י״א באלול ה׳תשע״ב (August 29, 2012)

Berakhot 28a-b: Who Escorts Us to the Next World?

At the moment of death, who escorts us to the next world?

The Gemara on today’s daf relates that when on his deathbed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was visited by his students who asked him why he was crying and ultimately to be blessed by him. He responded by telling them that he was unsure whether he would be led to Gan Eden or to Gehinom, and that they should fear God as much as they fear man. After some discussion of these matters, the Gemara relates his final concerns:

At the time of his death, immediately beforehand, he said to them: Remove the vessels from the house and take them outside due to the ritual impurity that will be imparted by my corpse, which they would otherwise contract. And prepare a chair for Hezekiah, the King of Judea, who is coming from the upper world to accompany me.

Some say that it was specifically Hezekiah who appeared to Rabban Yoḥanan because he was one of his descendants (Rav Sa’adia Ga’on). Others say that Hezekiah appeared because Rabban Yoḥanan, like Hezekiah before him, brought about an increase in the Torah study among the Jews (see Mishlei 25:1).

This may also be interpreted symbolically. Hezekiah, as the representative of the royal House of David, was declaring that there is no anger over the fact that Rabbi Yoḥanan filled the position of in place of the descendants of Beit Hillel who were descendants of the House of David. It was also an allusion to the fact that the position of Nasi, the throne represented by the chair, would be restored to a descendant of the House of David, Rabban Gamliel (Tziyyun Le-Nefesh ayya). Rav Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog interprets the appearance of King Hezekiah as a message that although Hezekiah did not surrender when Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem, he approved of Rabban Yoḥanan’s concessions to Roman rule as timely, and that is why he came to accompany him.

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