A Fate Worse Than Death

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 11, 2009, issue of March 20, 2009.
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Susan Ganc writes that she has three “grave matters” to ask me about — and when she says “grave,” she means grave, the kind you’re buried in.

Let’s start with the first one. Recently, Ms. Ganc writes, she was reading, in Yiddish, Sholom Aleichem’s story “Khave” in his “Tevye the Dairyman,” and came across the expression khibet-hakever. Looking this up in Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, she found it defined as “In Jewish lore, the suffering of the dead sinner in his grave.” And she asks: “So what’s all this about? Clearly, in context, a terrible suffering, but just what is it referring to?”

The context in question is that Khave, Tevye’s third-youngest daughter, has married a gentile and been read out of the family by her father. Waiting for Tevye by a road in the woods, on which she knows he will pass with his wagon, she approaches him and seeks a rapprochement. But, though loving her dearly and aching to talk to her, he hardens his heart and drives by her. As he does, he thinks, in his anguish: Oyb s’iz mir bashert geven khibet-hakever, bin ikh shoyn gevis dermit opgekumn, mit di alle ibrige gebrente laydn vos vern bashribn bay unz in di haylige sforim — that is, “If I’m someday meant to undergo khibet-hakever, I’ve already been through it, along with all the other hellish sufferings described in our holy books.”

Kever is Hebrew for “grave,” and khibet comes from Hebrew h.ibbut, from the verb h.avat, to strike, hit, beat or flagellate; hence h.ibbut ha-kever means “the flagellation of the grave.” It refers to the belief, which developed among Jews in the Middle Ages, that after a dead person is buried, he or she is beaten by punishing angels in preliminary expiation of his or her sins. The best account of this can be found in “Masekhet h.ibbut ha-Kever,” a short treatise on the subject first published by the 16th-century Palestinian kabbalist Eliyahu de Vidas in his book “Reshit okhmah.” According to it, “When a person passes from this world, the Angel of Death comes and sits on his grave and strikes it with his hand and says, ‘Rise and say what your name is.’”

The corpse, the treatise tells us, is unable to remember its name, whereupon the Angel of Death “restores its breath and soul to its body. Then it is made to stand trial while the angel holds a chain that is half-fire and half-metal and strikes it once and convicts it…. With this first blow, its limbs fall apart; with a second, its bones separate. Then more angels come and reassemble it and strike it a third time until it is reduced to ashes….” Only then is the soul set free again to pursue its fate in the World To Come.

h.ibbut ha-Kever, in short, is a bit like going three rounds with an ill-tempered Mike Tyson, and there’s almost no way to get out of it. Even the righteous — “even newly weaned children and nursing infants,” our treatise says — are subjected to the ordeal, since no one is entirely sinless. The only exemptions given are to those who die on a Sabbath eve in the Land of Israel, presumably because the punishing angels there take Saturdays off. The bad news is that h.ibbut ha-kever’s sufferings “are worse than hell’s.” The good news is that for the deserving, whose purged souls can now proceed to heaven, they take the place of hell.

h.ibbut ha-Kever never became an actual article of Jewish faith, and in modern times it has been relegated to the domain of largely forgotten folk beliefs. Yet, among the New-Agey Orthodox, perhaps under the influence of the Tibetan “Book of the Dead,” there have been attempts to revive it by interpreting it symbolically. Thus, we are told by one such interpretation:

“The soul that has become too fully identified with the body through sensual indulgence finds it difficult to separate from it [after death]. To accompany the body to its final resting place and to behold the putrefaction and the decay is understandably too much for such souls. This state of being is known as hibbut ha-kever, the pain and anguish of the grave.”

Another modern commentary tells us:

“The soul of the worldly Jew strongly identifies with the body — an erroneous but powerful notion that makes watching the body undergo decay and be eaten by worms extremely unpleasant. However, this mental agony serves a purpose; it awakens the soul from its wrong assumptions and allows the separation from the body to occur.”

If such stuff is your cup of tea, you’re welcome to it. Tevye, I suspect, would have preferred taking his medicine straight: a couple of good angelic whacks and it’s over with. Still, I imagine that any soul would find it hard to part with its body after so many years of living together.

As for Ms. Ganc’s two other grave questions, I hope eventually to get around to them.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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