To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Fear of Death.

Day 32: The Fear of Death

"as little as the taking of a hair from the milk"

“as little as the taking of a hair from the milk”

Rabbi Seoram was at his brother Raba’s deathbed. Raba said, “Brother, please beg the Angel of Death not to cause me pain as I die!”

And Rabbi Seoram answered, “Aren’t you and the Angel of the Death old friends? Why not ask him?”

But Raba sighed heavily and said, “The Angel of Death has no respect for the dying.”

“Very well,” said Rabbi Seoram. “When the Angel of Death comes, I will plead to him for mercy. But promise me this: when you arrive on the other side, come back to me in a dream and show me the secret of life and death.”

Raba agreed, and shortly after their conversation, his brother Raba died. A few nights later, Raba appeared to Rabbi Seoram in a dream. “What was death like?” Rabbi Seoram begged. “Did you suffer great torment?”

“No,” said Raba. “I felt no more pain than the prick of a needle when a doctor draws blood. But let me tell you a story. When I was still alive, I sat at the deathbed of Rabbi Nahman, and made the same pact with him you made of me. I said to him, ‘When you die, come to me in a dream and show me the secrets of life and death.’ And Rabbi Nahman came to me in my dreams as he had promised. I asked him the same question you asked of me. ‘Did you suffer greatly, Rabbi Nahman?’ The rabbi answered thusly: ‘The Angel of Death came to me and drew my soul from my body. His touch was as light as a hand drawing a hair out of a jug of milk. However, even if God Almighty were to command me to return to earth and live again, I would refuse the Lord!’ I asked Rabbi Nahman, ‘Why would you refuse the Lord, who has commanded you to live again?’ ‘Because,’ Rabbi Nahman said, ‘my fear of death is that great.'”


The Myth’s Origins

This anecdote comes directly from the Talmud, Tractate Mo’ed Katan 28a, which speaks on the topic of death. This story makes a point to the reader that death is relatively painless: a short pinprick, and it’s done, as brief and soft as a finger drawing a hair from a jug of milk. And yet even knowing this, evening after having gone through this, these men still fear death. The implication that it is an inescapable fact of life: death is terrifying for all, even learned and holy men.


Some Thoughts on the Myth 

This a short but poignant passage in the Talmud, and I find this anecdote quite poetic. Death draws the soul from the body with as light a touch as one draws a hair from a jug of milk. The soul is not yanked free, torn away. It does not suffer great torment. Its release is easy. Yet the idea of death still haunts even the dead, so much so that they would refuse to live again. This story states that there are some things we will always fear, and there is nothing to be done to avert them.

It’s interesting to note, as Raba says, that the Angel of Death will not listen to the pleas of a dying man for mercy. Yet all people die in the same quick way, as a hand draws a hair from milk. So why does he wish for Rabbi Seoram to plead to the Angel of Death for mercy if Raba has already been told death is relatively painless? Because he still feels great terror at the prospect of dying. He understands his total helplessness in the face of death.

This brief anecdote is an almost psychological study into the mind of a dying person. In a few short sentences conveys a powerful message about death and acceptance. Suffering is just as much a part of life as happiness is, and we all, sooner or later, will suffer death as well. Even the most learned and holy men will still fear the Angel of Death when he comes knocking.


Tomorrow’s Myth: The Pargod, The Divine Curtain