'Oy, when shall we see his like?'
A walk through Mea She'arim reveals a highly developed form of prose, unique to the Haredi community - flowery death announcements that compare the deceased to prophets, lions and the sages of yore.
One of the more interesting walking routes from West to East Jerusalem passes through Geula Street and the Mea She'arim neighborhood. This is the center of life for the city's Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population, and along the way the walker continually encounters large wall posters. After passing the Israel Television building and then heading east past the Schneller army base, one arrives at Shabbat Square, and after that bustling junction is the bare wall of a series of buildings with no stores and no entrances to stairwells. The entire wall, which stretches a few dozen meters, serves as one huge bulletin board, and is covered with posters, most of which are death notices.
Anyone who is not familiar with the arcane customs and language of the Torah world will be taken aback by the sheer number of posters and their style. They are a rich and diverse compendium of ornate language, evocative phrases and metaphors culled from the entire range of Jewish sacred literature: the Torah, the ancient sages, the Gemara and kabbala. Often they employ Aramaic. Only a scholar versed in religious law will understand.
Over the past few weeks I jotted down some of the descriptive phrases in the death announcements, and I soon had a list of nearly 200 terms referring to the deceased, his standing in the community and the manner of his death. It is all expressed by means of imagery from the world of the Torah, which often functions like a secret code.
Passersby helped me decipher some of the death notices. But I also turned to an expert on the subject, who understands the posters no less well than their authors: Prof. Menachem Friedman, from Bar-Ilan University, who has researched Haredi society extensively and is now completing a study of what he calls the "wall literature" of the "poster people."
According to Friedman, wall posters in general, and death notices in particular, are disappearing from the non-Haredi cityscape of modern Israel. The deceased's family generally prints two or three notices and puts them up at the entrance to their home in order to guide visitors during the shivah, the seven-day mourning period. In some cases additional posters will be put up in the neighborhood center and at the deceased's place of employment. In northern Jerusalem, however, and in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, outside Tel Aviv, posters continue to play a paramount social and cultural role. Death notices are an important tool of communication in Haredi society, uniting the ranks of the community around the supreme values of what Friedman calls the "society of learners."
A lot of oy vey
The first thing that strikes the eye is that mourning notices on the Haredi street do not have black borders. The death announcements in the Haredi press are black-bordered, but not those on the street, where the use of a black border is considered a gentile influence (the same holds for the laying of floral wreaths in cemeteries). If the deceased was a male, his name will be followed by the letters zayin and lamed - an abbreviation for "zikhrono lebrakha" (of blessed memory) or by zayin, tzadi, lamed - zekher tzaddik lebrakhah (of blessed and pious memory). These blessings are never used for women: Their names are followed only by aleph heh - the abbreviation for "aleha hashalom" (may she rest in peace).
The difference is clear, though it is not certain that "of blessed memory" is more respectable than "may she rest in peace." I scoured the notices diligently but never found the word "died." The deceased is euphemistically said to have "departed into the secret recesses of the heavens," "been gathered unto heaven" or "departed to the heavenly heights."
In some cases a hint appears of the cause of death. As everyone knows, the main causes of death nowadays are heart attacks and cancer. The death notices in the country's major newspapers (Haaretz, Ma'ariv, Yedioth Ahronoth) sometimes say that a person who died of a heart attack passed away suddenly; cancer victims are said to have "died from a serious illness." Furman, the veteran print setter of the now-defunct daily Davar, used to say, as he laid out death notices, that they "liven up the page," and in his view there was no need to state that someone had died from a serious illness, as no one dies from a trifling illness.
Be that as it may, the Haredi notices say nothing about "sudden" or "premature" death. A person who died of cancer is said to have been "purified by bitter torments, which he accepted lovingly." To die of a heart attack is to be "snatched away." Someone on the street told me that in some cases the phrase "rose to heaven in a whirlwind" also refers to sudden death, but apparently the intention is to elevate the deceased to the stature of the prophet Elijah (II Kings 2).
There are countless expressions of grief used for the death of loved ones. To an outside observer like me, the phrases seem amazingly dramatic and florid. I asked a yeshiva student who was reading death notices, which often draw many passersby on the street, why the grief imagery is so dramatic. He replied to my question with a question: "So what do you think, death is not dramatic?"
