1. On a Yahrzeit,1 it is customary to study chapters from the Mishnah which begin with the letters of the deceased’s name.2 [Among the explanations given for this practice is that the Hebrew letters of the word Mishnah (משנה) can be rearranged to form the word נשמה which means “soul.”] Thus, the subject matter of these Mishnayos differs depending on the name of the individual involved. In addition, there are two chapters (Keilim 24 and Mikvaos 7) which are studied by everyone on such an occasion.3

The chapter from Keilim describes three different categories of susceptibility to ritual impurity:

a) substances which are susceptible to the impurity of מדרס, the most severe form of impurity;

b) substances which are not susceptible to the impurity of מדרס, but are susceptible to all other forms of ritual impurity including the ritual impurity connected with a corpse;

c) substances which are not susceptible to ritual impurity at all.

Thus, the chapter begins, stating: There are three types of shields: a shield [whose sides are] inverted which is susceptible to the impurity of מדרס, one with which people play with in a company which is susceptible to the ritual impurity connected with a corpse, and [that used in ערביין] the Arabs’ celebrations which is pure, which can never contract impurity.

To explain: The manner in which these three shields are used determines the extent to which they are susceptible to ritual impurity. The shield whose sides are inverted: This shield surrounds a person on three sides. Because of this structure, however, this shield is also used as a seat or a surface to lie on and, therefore, it is susceptible to the most severe type of impurity.

The shield with which people play in a company: This is a small, round shield used in jousts and war-games. Generally, a person would not sit or lie on this shield. He would, however, use it for other purposes, e.g., as a serving tray for food or drink. Therefore, it is susceptible to ritual impurity, but not the ritual impurity of מדרס.

The shield used in the Arabs’ celebrations: This is a very small shield that can only be used for jousts and war-games and is not fit for actual combat. Similarly, it is not used for any other purposes. Accordingly, it is not susceptible to ritual impurity at all.

To explain the spiritual significance of the above: Ritual impurity is a spiritual blemish reflecting a deficiency in a person’s attachment to G‑d. The extent of the impurity varies according to the separation created between the person and G‑d. When a person needs and desires an object very much, there is a greater opportunity for the yetzer hora to lure the person into using the article for purposes that run contrary to Torah law. Accordingly, the object is susceptible to a more severe form of impurity.

For this reason, a shield whose sides are inverted is susceptible to the most severe form of impurity. Since it is of great value to a person, there is also a greater potential for negative influence. The shield with which people play in a company is of less importance and, therefore, the degree of ritual impurity it can contract is less. Since the shield used in the Arabs’ celebrations is of no practical use to man — one has no real desire for it, the only reason one would want it would be to participate in the Arabs’ childish games4 — it is not susceptible to ritual impurity at all.

The above concepts are reflected in our service of G‑d: The soul has descended from a “high roof (the spiritual realms) to a low pit (this material world)” for the purpose of transforming the world into a “dwelling” for G‑d. To enable the soul to fulfill this mission, the soul is given tools, among them (indeed, of primary importance) are shields to protect it from unnecessary influences and transform them into positive forces.

Since the service of the Jewish people is often conceived of in sets of three,5 there are three shields, i.e., three different approaches to the service of refining the world:

A) A shield whose sides are inverted: This implies a total involvement in the service of refinement, one in which a person is surrounded on the sides as well. He appreciates that this is a struggle in which his life is at stake. Therefore, he fights with mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice), investing himself in the material articles with which his service is involved, using them for sitting and for lying down.

Although there is a very positive dimension to this service, it does allow for the possibility of a descent. His involvement in worldly affairs represents a descent6 and thus, makes himself susceptible to the most severe form of ritual impurity.

B) The shield with which people play in a company: This shield is not used in actual combat. Metaphorically, it implies an approach where the person is not that deeply involved with worldly things and the struggle associated with their refinement. He appreciates that he is essentially above this entire frame of reference because his soul is “a part of G‑d from above.” Accordingly, his service in this world is only to fulfill G‑d’s desire for a “dwelling in the lower worlds” and thus, to bring Him pleasure.

When a Jew realizes that the struggle with the material aspects of the world is essentially not his own, that he is involved in it only because of the pleasure G‑d receives from his service — it is like the war-games “people play in a company” — his approach is different. He does not seek a shield which covers his sides because he feels above the entire matter. He does not see this as a real conflict, one which requires him to invest himself completely. Therefore, his connection to the natural order is less and the degree of ritual impurity to which he is susceptible is less severe.7

C) The shield used in the Arabs’ celebrations: This refers to an approach where “the shield” is of no importance to the person at all; the Jew stands totally above all worldly affairs. “Israel and the Holy One are one.” A Jew is connected to G‑d, the source of life and purity, and thus, has no connection whatsoever to death and impurity. The only sense of conflict is one which parallels the battle between the Leviathan and the wild ox which G‑d will stage for the righteous in the world to come, a battle that exists solely for the purpose of producing pleasure for G‑d.8 The Jew’s pleasure is the satisfaction he produces for G‑d. He stands above the conflict entirely and therefore, the “shield” is one which reveals that the conflict is only staged for pleasure. Accordingly, such a shield is not susceptible to ritual impurity at all.

