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  • FYI 🙂

    Dr. Gilead Sasson

    Department of Talmud, Center for Basic Jewish Studies, and Safed College

    There is a tradition that King David died on the holiday of Shavuot. The story of his demise appears in two different versions, one in the Babylonian Talmud, the other in Midrash Ruth Rabbah, which comes from the land of Israel. Below we shall try to explain the differences between the versions in light of the specific biases of the narrators.

    We find one version of the story in Tractate Shabbat, in the context of a sermon by Rabbi Tanhuma bar Abba. [1] Rabbi Tanhuma was asked if one may put out a lamp on the Sabbath in order to ease the plight of a sick person, on the grounds of piku’ah nefesh, i.e., a life-threatening situation. Taking advantage of this question, he embarks on a sermon dealing with the value of life and the attitude towards the departed. The text which he expounds is Ecclesiastes 9:4: “Even a live dog is better than a dead lion,” from which he proceeds to tell the story about King David’s death.

    The story has two parts: the first is a conversation between David and the Lord at some unknown point in time, in the course of which David attempts to find out details concerning the day of his death from the Almighty. The second part tells of King David’s death and Solomon’s behavior after his father’s passing. We are primarily interested in the second part of this story (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30a-b):

    Every Sabbath David used to sit and study the entire day. On the day that he was to die, the Angel of Death came to him but could not kill him, for his [David’s] mouth never ceased from his recitation. He [the Angel of Death] said: what shall I do to him? He [David] had a garden behind his house; so the Angel of Death came and made the trees rustle, and David came out to see. When David descended the stairs [to the garden] a step fell out from under him, he was silenced, and his soul departed. [2]

    Solomon sent to the Beit Midrash [asking]: My father has died [on the Sabbath] and is lying out in the sun, and the dogs of father’s house are hungry; what shall I do? They sent back [an answer]: cut up a carcass and place it before the dogs; as for your father, place a loaf of bread or a baby on him, and carry him away. Did not Solomon put it aptly: “Better a live dog than a dead lion”?

    The verse from Ecclesiastes says that a dead lion is of less value than a live dog, and the story about David’s death serves to confirm this verse. David is described as a Torah scholar who never ceased his studies, yet despite his greatness, after death he was like a dead lion, the dogs being more important than him. Confirmation of this claim is found in the laws of the Sabbath that prohibit handling a dead person, since after his soul has departed he is no longer a human being, but simply a useless vessel.

    The Carcass and the Corpse

    The rabbis of the Sanhedrin were sitting in the Beit Midrash and were addressed by Solomon with a halakhic question: what should he do with his father’s corpse, since there was a danger that hungry dogs would harm it? Solomon first asked concerning his deceased father, who was close to his heart, and afterwards about the dogs. The rabbis of the Sanhedrin, however, responded first about what to do with the dogs, and only afterwards about what he should do with David, thereby underscoring the message that the live dogs were more important than the dead king. Also the substance of their answer indicates preference to the dogs over David; he must see to feeding the dogs, and to this end one may cut up a carcass on the Sabbath. [3] The corpse, in contrast, is a carcass that may only be moved if it is made into a means for moving something else of which one has need. [4] Thus, the order of the answers and the ruling itself clarify the verse about the value of a live dog being greater than a dead lion.

    To sum up, according to the story in the Babylonian Talmud, a live person is superior to the dead since he can study the Torah and observe the commandments. [5] The story about King David dying on the Sabbath gives the Babylonian Talmud the opportunity to convey this message, founded on earlier sources (the Tosefta, the Mishnah, and a halakhic discussion in the gemara).

  • John McGrath

    Every public speaker should learn to parise something without knocking another. The worst rhetorical tropes – unless you mean to offend – are along the lines of comparisons. The pope should know this. Reserve negative comments for wrong doing and injustice. Of course this not apply to me, I’m just a silly old man, with no public function, so I can say stupid things, thank you very much.

  • John McGrath

    Thank you. Wonderful story.

  • Richard North

    All: Please read Erica Gies’ article in Forbes. There is no shortage of people in the world.

    Rich North

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