Investigating the chronological question of Alexander’s death unearthed an interesting nugget of information regarding his last days. Because his final days and hours are exhaustively described in various sources, endless efforts have been made to diagnose the precise cause of his death. Although it is commonly assumed that he was either poisoned by a disgruntled lieutenant or died of malaria, the jury is still out, and historians and the medical community love cooking up new theories for his untimely demise.
For example, back in 5758/1998, The New England Journal of Medicine cited the theory of a Dr. David W. Oldach and an investigative team, which proposed that Alexander probably died of typhoid fever, basing this upon reports that his body showed no signs of decomposition during the several days before his interment.
As the Greek biographer Plutarch wrote centuries after Alexander’s death: “During the dissensions among the commanders, which lasted several days, the body lasted clear and fresh, without any sign of such taint or corruption, though it lay neglected in a close, sultry place.”
Dr. Oldach and his team considered it likely that typhoid fever caused Alexander’s demise, since this disease very occasionally causes a paralysis that spreads from the feet upward, slows down respiration, and could, in the past, lead people to mistakenly assume that the patient had died.
THE YAAVETZ Vs. MENDELSSOHN
Dr. Oldach’s unusual theory is reminiscent of the famous controversy that broke out toward the end of the 18th century when the dawning haskalah movement was having a deleterious impact on Jewish burial customs. In direct contradiction to many modern doctors who are inclined to push forward the moment of death in order to facilitate transplants, people of those times (who had no bias to say otherwise) were inclined to push back the borderline between life and death, insisting that the only absolute determinant of death was physical decomposition, which generally begins after three days.
Early maskilim of that time demanded, in imitation of their “enlightened” non- Jewish neighbors, that Jews, too, not hurry the interment of their dead in compliance with halacha. Rather, they should delay people’s burials in order to ascertain, beyond doubt, that death had actually taken place.
Of course, this contravened the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, which declares, “It is forbidden to leave the dead [unburied] overnight unless it was for his honor, to bring him a coffi n and shrouds, etc.,” (Yoreh Deah 357:1). The stance of the maskilim was strengthened in 5532/1772, when the Mecklenburg Province of Germany prohibited prompt burial and legislated that three days must pass beforehand. Of course, Torah-observant German rabbonim protested vehemently against this antireligious coercion. Moses
Mendelssohn was called on to intercede and promptly found sources that ostensibly supported the government measure, including a Mishnah in Maseches Semachos that mentions how someone once recovered from a deathlike coma and survived for another 25 years. Mendelssohn even had the gall to claim that halacha was in confl ict with these sources.
The Chasam Sofer (Responsa 388) discusses the reaction to Mendelssohn’s radicalism, citing the Yaavetz, who demolished Mendelssohn’s proofs one by one. First, the Yaavetz made it clear that since the Torah states, “Do not leave his body overnight on the gallows, for you shall certainly bury him on that day” (Devorim 21:23), anyone who contravenes this will obviously transgress both a negative and positive mitzvah.
As for the argument that people might err regarding the moment of death, the Yaavetz suggests, among other things, that Moshe Rabbeinu received Chazal’s criteria of death at Sinai, or that Chazal’s criteria of death are revealed in the verse, “Kol asher ruach chayim be’apo — Whatever has the breath of life in its nose,” from where Chazal (Yoma) derive that before digging someone out of a ruin on Shabbos, we examine whether he is alive by checking his respiration.
As for Mendelssohn’s proof from Maseches Semachos, the Yaavetz writes that this was a kind of instance that happens so rarely that one need not be concerned about it. It is as uncommon, he says, as the case of Choni Hama’agel, who slept for 70 years.
This burial controversy led to one of the fi rst moves of haskalah Jews away from Jewish halacha and minhag. When the Berlin chevra kaddisha refused to pay attention to the demands of the maskilim, certain maskilim, including Mendelssohn’s son, Josef, opened up a substitute for the traditional chevra kaddisha, the Gesellschaft der Freunde (Society of Friends) in Berlin, with branches in Breslau and Koenigsberg. Delayed burial of the dead and many other non-Jewish funeral customs eventually became de rigueur for many Jews of Western Europe.
Today, when doctors are struggling to push the moment of death as early as possible in order to facilitate transplants or to economize on the use of expensive life-support equipment, the Yaavetz would give the same response he gave to the people of his who were fighting for the opposite:
“This is our conclusion: We have nothing but the words of our Torah and what our fathers have accepted, and whoever ponders [against this], ponders against the Shechinah.”