Are the souls of the dead aware of what’s happening below in this world?
A. Sources which imply that the dead are unaware of the happenings of below:
Koheles and Rebbe Yonason in Brachos: It states in the verse in Koheles that “Ein Hameisim Yodim Meuma/the dead know nothing.” The simple reading of this verse implies that the dead are unaware of any of the happenings of the physical world below. Indeed, this was the initial response of Rebbe Yonason to Rebbe Chiyah in Brachos 18a who told him of the prohibition against dragging Tzitzis on a grave, that indeed based on this verse in Koheles, the dead are not aware of what’s going in this world and hence there should be no prohibition against dragging Tzitzis on a grave. Rebbe Chiyah however responded to him that he is misunderstanding the statement of Koheles and that it does not refer to the dead at all, but rather to men of evil who are considered like dead. Rebbe Yonason accepted the explanation of Rebbe Chiyah and kissed him on the head for telling him the true meaning of the verse. Other alternative explanations have also been given to this verse to show that it is not literal.
The Alter Rebbe: A number of sources record the following statement to have been said by the Alter Rebbe to his sons and daughters and grandchildren moments prior to his passing: “Don’t fool yourselves to think that there will be peace on to you because your father will protect you from heaven and stand in your merit as in truth the dead are not aware of anything of the happenings of this lower world, as the G-dly soul is always in a state of yearning for above and as soon as it leaves the body it goes to attach itself to the source of life and ceases all connection with the physical world and any connection between them is completely broken. The following is a proof that in truth the dead are not aware of anything that’s happening in this world, as if they were aware then there would be many things that would bother them. For example, certainly our forefathers would be most distressed over the fact that mosques for the Yishmalites were built from all types of physical pleasures over the cave of the patriarchs.” In another version the Alter Rebbe stated: “If Abraham our forefathers would only know that they established mosques on his cave, his entire reward in Garden of Eden would be worthless. From here we learn that the dead are not aware of anything.” In another version the Alter Rebbe stated: If Abraham and Isaac would know of the temples that the Yishmalites and children of Eisav built there they would not be able to rest there. In another version attributed to the Rebbe Rashab, it says that the Alter Rebbe stated “If our patriarch Abraham would know that the Yishmalites would build a mosque he would have no rest in his grave, and from here we see that the dead are not aware of anything.” While some scholars and historians have questioned the accuracy of this statement to the Alter Rebbe, in truth we find similar words written in an explicit Mamar of the Alter Rebbe, in which he writes as follows: “The essence of the G-dly soul is completely distanced and separate from all matters of physical pleasures including even the love of its children…. Therefore, it does not know or feel anything of its children, and the fact that we visit graves and pray by their resting place to recall the kindness of the fathers on their children, as explained in the writings of the Arizal, this is merely the “Hevlei Degramei” which is the smaller aspect of the souls alone, which is the aspect of the soul that is thrown to the exterior and remains even after the passing, as is known that the G-dly soul has many levels and aspects.”
B. Sources which imply that the dead are aware of the happenings of below:
Loeig Larash and Rebbe Chiyah in Brachos: The Talmud and Poskim rule that one may not wear revealed Tzitzis and Tefillin in a cemetery being that it is considered to be mocking the dead. Now, if the dead are not aware of what’s going on in this world how would they be mocked? Indeed, this was the response of Rebbe Chiyah to Rebbe Yonason who questioned this prohibition against dragging Tzitzis on a grave, that indeed the dead are aware of what’s going, and in the end Rebbe Yonason agreed with it. The Arizal states that the souls of the dead stand above their grave and are able to see the Tzitzis if they are revealed.
Stories in the Talmud-Shtei Ruchos Misapros and Maaseh Deshumel: The Gemara in Brachos brings two stories [i.e. Maaseh Deshmuel and Ruchos Misapros] relating to conversations that took place with and between the souls of the dead regarding matters of this world. Based on this Gemara, many Poskim rule that the prohibition against Doreish El Hameisim only applies if one speaks to the body of the dead, and not when he speaks and has a conversation with the soul. Furthermore, even those who dissent this ruling, agree that it is possible to have a conversation with the souls of the dead over worldly matters in permitted ways. We thus find many other stories in the Talmud which mention conversations with the souls of the dead and their knowledge of worldly matters.
Until the burial, the soul hears everything said before him: The Talmud Yerushalmi states that the soul of the deceased is present and listens to the eulogies said of him, as if it were a dream. He is aware of all that is said before him until he is buried in the ground.
