In Death and After Death
Rabbi Jochanan ben Saccai was president of the Sanhedrin for two years. As he was on his deathbed, it is written in the Talmud that when his disciples came to see him that he burst into tears. He was such a religious man that he was known as “the light of Israel, the right pillar of the Temple, and its mighty hammer”. When they asked why he was crying, he showed tremendous signs of fear and replied: “If I were now to be brought before an earthly king, who lives today and dies tomorrow, whose wrath and whose bonds are not everlasting and whose sentence of death, even, is not that to everlasting death, who can be assuaged by arguments, or perhaps bought off by money — I should tremble and weep; how much more reason have I for it, when about to be led before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, Who liveth and abideth for ever, Whose chains are for evermore, and Whose sentence of death killeth forever, Whom I cannot assuage with words, nor bribe by money! And not only so, but there are before me two ways, one to paradise and the other to hell, and I know not which of the two ways I shall have to go – whether to paradise or to hell: how, then, shall I not shed tears?”
Side by side with this we also read the opposite saying of R. Jehudah, called the Holy, who, when he died, lifted up both his hands to heaven, protesting that none of those ten fingers had broken the law of God! It is difficult to say which one of these is more contrary to the light and liberty of the Gospel – the utter hopelessness of the one, or the apparent presumption of the other.
The voices of the Rabbis were very contradictory in view of the great problems of humanity: sin, sickness, death, and the hereafter.
When the disciples asked Jesus about “the man who was blind from his birth”, they naturally assumed that either he or his parents had sinned. It was a devout Jewish belief that children either benefited or suffered from the spiritual state of their parents. They also held that an unborn child might contract guilt or evil disposition from a parent. Any kind of sickness was regarded as the punishment for sin and its atonement for sin.
The Rabbis were keen observers of the laws of health, and their regulations were often far in advance of modern practice. In Egypt, they had really concentrated on diseases and medicine, and almost every disease had its own physician which specialized in that particular disease. In some ways, Israel must have followed in these same practices, as the Bible speaks of the woman who had spent all her substance and suffered much from physicians. Also Luke was a physician and among the regular Temple officials was a medical man whose duty it was to attend the priests.
The Rabbis ordained that every town must have at least one physician who could practice both medicine and do surgery, or one of each. Some of the Rabbis themselves engaged in medical pursuits. To employ a heretic, or Hebrew Christian, was specifically prohibited, though a heathen could be called in if needed.
There are some sayings that are Jewish such as “Physician, heal thyself”, which is a Jewish proverb. They also had a saying “Live not in a city whose chief is a medical man” – he will attend to public business and neglect his patients. There were also many bad treatments given out for the patients of the day. Some of them even killed the patient.
The medicines recommended were generally hygienic, but either purely medical, sympathetic, or even magical. The prescriptions consisted of simples or of compounds, vegetables being far more used than minerals. Cold water compresses, external and internal use of oil and wine, medicated baths, a certain diet indicated in special diseases. Goat’s milk and barley-porridge were recommended in all diseases attended by wasting. Jewish surgeons seem even to have known how to operate for cataracts of the eye.
Ordinarily, life was expected to be long and full, and death was regarded as alike for punishment for and expiation of sin. To die within 50 years of age was to be cut off; within 52 was to die the death of Samuel the prophet; at 60, it was regarded as death at the hands of Heaven; at 70, as that of an old man; and at 80, as that of strength.
Premature death was likened to the falling off of unripe fruit, or the extinction of a candle. To depart without having a son was to die, otherwise it was to fall asleep. David was considered to have fallen asleep, and Joab was considered to die.
If a person had finished his work, his death was regarded as righteous and was gathered to his fathers. Tradition has it that there were 902 different kinds of dying. The worst of these was angina, which was compared to tearing out a thread from a piece of wool; while the sweetest and gentlest, which was compared to drawing a hair out of milk, was called “death by a kiss”.
There were six people that it was said that the “angel of death” had no power over- Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – because they had seen their work quite completed; and Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, who had died by “the kiss of God”.
If premature death was the punishment of sin, the righteous died because others were to carry on their work – Joshua on that of Moses, Solomon on that of David, etc. There were also certain signs that were noted as to the time and manner of dying.
sudden death was called being swallowed up
death after one day’s illness – rejection
death after two days’ illness – despair
death after four days’ illness – reproof
death after five days’ illness – a natural death
Similarly, the posture of the dying was carefully marked.
to die with a smile, happy countenance, or looking upward was considered a good omen
to look downward, to seem disturbed, to weep, or even to turn to the wall, were considered evil signs
On recovering from an illness, one was to return special thanks to God. It was also a curious superstition that if anyone announced his illness on the first day of its occurrence, it might tend to make him worse. Only on the second day should prayers be offered for him. This last custom throws much light on the practice referred to in James 5: 14. It was the custom to anoint the sick with a mixture of oil, wine, and water, with this preparation even being allowed on the Sabbath.
In Matthew 25:36, Jesus mentioned visitation of the sick among the evidences of that religion which would stand the test of the judgment day. This was a principle that was universally acknowledged among the Jews. The great Jewish doctor Maimonides held that this duty took precedence over all other good works. The Talmud even goes so far as to say that whoever visited the sick shall deliver his soul from Gehenna.
The Rabbis felt that people should imitate what they read in Scripture that God did. They said that God clothed the naked, visited the sick, and buried the dead. They felt that these writings from Genesis gave them an example of what they should do to follow in His footsteps. They felt that if they did these things for others, it would take away part of their own suffering. It was a very important part of their lives to take care of and visit the sick.
In the next part we will follow how they buried the dead and all the preparations and care they went through to do a proper job.