The Value of a Corpse

Erchin (5:4) | Allon Ledder | 15 years ago

The Mishnah (5:4) discusses the case of a person (Reuven) who makes a vow to pay the worth of another person (Shimon) to the treasury of the Beit Ha’Mikdash. The Beit Din needs to assess the ‘worth’ of Shimon in order to determine how much Reuven must pay. If Shimon dies before his worth has been assessed by the Beit Din then Reuven does not need to pay anything. Since the subject of the vow is dead, no assessment can be made and the vow is no longer payable.

There are two explanations for the reason why no worth can be assessed after death:

This position seems to be inconsistent with the Mishnah (3:3) which refers to a mu’ad ox (an ox that has previously killed three people) that kills a free person. The owner of the ox must pay kofer – an atonement payment – to the heirs of the victim. According to the majority opinion, the kofer represents the value of the victim just prior to death. We see from this Mishnah that an assessment of worth can be made retroactively after death. Why then can we not assess the value of Shimon before their death in our case of the vow?

Rashi (Gemara Erchin 20a) explains that in the case of the kofer payment, the obligation to pay becomes effective from the time the damage was caused, which is prior to the death of the victim. The Beit Din’s task is to assess the amount of that earlier obligation. However in our case of the vow, the obligation to pay only takes effect once the Beit Din have made their assessment. Therefore, an assessment of what Shimon was worth in the past (before his death) is not relevant because the obligation to pay cannot be made retroactively.

The explanation given by Tosfot Yom Tov (that we are forbidden to derive benefit from a human corpse) seems to be inconsistent with the Mishnah (1:4) which states that if a woman is executed we may derive benefit from her hair. The Gemara (Erchin 7b) is puzzled by this statement because it is inconsistent with the principle that it is forbidden to benefit from a human corpse. The Gemara gives two explanations:

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 349:2) rules in accordance with Rav while Rambam rules in accordance with *Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak. *

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak’s opinion that we can derive benefit from human hair after death would suggest that a human corpse does have some worth posthumously. Therefore, it would seem that those who hold by this opinion would disagree with the reasoning of Tosfot Yom Tov (i.e. a corpse has no worth because we are forbidden from deriving benefit) and would be more likely to hold by the opinion of Tiferet Yisrael (i.e. after death a person has no worth as a slave).

Alternatively, even those who hold that we can derive benefit from human hair after death might still agree with the reason given by Tosfot Yom Tov. They might argue that the value of hair cannot be a replacement for the value of a person. This would be supported by the principle stated in the Mishnah (5:2) in relation to erech vows – anything upon which one’s life depends (such as the head or the heart) can be treated as a replacement for the entire self; however anything that is not essential to life (such as an arm or a leg or hair) cannot be a replacement for the entire self. The Gemara (Erchin 20a) establishes an analogy between vows of worth and erech valuations and therefore derives that this principle applies in both cases.

The main article discussed the rule that no monetary assessment of the value of a person can be made after their death. The fact that a person’s worth disappears with their death may serve as a reminder of the importance of our time in Olam Hazeh.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:22) states that one hour of repentance and good deeds in Olam Hazeh is better than the entire life of Olam Habah. It is only in this world that we can perform Mitzvot and earn reward. Let us take advantage of that opportunity while we can.


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