There is much "oy veying" using quotes from the Bible and rabbinical literature in the wall notices. Here are a few examples I jotted down this past month from three posters: "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof," "Woe unto the ship that has lost its captain," "Zion shall weep bitterly and Jerusalem lift its voice," "Tears shall flow from our eyes and from our eyelashes water shall run," "Let every eye weep and every heart groan," "Broken and shattered, afflicted and demolished by the fire of God's burning," "How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!"
Victory of the angels
The more learned in Torah the deceased was, and the higher his standing, the larger the poster and the richer and more gushing the phraseology. One expression widely used at the head of a death notice is "Nitzhu erelim et metsukim" (meaning, the angels on high overcame the great ones below and took the deceased unto them). To which is added, "And the Holy Ark is taken" (that is, in the war with the Philistines). In the neighborhood where I grew up in Jerusalem, there was a boy named Meir whose whole world was soccer, and specifically, the Betar Jerusalem team. It was said that when he saw the phrase "Nitzhu erelim et metsukim," he asked, "What was the score?"
The richest language in the death notices is reserved for the eulogy of the deceased. If he was an ordinary person, it might be said of him that "Morning and evening he was in synagogues and halls of learning." You can't really make a big deal of going to synagogue, so the eulogy adds, "His prayer was pure, like a son who cleanses himself before his father," or that he was "perfect in his virtues," "dehil hata'in" ("shunned sin," in Aramaic), "clung to his Creator," or "Oy, when shall we see his like?"
The praises heaped on yeshiva heads, community activists, the wealthy and Torah sages can be divided into two types. The first speaks of the person's character, meaning his virtues. A perusal of the notices shows that the most important traits in which the deceased could have excelled are modesty and humility. In almost every case, "His humility was praiseworthy" or "He was of bent knee." This is accompanied by a passage from Tractate Sanhedrin in the Talmud, "Bent he entered and bent he departed, studied Torah greatly and asked nothing for himself."
According to Prof. Friedman, humility is a particularly broad trait, which involves swallowing one's pride, and it encompasses a large number of virtues. To it, for example, can be added asceticism, which finds expression in phrases such as "He scorned all the pleasures of this world," and in one case I saw the addition, "to the point where he did not look even at the form of a coin."
Extremist Haredim, who are eulogized with the words "Among the pure-minded of Jerusalem," also "did not enjoy any of the pleasures of the apostate government," meaning they rejected the Israeli government budgets earmarked for yeshivas. There are clear phrases that are reserved for the wealthy who have contributed to the community and its houses of learning, such as "the exalted prince." A philanthropist may also be described as "chief of charity and mercy," "father of the oppressed and supporter of the brokenhearted," "generous magnate, crowned with a good name." A person described as "an ember plucked from the fire" or as one "who drank from the poisoned cup" (the cup of bitterness) was, in this code, a Holocaust survivor.
One of the greatest virtues that can be attributed to the deceased is to be linked with Torah sages from the past. For example, "among the remnants of the old generation," or "a glorious figure from the past generation," and in Aramaic, "kahed mikamaei" (an echo of the first ones). However, the most common epithets for those who are hailed as the continuers of past generations are "among the remnants of the Great Sanhedrin" (the supreme body of Judaism in the Second Temple period) and also those who heard and conveyed to us the knowledge of the giants of the past.
The noblest descriptions in the death notices of the "society of learners" are set aside for Torah sages. There is no limit to the praises heaped on them. They are likened to "Yachin and Boaz," the two pillars of the Temple, to the "cedars of Lebanon" or the "light of Israel," "the right-hand pillar" and "patish hehazak" (literally "the strong hammer"), the last two being epithets used by the pupils of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai to describe him. They are called "the lion of the group," "bastion and tower," "great light of the dominion of Torah" and "captain of the army in the kingdom of Torah."
Those who learned well "negotiated in Torah," meaning they engaged in give-and-take with their fellow students. The main epithets here are "erudite scholar who uprooted and ground mountains together" (meaning a powerful debater), or "dived into tremendous waters" - not a member of the naval commandos but one who immersed himself in the sea of the Talmud. Those who do not belong to the Haredi community may find the style of these posters exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Menachem Friedman explains that in the face of death's terrors, such exaggeration is apparently necessary. And Haredi society takes very seriously the order of the names of three successive weekly Torah portions from Leviticus: Aharei mot, Kedoshim, Emor - which mean, literally, "After the death [of] holy ones[,] say."