By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
“You’re doing construction? Don’t close off that window!”
“Don’t you dare go out with her! She has the same name as your mother!”
“If you left and forgot something, don’t go back for it!”
We have all heard many of these exhortations before. They are found in the ethical will (tzava’ah) of Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid, written by Rav Yehudah ben Shmuel of Regensburg. And the tzava’ah is followed in many circles among religious Jews.
There are 78 clauses, or tzava’os, in it—each one with numerous reasons brought down and with many exceptions. The ambiguity is not just in terms of scholarship—there is much debate as to the correct text of it as well. There are six different manuscripts of the work, located in scholarly libraries across the world such as Venice, Oxford, Milan, etc.
Many, if not most, of these exhortations have found their way into normative Jewish practice. They are cited by the ShulchanAruch, the ChochmasAdam, the KitzurShulchanAruch, and the AruchHaShulchan. Some that did not make it into the ShulchanAruch itself have been passed down the generations in families for centuries. Don’t all of us recall hearing at least one of them from our bubbes and zeides? American Jewish history, for example, is filled with anecdotes of name changes in order to fulfill the ethical will of Rav Yehudah HaChassid.
Rav Yehudah HaChassid was born in Speyer in 1140 and passed away on February 22, 1217, in Regensburg. He was the founder of the ChassideiAshkenaz and was the rebbe of many of our greatest Rishonim. Among those who became famous were Rav Eleazar of Worms, author of the Rokeiach; Rav Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, author of Or Zarua; and Rav Baruch ben Samuel of Mainz, author of Sefer haChochmah.
Each of the clauses, or tzava’os, was written by Rav Yehudah HaChassid in apodictic form—without providing the explanations for them. What then are the “whys” for these instructions? We can find them, or most of them, in the works of the mefarshim who cite Rav Yehudah HaChassid.
A newly annotated version of the tzava’ah was recently printed by Otzer HaPoskim in Israel. It was done under the editorship of Rabbi Shimon Gutman. For the first time, we can see in one edition all the manuscript versions available and compare them.
Below is a brief overview in English of each of the 78 clauses, paraphrased for the reader’s convenience. An explanation follows (in italics).
1. Not to bury two enemies next to each other. Because even in death they will have no rest (Milan manuscript).
2. Not to open up graves and leave them open unless the deceased is put in that day. Doing so can cause others to die on account of impure forces unleashed (Maaver Yabok ch. 12).
3. Not to put a coffin on top of another coffin that has a body in it. Because the dead unleash a powerful negative spiritual force (Shiltei Giborim).
4. Not to kiss a child that passed away. There is an impure force that clings on to one who kisses the deceased (cf. Or HaChaim Bereishis 50:1).
5. If a woman who engaged in certain horrific activities dies with her mouth open, dirt must be placed in her mouth so that she not continue. The manuscript versions indicate a concern for the practice of witchcraft and a type of vampirism (Yair Hoffman).
6. When one performs a taharah on a person, one does not flip the board that one used. Because “mitah” the board, equals “din,” judgment, in gematria. Flipping it causes exact justice to be meted out (MeAneh Lashon).
7. To ensure that the dead do not close their fingers. Manuscripts indicate that it is a danger perhaps because an impure force emanates (YH). See also Yalkut Shimoni Zos HaBerachah #949 that it indicates that nothing was taken from this world.
8. When one removes the dead from a room, a person should not go out first. Manuscripts indicate that it is a danger perhaps because an impure force emanates (YH).
9. When the dead invite a live person to come with them, respond, “The Holy One Blessed Be He does not wish me to do so.” Then go to a grave and recite a certain formula without wearing shoes. The reason why they come is to exhort the listener to repent (Zohar, Terumah p. 142).
10. After a taharah is performed, not to leave the deceased on the board where the taharah was performed, rather move the deceased and board elsewhere. Because the original area is dirty and spiritually unclean (Damesek Eliezer).
11. If there is a cemetery in town with space, one should not skip over it and bury elsewhere because the dead in that cemetery view it as an insult. It is an insult to the dead there not to bury with them (Shach) and it is a lack of respect to the deceased himself (or herself) to be moved excessively (Rabbi Akiva Eiger).
