כ״ז באב ה׳תשע״ב (August 15, 2012)

Berakhot 14a-b: Burial in the Time of the Mishna

Jewish law recognizes the significance of death and mourning, so that involvement in burial will free an individual even from such important commandments as the recitation of the Shema. The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a baraita that teaches:

One who digs a grave for the dead in the wall of the family burial cave is exempt from the recitation of Shema, from prayer, from phylacteries, and from all mitzvot mentioned in the Torah. When the appointed time for the recitation of Shema arrives, he emerges from the cave, washes his hands, dons phylacteries, recites Shema, and prays.

The Gemara points out that the baraita itself is difficult and it appears to be contradictory:
The first clause of the baraita stated that one digging a grave is exempt from the recitation of Shema, and the latter clause stated that he is obligated to emerge and recite Shema.
The Gemara responds: That is not difficult. The latter clause of the baraita refers to a case of two individuals digging the grave together; one pauses to recite Shema while the other continues digging. The first clause of the baraita refers to a case of one individual digging alone, who may not stop.

According to traditional burial practice during Mishnaic times, the coffins, or sarcophagi, were placed in compartments chiseled in cave walls. The grave would typically be hewn long in advance; however, on occasion they would only begin to dig when the individual died, in which case the work was urgent.

There is an apparent redundancy in the baraita as it teaches that one is exempt from the recitation of Shema and from all mitzvot mentioned in the Torah. Given that the recitation of Shema is, itself, a mitzvah mentioned in the Torah, its mention was unnecessary. Tosefot Rabbeinu Yehuda HaḤasid explain that had the baraita merely stated: From all mitzvot mentioned in the Torah, one might have drawn the erroneous conclusion that it is referring only to those mitzvot with no set time, which may, therefore, be postponed; not to mitzvot like Shema whose time will pass.

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