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The Case of the Floating Skull

The Case of the Floating Skull

Ethics 2:6

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A man had gone for a stroll along the river when he noticed an unusual and ghoulish sight: a skull floating on the surface of the water. His reaction was unusual. He reached neither for his cellphone nor for his digital camera.

Instead, he turned to the skull and uttered the following six Aramaic words: Ahl d'ateift aftfuch, v'sof mitofayich yitufun. Had he spoken to it in English, he might have said this: "You were drowned because you drowned others. And ultimately, those who drowned you will also drown." Less poetic in English, yet essentially the same point.

The reason he used Aramaic was because at the time the incident occurred -- some time toward the end of the Second Temple era -- Aramaic was not yet a deceased language. In fact, it was very much alive, especially among Jews who lived in Babylonia.

The man walking along the river had lived in Babylonia until the age of forty. He then migrated to the holy city of Jerusalem to study at the feet of Shma'ayah and Avtalyon, two brothers of Greek extraction, who had converted to Judaism and rose to become the leading Judaic scholars of their day.

The man was Hillel, the author of better known statements, such as "If I am not for myself who is for me", "What is hateful to you do not do unto your friend" and others. He was known for his profound knowledge and extraordinary patience. Like Moses, he was known for his humility; and, like Moses, he lived for one hundred and twenty years. According to kabbalistic tradition he and Moses shared the same soul.

Maimonides and the Skull

Another man by the name of Moses, Moses Maimonides, who lived some 1,000 years after the skull story, wrote the following in his commentary on Tractate Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers") where the skull story is recorded (paraphrased):

There are consequences to our actions -- consequences that reflect those actions. If you commit murder and drown others in a river to hide your crime, you will receive your punishment in the form of your crime. If you invent an unjust thing to benefit yourself at the expense of others, that unjust thing will ultimately be used against you. On the positive side, if you introduce something that benefits others, that thing will ultimately come to benefit you as well. In Hebrew it is called: midah k'neged midah -- measure for measure.

This is how Maimonides and other commentators explain Hillel's message.

Pharaoh vs. Moses round II

Maimonides' grandson, Rabbi David Hanagid, cites a tradition handed down by "the early ones" that the floating skull belonged to none other than Pharaoh himself. Hillel therefore told him: "Because you commanded that Jewish children be drowned in the Nile, you were drowned." It was specifically Hillel who confronted Pharaoh's skull, since as a reincarnation of Moses he was fit to confront Pharaoh.

According to this interpretation, says Rabbi Isaac Luria , the renowned 16th century Safed mystic known as "the Holy Ari", the second half of Hillel's statement is addressed not to Pharaoh but to the Jewish people: "Just as Pharaoh was drowned, so all persecutors of Israel will ultimately be drowned."

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory, saw in the Ari's comment words of comfort to the tired soul of the exiled Jew, to the soul of one who feels that he or she is up against an insurmountable challenge, an impenetrable cloud of darkness. Hillel, the great leader of Israel, turns to this person and says: "If Pharaoh, the embodiment of evil, the man who cast fear even into the heart of Moses, so much so that G‑d had to reassure him and say, 'Come to Pharaoh -- I will accompany you,' ended up drowned in a river, certainly all the Pharaohs of history, all the great serpents that tried and will try to drown you through physical and spiritual persecution --they will be drowned as well. For evil has no leg to stand on. Like smoke it obscures our vision for a time but must ultimately disappear."

Mocking the Poor

If that were all we could learn from Hillel's statement, it would be enough. But there's more. Here's another beautiful thought:

It seems strange that Hillel, the man of kindness, humility and impossible patience, would rebuke a dead man! According to Jewish tradition, one ought not perform any mitzvah in a graveyard. Doing so is considered "mocking the poor" (loeg la'rash), since those that dwell in the earth are no longer capable of performing mitzvot. Just as you would not partake of a gourmet dinner in the face of one unable to afford a slice of bread, so one should not show one's tzizit, for example, in the presence of those who can no longer fulfill that commandment.

Why, then, did Hillel, the man of kindness and humility, rebuke this poor dead person, who could do nothing with this rebuke?

The answer, says the Rebbe, is that when Hillel came across the skull of Pharaoh, he though to himself: "Why has G‑d arranged for me to see this sight?" He then came to the conclusion that the time had finally come for the soul of Pharaoh to find peace. And by using Pharaoh as an example with which to teach a meaningful message, Hillel uplifted Pharaoh's soul and granted it the ability to find peace.

In summation

So what starts out as an innocent stroll along the river turns out to be a passage filled with meaningful lessons:

What goes around comes around.

Even the most formidable evil is transient.

Everything that comes your way has a purpose and you should fulfill that purpose. Not always is that purpose apparent but we should at least take advantage of those situations when the purpose is apparent.

Even a Pharaoh can ultimately be redeemed and should be redeemed when that time arrives.

And that's the story of the floating skull.

Yosef Marcus is director of the Chabad center in S. Mateo, California, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a translator and adaptor of Judaic texts and a contributor to several websites including: Chabad.org, Askmoses.com and Kabbalaonline.com. He can be reached via his website www.chabadnp.com
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous London, England May 6, 2011

Why we should forgive Hitler As long as we do not forgive Hitler we are hurting as a result of what the Nazis did. We need to forgive for sake of our own souls, not for the sake Hitler's soul. Reply

Randy H. farb Flint, mi via chabadgn.com May 5, 2011

The Case Of The Floating Skull I take exception to the comment about not performing a mitzvah in a graveyard. Some communities have the minchag of leaving coins instead of stones on loved ones' graves. The purpose is so that even in death they may give tzedakah to the poor. Reply

Anonymous potomac, usa via ourshul.org April 29, 2011

Floating Skull We are all so connected ,that doing harm to
others is the same as doing harm to oneself.
Everyone needs to be forgiven eventually for there to be peace in the world,for balance. Reply

Anonymous Oxford, England January 31, 2010

Hitler? So will Hitler's soul be forgiven? Reply

Sara June 4, 2009

Nice...insights I never heard before. Interesting following the chain of history evolving... Reply

Yigal April 26, 2009

The Case of the Floating Skull Great insights...I always wondered why that part was in Pirkei Avot...it seemed very strange until now. Reply

Mayim March 3, 2008

mida k'neged mida. what a good article. thank you. Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.