[The difference between the second and third levels is as follows: Although both types of individuals feel essentially above contact with material concerns and become involved in them only to produce pleasure for G‑d, a person on the second level does feel a certain degree of attachment to worldliness once he takes the step of involving himself with it. Accordingly, there is a sense of conflict and the “shield” he uses is more than a toy. Hence, it is susceptible to ritual impurity.

In contrast, on the third level, the person feels no conflict whatsoever. Even when involved in these material concerns, he stands essentially above them. They are only a game, intended to bring pleasure to G‑d. Therefore, there is no susceptibility to ritual impurity.]

On this basis, we can also draw a the connection between this mishnah and a yahrzeit and the concept of death in general. The concept of death can be explained in three ways which parallel the three approaches discussed above:

a) Death comes because of sin as our Sages stated, “There is no death without sin.” This parallels the first approach where the person feels that the conflict he is involved with is genuine.

b) Death comes “because of the venom of the snake” (the sin of the Tree of Knowledge) and not because of any other sin. This parallels the second approach where the person stands above worldly existence and yet, is involved in it because of G‑d’s desire.

c) An approach which is essentially above death, appreciating only the positive aspects of that phenomenon. Our Sages state that Yaakov and Moshe “did not die.” Although they passed beyond the realm of physical existence, the angel of death had no dominion over them. This level will be revealed for the entire Jewish people in the Messianic age.

From a deeper perspective, we can understand that, on all levels, a yahrzeit represents an ascent for the soul. Since the soul is essentially “a part of G‑d from above” and descends into this world only to bring G‑d pleasure, we can understand that through this descent — even when the soul was unable to live a totally meritorious existence — the soul is elevated for it becomes connected to G‑d’s essence, the source of life, a level that transcends totally the concepts of impurity and death.

In particular, the first two levels can be grouped together and a contrast made between them and the third level which parallels the contrast between the two manners with which a soul ascends from one level to another in the spiritual worlds. One manner of ascent comes through immersion in the River Dinur. This immersion cleanses the soul of the undesirable influences that became attached to it because of the conflict it faced in this material world.

The second type of ascent is through the “pillar” connecting the lower Gan Eden to the higher Gan Eden. This involves the nullification of the lower level through its inclusion in the higher level. In particular, it can be explained that souls which did not merit in their service in this world require the immersion in the River Dinur9 to cleanse them. (Since they are Jewish souls, it is necessary that the potential to be granted for them to ascend higher and, hence, they are afforded the opportunity of this immersion.) In contrast, the souls who merited in this world, ascend by means of the “pillar.” Nevertheless, after the immersion in the River Dinur, even the souls who did not merit can enter Gan Eden and afterwards, ascend by means of the “pillar” from one level to another.

Implicit in the above explanation is that — since the Jews are bound in a bond of unity with the ultimate source of life — before the concept of a yahrzeit is relevant, while a Jew is living in this world, he is granted a long and good life. In this manner, a Jew’s Teshuvah and good deeds will be a shield against retribution.” Indeed, he will transcend the entire concept of retribution and difficulty. Since he is connected with G‑d’s essence, such matters can have no effect on him whatsoever.

The behavior of Moshe Rabbeinu provides us with an example of this principle. On the last day of his life, when he was 120 years old, and yet, “his eyes were undimmed and his freshness did not depart.” He was able to climb Mount Nebo in one step as Rashi relates. Since every Jew is a student of Moshe, it follows that, in microcosm, this state of perfection can be reflected in his life. He can enjoy the full use of all his material powers over the span of a long and good life, a life not only of seventy or eighty years, but even of 120 years.

The fullest revelation of this state of perfection will come in the Messianic age — indeed, then, this state will be revealed even to those who have already tasted death — when “Death will be swallowed up forever and G‑d, the L‑rd, will wipe the tears10 away from every face.” Mashiach’s coming will reveal the level of soul referred to as yechidah, the level which is at one with G‑d in a complete way. This oneness will prevent any harm from the material aspects of the world from effecting a Jew. On the contrary, all these worldly influences will be transformed into positive factors.

The above concepts are also reflected in the Chassidic practice of commemorating a yahrzeit by making a tikkun, a Chassidic gathering which is associated with happiness11 and connect it with a siyum,12 a conclusion of a particular aspect of Torah study, and not by carrying out customs associated with sadness.

This approach will serve as a preparation for the era when, “those who lie in the dust will arise and celebrate,” “and G‑d, the L‑rd, will wipe the tears10 away from every face,” in the Messianic era. This is particularly true since we have already undergone all the difficulties of the exile and, despite those challenges, have spread the wellsprings of Chassidus outward in a very powerful and expansive manner. Therefore, it is appropriate that our essential bond with the source of life, G‑d’s essence, be revealed. In particular, this is appropriate in the present year, “a year of miracles.”