The Mishnah continues to specify circumstances when one is exempt from reciting the Shema. Beginning on 17b, we have the obligations (and exemptions) of participants in a funeral procession, which naturally leads to a discussion of other mitzvos that may be set aside for the sake of burying a corpse. Since contact with a corpse may result in a state of ritual contamination that would preclude participating in some prayers and other mitzvot, this leads to a discussion of other states of contamination and how they would affect one's obligation to recite the Shema.
As a nonobservant Jew, I am much more interested in the collateral issues that emerge from this discussion, especially rabbinic notions of the dignity of a corpse and its awareness of events in this world . . . and the next. And, by extension our awareness of events in this world and the next.
Wordplay abounds in this section. It is noteworthy, for example, that the exemption from reciting the Shema when there is a body before you applies both to one who is literally in the presence of a corpse and also to the close relative of the unburied corpse ("as long as he is responsible to bury the body it is as if it lies before him"). For the former, the exemption comes from the prohibition against mocking a pauper ("one who mocks a pauper blasphemes his Maker"): reciting the Shema in the presence of a corpse, which is incapable of reciting the Shema, "mocks" the corpse. For the latter, the obligation to bury supercedes all other obligations, creating an exemption because of the urgency that marks this task as having primacy over all other competing obligations.
The ideal code of conduct described herein does, however, have its own exceptions. On the practical level, if one is being pursued by gentiles or bandits, one is permitted to flee, riding a donkey "while sitting astride the bones." And as for not mocking a pauper, R'Yitzchak (19a) said,
If anyone disparages a dead person it is as if he disparaged a stone.The gemara also suggests that the terms "living" and "dead" may have a spiritual connotation, with the righteous "who even after their death are yet called living" (18a) and the wicked "who even in their lifetime are called dead" (18b). Thus, our text takes multiple and contradictory positions on what it means to be alive and dead and what it means to attend to a corpse. Its purpose is apparently to catalog related teachings, not to declare any one approach to be the authoritative rabbinic position.
. . . Some say that this is because the dead do not know what is said about them while others say that they do know but they do not care.
I Hear Dead People
R'Yitzchak (the same R'Titzchak who compared the dead to stones?) says that "The worm is as painful to the dead as a needle to living flesh." Rather than dwelling on this incredibly disturbing notion, the gemara accepts it but wonders if the dead are aware of the pain of others or of the affairs of the world.
This leads to a story about "a certain pious man" who got such grief from his wife when he gave a coin to a poor man on the eve of Rosh Hashanah that he went to spend the night in the cemetery. There he overheard the spirits of two children, one of whom suggests that they roam the world "and hear from behind the curtain what misfortune is to come to the world this year." The other is reluctant to go because she is ashamed of the condition of her shroud and encourages her friend to go alone and come back with the news from the other side. When she returns she reports that crops planted at the first rain will be destroyed by hail. The pious man overhears this and waits until the second rain to plant his crops, and his crops prosper when everyone else's are destroyed. The next year he goes again to the cemetery and again hears these two spirits. Again, one is reluctant to go so the other goes without her and this time reports that those who plant at the second rain "will be blasted by a dry wind." The pious man overhears this and plants at the first rain and his crops are not blasted. After these two years of agricultural success, his wife becomes curious as to how her husband has suddenly become such a good farmer and he tells her about the spirits. A few days later the wife gets into an argument with the mother of the spirit whose shroud was tattered and alludes to her daughter to humble the mother. The next year when the man returns to the cemetery and the spirits again talk of seeking word from the other side, the one who had the tattered shroud replies to her friend, "Leave me be! The words that we spoke between ourselves in years past have already been heard among the living."
The gemara suggests that this story proves that the dead know what is spoken by the living, but it rejects this as a proof since it is also possible that someone died in the course of the year and told them about the quarrel. However, the gemara does not question the underlying premise of the story (dead people are aware of something), even though it has also presented R'Yitzchak's teaching that the dead are like stones. As my reed chopper suggested, aggadic material is not seriously meant to prove anything, but it does seem to me that in a system where scripture is forced to justify practice, and the tone offers no clue as to whether or not the intention is serious, this distinction is a technicality at most.
A Deeper Sense of Loss
The question that follows is especially poignant:
Rav Pappa said to Abaye: What was different about earlier generations, for whom miracles occurred, and what is different about us, for whom miracles do not occur?It seems like there is a terribly modern question buried here: the question being something like, how is it that earlier generations could believe in miracles when we cannot? Perhaps the "enlightenment" was not a one-time-only historical occurrence, but a recurrence that made a breach between this and that every few generations.