tispiduni baayaros" -- do not eulogize me in small villages. As Rashi explains, Rebbe asked that he not be eulogized only in small villages; rather, he sought to be eulogized in large cities before as many people as possible.

Why did Rebbe make this request? If, as a simple and first blush understanding of the g'marah which relates this story seems to indicate, Rebbe was seeking greater honor, such a desire would be uncharacteristic in light of the g'marah (Sotah 49a) that declared that with the passing of Rebbe modesty ceased to exist.[10]

Rabbi Chaim Dovid HaLevi in the M'kor Chayim discusses Rebbe's request and explains it in view of the purposes that the mitzvah of hesped serve.[11]

According to the M'kor Chayim, hesped is a means through which we reaffirm our belief in the continued existence of the soul -- the n'shamah -- in the Next World after the expiration of life on this earth. How so? The M'kor Chayim explains that the main reason for eulogizing the dead is for the deceased himself. The reason that we cry, recount his praises and recall his good deeds is because it is as if we are representing him and pleading his case before the Heavenly Court. As Koheles Rabbah on the verse in Koheles (12,13) "vSof davar hakol nishma" -- In the end everything is heard -- says:
B'shaah sheadam niftar min haolam hakadosh baruch hu omer l'malachai hashares, reuu mah habryios omros alav.

When a person passes on from this world, G-d says to the angels, [go] see what the people say about him.
Similarly, as is brought down in Perkei Avos (3, 10):
Kol sheruach habryios nocheh heimenu, ruach hamakom nocheh heimenu.

He who is pleasing to man, is pleasing also to G-d.
Thus, explains the M'kor Chayim: "If people eulogize a man and extoll his virtues and good deeds, this causes a great benefit to his soul, which has an independent existence [after the person's death] and which is judged on the basis of the person's actions [during his lifetime] . . .." [Emphasis added.][12] Indeed, it can be for this very reason that the niftar is present at the hesped -- to hear his own defense -- as Rav said to Rav Shmuel bar Shilas (Shabbas 153a): "Be fervent in my hesped for I will be standing there" (i.e., as Rashi explains, amongst the mourners).

Based on this appreciation of the purpose of hesped, Rebbe's request for numerous eulogies in the populous cities can be readily understood precisely as an expression of his modesty -- he genuinely feared the Heavenly judgment, perhaps not giving himself due credit for his lifetime achievements in Torah, mitzvos, etc. Consequently he sought a wellspring of support in this world, through the many hespedim that would be delivered on his behalf. [At the same time, his request also is explicable in light of the first approach to understanding hesped -- namely, that it is predominately for the living to learn from the ways of the deceased and to do t'shuvah. In this regard, Rebbe wanted his eulogies to touch as many people as possible.]

         (c) Hesped as means for the living to do t'shuvah for the benefit of the deceased

The third and final approach to understanding hesped combines the first two, as expressed by the Anaf Yosef(found in the Ein Yaakov K'suvos 103a) on the g'marah mentioned above regarding Rav's request not to be eulogized in small cities:
And this is the way of hesped according to the knowledge of the m'kubalim. [Namely,] to specify the good deeds of the departed and to excite the people so that they will improve their ways [by being] jealous of the good deeds of the departed, and to take upon themselves to follow in his footsteps and path. And as a consequence, [through the emulation of the deceased's ways by the living] . . . the departed receives merit . . . for having bequeathed his good deeds [to others] for all time. [Emphasis added.]
The purposes of hesped according to this approach, therefore, are twofold: the hesped is intended (1) to spur the living to do t'shuvah (2) for the benefit of the dead.

Indeed, this is the underpinning of the concept in the g'marah (Sanhedrin 104a) that "b'ra m'zakeh aba" -- a son brings merit to his father through good deeds, learning Torah, etc. He does so because "b'ra kareih d'avuah" (cf. Eruvin70b), a son is considered an extension -- literally the leg -- of his father, either because the son and father are part and parcel of each other (i.e., are joined together) or because the father is considered the gorem, the cause, of his son's actions (i.e., since the son emulates him by following in his footsteps). In other words, the son's actions and accomplishments are considered as the father's and are credited to the father. See generally Sefer L'elui N'shamah, 2-5.[13]

But why does the g'marah analogize a son to be the "leg" of the father, as opposed to the arm or some other body part? The answer is that the dead are deemed to be stationary and without the ability to walk. See id., 5. It becomes incumbent on the son, therefore, to act as the legs of his departed father, to be able to carry him -- through the merits of good deeds and mitzvos -- upward toward the kisei hakavod (G-d's "seat of glory"). Id. This is the notion of "elui n'shamah" -- helping to raise the soul higher and higher to reach the kisei hakavod.

