views updated


SEMAḤOT (Heb. שְׂמָחוֹת; also called Evel, divided into Evel Rabbati and Evel Zuta), the classic rabbinic text on death and mourning, one of the minor tractates generally appended to the Babylonian Talmud. Although it is not included in the Codex Munich, the only complete manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud, it does appear in its editio princeps (Venice, 1523) and in many of the later printed editions. The euphemistic title, Semaḥot ("Rejoicings"), which is usually applied to it, was already used by the Franco-German scholars in the 11th century. The Babylonian Talmud cites a work bearing the name Evel Rabbati as the source for three tannaitic rulings (mk 24a, 26b; Ket. 28a). In response to a query on the nature of this work, the Gaon Natronai (head of the academy at Sura 853–58) writes: "Evel is a tractate of Mishnah containing most of what is taught in Ellu Megalleḥin [the third chapter of mk]; there are two such tractates, one major, the other minor" (Z. Wolfensohn (ed.), Ḥemdah Genuzah (1863), 17a; on the identity of the minor tractate, see M. Higger (ed.), Massekhet Semaḥot (1931), 59–72, 211–29). Although modern scholars disagree as to whether the tractate on mourning mentioned in the Talmud and described by the gaon is to be identified with this text, the medieval commentators apparently took this identity for granted (D. Zlotnick (ed. and trans.), The Tractate "Mourning," 1, n.). Most modern scholars favor a late date for this work, placing the time of final redaction at about the middle of the eighth century. There is nothing in the text, however, pointing clearly to a late date. The latest authorities cited are Judah *ha-Nasi and his contemporaries in the third century. It is written in the language of the Mishnah; its style and structure throughout is that of the tannaim. It therefore seems preferable to follow the ancients in suggesting an early date – the end of the third century (D. Zlotnick, ibid., 4–7).

The text, which contains 14 chapters, begins with the legal status of the dying man, asserting that he must be considered the same as a living person in every respect. The second chapter discusses those people who did not die a natural death, e.g., suicides or executed criminals. Although funeral rites were withheld from them (Sem. 2:1, 6; D. Zlotnick, ibid., 100, no. 1), they were never denied a burial. In later chapters, the behavior and activities of the mourners during the seven- and thirty-day mourning periods are treated in detail, and rules of conduct are set down for priests and for close and distant relatives of the deceased. Burial practices not considered elsewhere in rabbinic literature are also found here, such as the custom of inspecting the dead to make certain that death had actually occurred (8:1). Several rites, discontinued in the Diaspora lest the Jews become a cause for derision or be accused of sorcery, are also discussed: e.g., the requirement of the mourner to invert the bed, to cover his mouth and head in the manner of the Arabs, and to bare the arm and shoulder during the funeral procession (D. Zlotnick, ibid., 12–13). What is, perhaps, the most complete martyrology to be found in tannaitic literature is included in this tractate (ch. 8), as is the classic eulogy of R. Akiva for his son (8:13).

The standard Hebrew commentary to this work, the Naḥalat Ya'akov by R. Jacob Naumburg, was written during the 18th century and is found in the regular editions of the Babylonian Talmud. A critical edition of the first four chapters with a German translation was published by M. Klotz (1890). The first critical edition of the entire text was published by M. Higger (1931). An English translation including an introduction and notes with an appended Hebrew text edited from manuscripts has been published by Dov Zlotnick (1966).


Bruell, Jahrbuecher, 1 (1874), 1–57.

[Dov Zlotnick]