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Irwin Rosenthal writes:
In an English translation of the Yiddish author Sholem Asch’s one-act drama The Sinner, a character says of a dead man who is about to be buried:
Let him be sure that he remembers his own name when the angel Domai asks it.
A note at the bottom of the page explains: “The angel’s request must be answered with a passage from the Psalms, which a sinner cannot remember.” Certainly, this sinner can’t. I can’t even remember who the angel Domai is. Neither can Google. Can you help?
How nice it would be to believe that there still are some things that can’t be Googled! But had Sholem Asch (or his English translator) correctly spelled the Hebrew name—דומה—as Dumah or Duma, Mr. Rosenthal would have found the angel he was looking for. Never underestimate Wikipedia.
But never overestimate it, either. It still wouldn’t have fully explained the passage in The Sinner that Mr. Rosenthal asks about or told him some things about Dumah that he might want to know, and it would have misled him about several other things.
The name Dumah comes from Psalms 115:17, which tells us that Lo ha-meytim y’hal’lu yah v’lo kol yordey dumah, accurately translated by the King James Bible as “The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.” Dumah, “silence,” derives from the Hebrew verb damam, to be or to fall mute, and Sh’ol—the biblical netherworld to which the souls of all the dead descend—is a place in which not a sound is heard.
In talmudic times, however, Dumah came to be understood as a proper rather than an ordinary noun: the name of the angel to whom the dead “go down” and who presides over them in their abode. In the talmudic tractate of Ḥagigah, to take one of the earliest texts to mention him, there is the following story about a woman who dies in a case of mistaken identity:
Rabbi Beyvi bar Abayey was on good terms with the Angel of Death. [He was present when] he [the Angel of Death] said to one of his emissaries, “Go bring me Miriam the women’s hairdresser.” He [the emissary] brought him Miriam the nursemaid. He [the Angel of Death] said to him, “I said Miriam the women’s hairdresser!” He [the emissary] answered, “In that case I’ll return her [to the world of the living].” He [the Angel of Death] said to him, “As long as you’ve brought her, let her stay among the dead.”
The surprised Beyvi bar Abayey asks the emissary how, since Miriam the nursemaid’s time has not yet come, he was able to pluck her from the living, and is answered:
She was cleaning out her oven when she had the bad luck to have a hot coal fall on her foot and burn her, and so [since she was in a weakened state and could not resist] I took her.
“Do you have permission to do such a thing?” asks Beyvi bar Abayey. To which the Angel of Death replies:
It says [in Proverbs 13:23], “Some perish without judgment.” . . . I’ll keep her with me until her generation has lived its allotted years and then I’ll hand her over to Dumah.
Asked by Bevi bar Abayey, “What will you do with the years [that you took away from her]?” the Angel of Death answers:
I’ll find a rabbinic scholar who never asked for anything and give them to him.
The Angel of Death, in other words, juggles the books. Since all of the individuals in any given generation have a predetermined lifespan, the generation’s collective lifespan is the sum of all the years they have lived—and this sum is preserved by transferring Miriam the nursemaid’s lost years to a deserving contemporary who would otherwise have died sooner. So as to be fair to her, however, the Angel of Death keeps her by his side, without consigning her to the possible punishments of the World-to-Come, until her generation’s final audit. Only then is she delivered to Dumah, the ruler of the dead.
In some medieval traditions, Dumah is also, or even mainly, the angel of graveyards. Thus, in the Zoharic text Midrash ha-Ne’elam, we find the statement that
in time to come, when the Holy One Blessed Be He raises the dead, He will summon the angel in charge of graves, whose name is Dumah, and demand from him a list of all the righteous who are buried, and He will usher them from the grave according to this list.
Elsewhere in the same book we read, “The souls of the evildoers are entrusted to an angel called Dumah, who leads them off to Hell, and once in his hands they have no recourse but to go there.”
This brings us to Asch’s The Sinner, a play set in a Jewish cemetery in Poland sometime in the early 20th century. A funeral is being held for a stranger, an unknown Jew who has apparently recently arrived from elsewhere. The only mourner joining the gravediggers, the gabbai or head of the burial society, the local rabbi, and a few curious onlookers is a weeping Polish woman dressed in black, quite obviously the dead man’s illicit lover. The conversation is sarcastic:
Gabbai (indicating a place near the fence): See if you can dig here.
Old Gravedigger: Near the fellow who hanged himself?
Young Gravedigger: They’ll make a good pair of chums.
First person: A worthy grave indeed.
Second person: No worse than he deserved.
Third person: Let him be sure he remembers his name when the angel Domai [sic] asks it.
Fourth person: He’ll talk Polish with the angel.
To this the translator has appended the footnote quoted by Mr. Rosenthal. That footnote, however, needs a footnote of its own, because understanding it depends on a knowledge of two Jewish folk beliefs. The first is set forth in the 16th-century kabbalistic work Reyshit Ḥokhmah by Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas, which states:
When a person departs this world, the Angel of Death comes and sits on his grave and commands him, “Rise and tell me your name.” [If] the dead person says, “The Creator of the World is my witness that I can’t remember it,” he [the Angel] breathes life back into him and he is brought to judgment.
Although in De Vidas’s account it is the Angel of Death who accosts the deceased in the grave, in other versions it is Dumah. The judgment carried out is different from the judgment still to come that will determine the soul’s ultimate fate. It is a preliminary one involving what is known as ḥibbut ha-kever, “the thrashing of the grave,” a brief but painful post-mortem ordeal that can be avoided by recalling one’s own name.
And here a second belief enters, because the best way to remember one’s name after death, Jewish folklore held, was to memorize a verse from the book of Psalms having the same first and last letters as that name. Compilations of such verses were in circulation, and it was customary to recite one’s verse regularly at the end of the Sh’moneh Esreh prayer said three times daily by observant Jews.
It can, of course, be sensibly asked: how one can anyone be expected to remember a verse from Psalms if he or she can’t remember the name for which the verse is a mnemonic? Such a question, though, misses the psychological point. The inability to remember one’s name is due to death’s being a profoundly disorienting experience that shatters one’s sense of self; the verse from Psalms has a tranquilizing effect that restores the shocked soul’s memory. The Bible stands by one even when one’s own name has deserted one.
And that you won’t find in Wikipedia. Yet.
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