This blog post is based on a siur I gave last year. You can see the source sheet for the shiur at Sefaria.
The Talmud derives in several places (Shabbat 30a, shabbat 151b, Niddah 61b) the principle that the dead are not obligated to perform mitzvot. This is one of the reasons that we can dress a corpse in a garment which contains shatnez (Yoreh Deah 351:1 and 301:7). The question remains though – what about the undead? Is a Jew who died and has been brought back to life obligated to keep the mitzvot?
The Talmud gives a few possible undead parallel that we can go through.
Possible Zombie #1 – Eliyahu
Eliyahu ascends to heaven without dying. While he’s not a perfect analogy to a zombie because a zombie dies first and is then brought back to life, it is still worth investigating Eliyahu and his undead status.
In two places in the Gemarah Eliyahu is shown to still be obligated in the mitzvot. In the first in Eruvin 43a The Gemarah inquires how someone could have traveled outside the techum on shabbat. The solution is that it was Eliyahu who did it by flying at an altitude greater than 10 tefachim. (Techum restrictions do not apply above 10 tefachim). The second is Bava Metzia 114a-b where Eliyahu is asked how he could be in a graveyard. (This discussion follows the midrash that Eliyahu is Pinhas, who was a kohen, and therefore he could not be present in a cemetery). Eliyahu responds that the graveyard is a non-Jewish graveyard, and therefore he is allowed to be present there. We can see in both these cases that Eliyahu was bound by the mitzvot, otherwise Hazal would not have needed these laws to explain why Eliyahu was allowed to do these things.
Potential Zombie #2 – Rebbe
Perhaps the most analogous of the examples we have, Rebbe’s passing is described on Ketubot 103a. Before he died he left instructions that certain belonging of his not be moved from their locations and he would return home every shabbat from the afterlife. Sefer Hasidim explains that Rebbe would say kiddush for his family every Friday night. One of the principles of fulfilling mitzvot for another person is that the person making the bracha must also be obligated in the mitzvah. If Rebbe is saying Friday night kiddush for other people, he too must be obligated in the mitzvah of kiddush.
Potential Zombie #3 – Yehezkel’s Dry Bones
In Yehezkel 37, the prophet describes coming across a valley of bones. As he watches, the bones are reanimated and come to life before his eyes. While interpretations of this passage vary (the gemarah debates whether it was a parable or not, and rishonim weight on on all sides on the issue), there are many who take it literally. In the Gemarah (Sanhedrin 92b), Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira claims to be a descendant of one of the people who Yehezkel saw reanimated, and he even presents a pair of tefillin that his reanimated ancestor wore. If his ancestor wore tefillin, this strongly suggests that his undead ancestor was obligated in mitzvot.
We now have three examples of possibly undead people in the Gemarah. In all three cases we have seen that the undead are obligated in mitzvot – they put on tefillin, say brachot before eating food, and must follow the laws of shabbat. While that would seem at first glance to answer our question, there is, as always, more to the story.
The gemarah in niddah 61b presents another relevant case. The rabbis taught that a garment which contained shatnez (mixtures of fibers which we are forbidden to wear) could be used as a burial shroud. There is then a dispute between Abaye and Rav Yosef. Rav Yosef maintains that this means that the mitzvot will be nullified in the era of the resurrection of the dead. (After all, if people come back to life they would find themselves wearing whatever garments they were buried in). Rav Yosef quotes Tehillim 88:6 “freedom among the dead”, to show that the dead are free from the mitzvot. He clearly believes that once dead the mitzvot will not apply to a person who is brought back to life. Abaye on the other hand maintains that a garment containing shatnez is only allowed on a corpse during a eulogy. Once the person is buried, they cannot be wearing shatnez. He maintains that when the dead comes back to life, the person will be once again obligated in mitzvot. (As mentioned above, the halacha in this case, as codified in the shuchan aruch, follows Rabbi Yohanan).
The Rishonim and Achronim
The rishonim disagree as to exactly how to interpret all of these cases. Rambam maintains that the world will stay the same after the resurrection of the dead, and that both the written and oral law will remain in effect. Tosafot, commenting on the passage from Niddah says that the presence of kilayim in a burial shroud clearly demonstrates that the resurrected dead will not be obligated in mitzvot. Rashba sides with Abaye, claiming that a corpse may not be buried in a kilayim burial shroud because that would cause the dead person to violate a commandment upon resurrection. The Maharal quotes the Rashba and sides with him, stating that the mitzvot are only nullified while a person is dead. The Ritva weighs many of the passages that we have covered already, and comes to a similar conclusion, stating that when the gemarah says that mitzvot will be nullified in the world to come, it is only referring to the time of death. Once resurrected, mitzvot will again be in force.
Most of the discussion surrounding the issue of the burial shrouds is discussing the resurrection of the dead that Hashem will perform in the future. Our question on zombies regards a dead person brought back to life today, in the current era. Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (1874-1941) answers this question directly in his Kovetz Shiurim. He clearly delineates between the resurrection of the dead at the time of the world to come, and minor resurrections that occur in the current age. He explains that death terminates one’s obligation to perform mitzvot, and that obligation does not return, regardless of how one was brought back to life, whether that be by an individual miracle (like the bodies Yehezkel witnessed) or the mass resurrection that Hashem brings about.
We seem to have a mahloket. On one side, we have three examples from the gemarah that show the undead being obligated in mitzvot. One of them (Eliyahu) might be considered irrelevant as Eliyahu never died, but the other two are very analogous to a modern zombie. The gemarah also records a halachic debate about whether or not the revived dead are obligated to follow the mitzvot, and the halacha follows the opinion that they are not, despite opposition from the Rambam, the Rashba, the Ritva, and the Maharal. While we could try to dismiss this discussion too as irrelevant because it focuses on Hashem’s final resurrection and not a man made zombie, Elchanan Wasserman’s position firmly dismisses that by stating that the two situations are identical.
In concluding, it seems that one one hand we have the gemarah’s examples, the Rambam, Ritva, Rashba, and Maharal all saying that a zombie would be hayev in mitzvot. On the other hand we have the gemarah’s halachic conclusion in the shatnez debate, the various codifiers like the Beit Yosef and the Rema, and Rb. Wasserman who maintain that a zombie would not be obligated to follow the mitzvot.