The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 15

I arrived at my parents’ home very early in the morning on the day of the funeral, hours before my mother and my brother awoke. The house was arranged for shiva, unreal, quiet. Chairs that weren’t ours were arranged throughout the first floor; and disposable cups, plates, and utensils were lying near a hot water urn that I’d never seen before. Everything was foreign and familiar.

That was the first that I went into my father’s office, feeling that this would somehow reconstitute him. His office contained much of his life; it was where he had spent most of his days for nearly two decades, working on his website and corresponding with mathematicians the world over. Unlike the rest of the house, his office was almost exactly as I’d remembered it. The same dark, wooden desk, the same reupholstered, yet sunken armchair, the same bookcases with all of the same tchotchkes in front of exactly the same math and science books.

His large, knitted black yarmulke was lying neatly, folded in quarters on a bookshelf, waiting for Shabbat dinner later that week. It was the first of many things that I took of his, but it was the only item that I was taking back from him. Its green sister was still at my apartment in Jerusalem, much worse for the wear.

During a summer of yeshiva in Jerusalem in my college years, I’d grown fond of the large, knitted yarmulkes so prevalent on the Israeli street and requested that my aunt in Modi’in send me some for my twenty-first birthday. The two beautiful specimens arrived by mail, and my father somewhat organically appropriated one of them. I accepted this. After all, I was going through one of my many self-exploratory phases and had stopped covering my head throughout the day. I had no actual need for two yarmulkes.

In that predawn, prefuneral light, I instinctively took the black yarmulke gingerly off my father’s shelf and inspected it. Some eighteen years later, it remained crisp and clean, having mostly served my father for short stretches on Shabbat and holidays; it had never been bleached and frayed by Israeli sun and sand. This, I decided, would now be mine for Shabbat and holidays.

A few weeks later, back at home in Jerusalem, I dug out the worn, green yarmulke, which had arrived with its sister from Modi’in so many years ago. As I retrieved it, my mind drifted back to an earnest explanation of the famed ‘Twin Paradox’, which my father raised with me more than once over dinner.

* * *

I wear my father’s cap; my father’s yarmulke; my father’s watch; his house shoes.

My kaddish blogging project hadn’t been born yet when I was in America for the shiva, and the details of Jewish mourning were hazy; what should I do? What shouldn’t I do? (I’ve learned much since in the course of research.)

My aunt in Modi’in told me that I shouldn’t wear my father’s shoes; it is a bad omen, she said. I was speaking with her on the telephone, wearing my father’s Crocs, which he had worn around the house. I remembered him wearing them last summer at our Jerusalem apartment. Ok, I said, I’ll take them off, but I didn’t. (I didn’t want to worry her.)

I decided to ask the rabbi who had conducted my father’s funeral. You can wear his clothing, he responded, but some people hold by a tradition of not wearing a dead man’s shoes. There are different interpretations. Most of what Jews do as mourners is minhag (tradition), rather than halakha (law).

I wanted to know more, and the Internet obliged.

Online research brought up a lot of information, and one website offered six or seven different interpretations on the matter. (Unfortunately, I can no longer find that particular link, but I’ve since found other resources.) Rabbi David Golinkin, a halakhist for whom I have much respect, rules as follows (link):

There is a widespread custom of throwing out the shoes of the deceased. Wouldn’t it be preferable to donate such shoes to tzedakah?

This custom is not mentioned in the Shulkhan Arukh… It is first mentioned in the nineteenth century: “People consider it dangerous to wear the shoes of the dead” (Mishmeret Shalom). Some go even further: “They cut them up into thin little pieces which are discarded or burned” (Atzei Levanon).

What is the source of this surprising custom? Many have pointed to a passage in Sefer Hassidim (Germany, 13th century)…

Some rabbis suggest that Sefer Hassidim was afraid of contagious diseases and therefore one need only discard shoes worn by the deceased at the time of his illness or death…

There is, however, one simple explanation of this passage, which was suggested independently by six different rabbis. They suggest… one was given shoes manufactured from carcass of a ‘metah’ or dead animal and the source of the matter is the following beraita (Hullin 94a):

‘Our rabbis have taught: one should not sell his friend a sandal made from an animal who died… because of danger (Rashi: lest the animal died if snakebite and the poison was absorbed in its hide).’

This explanation is clearly the intent of Sefer Hassidim…. shoes made from a carcass… are dangerous lest the animal died of snakebite. Rabbi Tzirelson, for example, concludes: ‘Thus the whole custom of discarding the shoes of the dead has fallen into a pit (i.e. has no basis whatsoever)’.

My father’s house shoes are not of leather, nor was he wearing them when he died. Besides, I am disdainful of superstition and skeptical of the unprovable. I wear my father’s cap; his yarmulke; his watch; his house shoes, but I wish that he were wearing them instead. He will never be reconstituted.

* * *

I’m not one to assign meanings to coincidences, but the timing of particular events before my father’s death was uncanny. In no particular order:

  • My father completed the manuscript for his first (and ultimately only) book, which will be published in 2019.
  • My daughter awoke two days before he died, thinking that Dedushka Shurik was with her in the apartment. My wife explained that it was a dream, and she tried calling my father in America so that our little girl could speak with her grandfather, but he had already gone to bed. Learning of this, my father glowed with love and pride for what turned out be his final two days in this world, telling everybody that he spoke with that his granddaughter had dreamed of him.
  • My brother, who had been living away from home that summer, returned to live with my parents due to problems with campus housing. He was present at the hospital when our father passed away.
  • On the night before he passed away, my father, usually averse to crowds and parties, decided to go with my brother and mother to a friend’s home on the shore to watch a brilliant, beautiful fireworks display. It was the last thing he would see before waking up with shortness of breath the following morning.
  • Several days before my father died, and after three years of soulful struggling with being unable to pray, I had begun praying again privately in my home. I had no inkling that I would soon be reciting kaddish every day for my father, but my gates of prayer had already been unbolted when the time came; I didn’t feel forced into prayer by kaddish.

6 thoughts on “The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 15”

  1. Such a moving post, David. It’s hard to know what to say. Best not to say anything, perhaps (or am I being entirely too British?).
    I love coincidences; and I love the list of coincidences here. Such a lovely thought, that your father was in a glow of happiness before he died.
    My own personal coincidence: my husband and I attended the same (huge) school at the same time as teenagers, but only met in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, South Africa, six thousand miles away.

    1. my husband and I attended the same (huge) school at the same time as teenagers, but only met in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, South Africa, six thousand miles away.

      I’ve got one for you too, Linda 😀

      My Mom & Dad emigrated from the USSR on the same plane (she was flying with her parents & sister from Lithuania; he was flying by himself from Moscow) – but they didn’t know one another. A couple years later they were introduced to one another by mutual friends while they were university students in Jerusalem. Not bad, eh? 🙂


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