12. Not to go to a grave twice in one day. Seemingly this halachah is to show that we are not praying to the deceased (Meforshim).
13. Not to accept anything from the dead in a dream nor to swear anything to him.
14. How to respond if a person is sick and says to someone to greet a child or to accept something and that person or item is not there.
15. Not to cry excessively over the dead or another will die.
16. A person should not build a house from stone to live in—rather one should buy it from another. The reason is that it indicates that one wishes to remain in lands outside of Israel (Chasam Sofer).
17. A person should not build a house on land that never had a building upon it.
18. Not to build a bathhouse in his home.
19. Not to make one’s own house taller than the synagogue.
20. Not to close off a window or doorway entirely.
21. Not to build a house changing one’s place of learning in it.
22. Not to marry his niece.
23. Not to marry a woman with the same name as his mother or the daughter of someone who shares his name, and, if done, to change one of their names.
24. Two people with the same name should not have their children marry each other.
25. Two brothers should not marry two sisters.
26. Not to marry off two sisters one right after the other.
27. Two brothers should not marry a mother and her daughter.
28. Not to have a son and daughter marry from the same family.
29. Not to marry a step-sibling.
30. Not to have the wedding of both of his children together.
31. Not to have two weddings in the same week.
32. Not to hunt a deer for a wedding.
33. Not to have two married brothers residing in the same city. It is unclear whether this was observed. (YH.)
34. Not to have three families living in the same house.
35. Not to have a friend be a sandek to two of his children.
36. Intimacy with spouse on night of immersion.
37. When joking or exaggerating about doing something exotic—to do it once before one passes away.
38. When one leaves the house on a trip not to return if one forgot something.
39. Not to polish shoes on the day that one leaves on a trip.
40. Not to ride a carriage or horse that is on a ship.
41. Not to slaughter geese in the month of Shevat.
42. A goose or chicken that places a vessel on itself should be slaughtered as soon as possible.
43. A cow that gives birth to two calves at once or a chicken that lays two eggs in one day should be slaughtered as soon as possible.
44. A tree that produces fruits twice a year. Unclear as to the import.
45. A tree that produces fruits should not be cut.
46. A person should not make a storehouse of his grains in the ground.
47. A person should not write on his book “This belongs to me.”
48. One should not cut his hair, his beard, or his nails on RoshChodesh.
49. A person should not destroy an oven to use its space.
50. A chicken that crows like a rooster should be slaughtered as soon as possible.
51. Not to name a descendant of his Yuda, Shmuel, or Elazar. A rabbi should not reside in Hilburg or in Reginsport. A man or woman should not reside in Augsburg. A woman who gave birth should not eat chicken as her first meal.
52. Not to raise calves that were born from his herd.
53. Not to place a chicken on top of eggs to raise chicks.
54. Not to grow long hair in the front.
55. A nursing woman should begin with the left.
56. The land of Shovavin (in the Germanic lands) will not produce youth that will merit yeshiva.
57. A person should not depart from his friend in tears.
58. Not to buy grain from a descendant in order to do business with it.
59. Not to name his descendants after live people.
60. Not to speak about shidduchim of Akum.
61. Not to live in a city where the market day is on Shabbos.
62. Not to live in a city where the market day is on Tuesday.
63. Not to name his children twice after the same person.
64. The Tatars will come to destroy Germany—partially or fully. This occurred in 1240–1241, twenty-three years after the author passed away (Yair Hoffman).
65. Not to raise pigeons in the home.
66. Not to marry a woman with the same first name as his previous wife.
67. Not to live in a community where Jews never lived.
68. Money in the house. Undecipherable
69. Not to strike a sleeping dog.
70. Not to pray at a local cemetery if one is using a distant cemetery.
71. A knife or sword that killed a Jew is forbidden in benefit.
72. Not to talk excessively about the deathly illness of a rasha; a tzaddik, say, “Your passing should be separated from the world.”
73. Not to name children Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and not Moshe.
74. Not to drink open water from a house where someone passed away.
75. Not to remove the mezuzos when one moves.
76. Not to move back into a previous house until seven years have passed.
77. Do not let blood in Tammuz, Elul, or Shevat.
78. After a dream is interpreted do not have the words “Go eat your bread in happiness” said. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.