In fact, it is not sons alone who help the dead. The souls of the departed are assisted in their upward climb by the good deeds of all the living who follow in their ways or dedicate the merit of mitzvos on their behalf. As the Anaf Yosef (K'suvos 103a) continued in explaining the purposes of hesped:
[T]his is the benefit of hesped that the early chachamin insisted upon, like Rebbe who ordered that he be eulogized in the populous cities so that [the people] would not miss out latching on to his character traits.

And this is what Rav said to R' Shmuel bar Shilas, 'Eulogize me fervently for I will be standing there.' Because in the World to Come I am standing and I am not moving, and for this reason you should be fervent so that I will be able to move. And this fits well with Rashi's explanation, that [Rav] will be standing amongst the eulogizers, because . . . the departed clings to the souls [of the living] that return and do complete t'shuvah, and cling to the character traits [of those who t'shuvah] [and thus benefit themselves from such t'shuvah] by moving with them . . .. [Emphasis added.]
Thus, we all have the opportunity to assist the dead: by listening to their achievements as recited in the hesped and then by bringing them merit and the ability to elevate their souls by following in their paths and doing t'shuvah.

In light of this explanation, we now can suggest why the Shulchan Aruch characterized pidyon sh'vuyim, halvaah laaniyim and hesped, each as a "mitzvah g'dolah." In each case, the beneficiary of the mitzvah is in a status or state from which he cannot escape without the help of the benefactor. Respectively, the captive is in imprisonment; the poor in poverty; and the deceased stationary and in limbo (i.e., a mere "omed" who cannot move). In the performance of these mitzvos we help each out of their own quagmire -- a great mitzvah accomplishment , indeed.

Hesped as Related to the End of the Sh'loshim Period of Mourning

As noted above, according to the M'kor Chayim, the mitzvah of hesped serves to remind us of the existence of the n'shamah in olam habba. The purpose of the sh'loshim as a demarcation in the mourning period serves a similar purpose.

The M'kor Chayim[14] explains that the thirty day period of aveilus was set by Chazal in relation to the thirty day period of "z'man hischadshus hayaraiach," the time for the renewal of the moon. Just as the moon initially appears small, peaks in mid-month and then declines, so too is the pattern of man's life cycle -- born an infant, man grows and develops to his peak in mid-life, and then begins a descent which ends in death. But just as the moon after its thirty day cycle begins a renewal, likewise a person after death also experiences rebirth through the new existence of his soul in Olam HaBah.

  1. Mr. Kasdan is an attorney and founder of the "Jewish Law" web site located at He resides with his family in Silver Spring, MD.

  2. This article is an outgrowth and adaptation of a shiur delivered at the end of the sh'loshim period of a friend's father.

  3. Based on a computer search using the Bar Ilan Judaic Library on CD ROM.

  4. Yoreh Deaah, 252, 1.

  5. Choshen Mishpat, 97, 1.

  6. Although "y'karah" is translated by many as "kavod" (honor), see, e.g., Rambam Aveil 12,1, and thus by Soncino as "honor," the root "y'kar" is susceptible to a number of different interpretations including "respect," "dignity" and "value."

  7. The practical difference, according to the g'marah, occurs in two instances: (1) if the niftar declared that he did not want a hesped and (2) if the niftar had not so declared but the family (on whom the responsibility of hesped falls primarily, see Aruch HaShulchan Yoreh Deeah 344, 3) refuses to hire a maspid (as was the custom in Talmudic times). If hesped is in honor of the dead, in the first case the niftar had the right to waive his right to a hesped and no hesped is recited. However, in the second case, the family can be compelled to fulfill its duty to honor the departed and pay a maspid. The Rambam (Aveil 12,1), following the conclusion in the g'marah, holds that hesped is "kavod hamas."

  8. See Gesher HaChayim, Chelek Bais, Perek 9, "L'Inyanai hesped."

  9. The need for t'shuvah at the time of another's death is a subject that is beyond the scope of this writing. However, one reason, at least in the case of the passing of a parent, may be that the child assumes, or inherits, the sins of the departed, cf., "HaKadish: M'koro, Mashmauso V'dinav"153-54, thus necessitating the need for t'shuvah on his own and/or on the deceased's behalf (since the deceased is no longer in a position to do t'shuvah himself).

  10. The classic resolution to this seeming contradiction is posited by the Maharshah (K'suvos 103a, "Shema Mineh") who says that Rebbe's request was for the honor of Torah which Rebbe, as a leading scholar, represented.

  11. See generally M'kor Chayim Hashalem, vol. 5, Chapter 253 "Chiyuv hahesped v'Gadol S'charo."

  12. Id. at p.379.

  13. In general, the actions of the living may bring expiation for the souls of the departed based on the principle of "Kol Yisrael arevim ze laze," all Jews are responsible for each other. See Rabbeinu B'Chaye and the Baal Ha Turim on D'varim 21, 8 ("Kaper L'amcha Yisrael"). This principle extends to the relationship between the living and dead since it is based on the fact that all Jewish souls stem from the same source. See Tomar D'vorah 1,4.

  14. See note 11.

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