The soul of a murder victim: The soul of a murder victims does not rest in heaven until their murderer is apprehended and held accountable. The soul of the victim demands justice and that his murderer be put to death, and does not rest his case until this is done. This is the secret meaning of the verse “One who spills blood of man, his blood will spill” as through the prosecution that the soul of the victim voices against the murderer, he brings about the death of the murderer, and if not in this world then in the next world. This can be seen with the story brought in the Midrash that after a certain son was murdered by his brother, his mother saved the blood in a jar, and that blood boiled until the sibling murderer was killed. It is for this reason that we do not perform Taharah to a murder victim, as burying the victim in the clothing that he wore at the time of his murder helps motivate him to seek vengeance against the murderer.
Visiting the resting place of Tzaddikim and relatives: One who prays by the gravesite of a person, arouses the soul of that person in heaven to ask for mercy on one’s behalf. The dead are made aware of what occurs below upon them being visited and are saddened to hear of the suffering of those alive. If not for the prayers of the dead on behalf of the living, the world would be unable to exist.
Igeres Hakodesh of the Alter Rebbe: In Igeres Hakodesh 27, the Alter Rebbe famously establishes the idea that Tzadikim are not only aware of their students in this world after their passing but even more so than they were when they were alive.
Letter of the Mittler Rebbe: There is a letter of the Mittler Rebbe in which he concludes with the following words: “certainly our father knows about this suffering that we are going through.”
Maana Lashon: In the prayer of Maanah Lashon there is a statement in which we say to the deceased “you shall rest in peace and not be bothered by all of the suffering of your relatives.” This implies, that ideally the souls of the deceased are aware of the troubles their relatives go through during their lifetime.
Mamar of the Rebbe Rayatz: The Rebbe Rayatz states in a Mamar that the righteous all know of all the happenings of this world and they know of the suffering of their descendants and don’t have to be told about it.
C. Final solution-A possible answer to the contradiction:
Based on the above Mamar of the Alter Rebbe in A, one can explain that there is no contradiction between the statements and that there are lower and external levels of the soul. The deeper, more essential, levels of the soul are not aware at all and do not care for anything that has to do with the physical world. However, the lower levels are aware of what is happening. Furthermore, even the deeper levels of the soul can be made aware of what is happening by one visiting the gravesite. [Furthermore, perhaps we can suggest that there is a difference between the completely righteous who enter the garden of Eden, and those who are not accepted and must go through a cleansing of the soul, that it is only the former that is unaware of what is happening in this world, while the latter are aware as they have yet to fully remove themselves from worldly matters in their quest for G-dliness.]
 Koheles 9:4
 Brachos 18a; Yerushalmi Brachos 2:3; Midrash Raba Koheles 9:4
 See Sefer Chassidim 727
 Sefer Harav Meliadi p. 163 in name of Reb Nachum, son of Mittler Rebbe, in name of Admur; Yagdil Torah 43 p. 349 in name of Rav Peretz Chein; See Heichal Besht 13:188
 Yagdil Torah ibid
 Kisvei Rav C”A Beichavsky p. 105
 Reshimos Devarim 1:73
 Sefer Hamamarim Admur Hazakein 5571 p. 290
 Brachos 18b regarding Tefillin and a Sefer Torah
 Admur 23:1-2; Michaber O.C. 23:1 and Y.D. 367:4; Rabbeinu Yonah ibid
 Brachos 18a; Yerushalmi Brachos 2:3; Midrash Raba Koheles 9:4
 Arizal in Shaar Hamitzvos Vayechi; Kaf Hachaim 23:1
 See Rama Y.D. 179:14 “And some Poskim rule that it is permitted to make the soul of the deceased swear to appear to him to answer his questions and the prohibition is only on swearing the body.”; Darkei Moshe 179:5 in negation of Beis Yosef; Hagahos Maimanis on Rambam ibid letter 8 in name of Yireim 334-335 in explanation of Maaseh Deshmuel and Ruchos Misapros brought in Brachos 18b regarding how Shmuel [the Amora] talked to the soul of a deceased father; Shibbuleiy Haleket 10, brought in Bircheiy Yosef 179; Shach 179:16 in name of Levush in defense of Rama and Yireim that according to Kabalah there is a difference between the body and its soul, versus the actual soul; Birkeiy Yosef 179 seems to defend the opinion of the Yireim against the arguments of the Michaber; See Zohar Acharei Mos p. 71b that Doreish Eol Hameisim does not apply to the Jewish people and Tzadikim as they are still alive in Gan Eden
The reason: As the Torah only prohibits talking to the dead, and the soul is not dead. [See Beis Yosef ibid]
Other opinions: Some Poskim rule it is forbidden to talk even to the soul of the deceased, alone, without the body. [Michaber 179:14; See Beis Yosef 179 in length in negation of Yireim ibid and his proofs, however see Darkei Moshe ibid, Shach ibid and Birkeiy Yosef ibid for arguments against his negations]
 Explanation of Beis Yosef 179:14 to Maaseh Deshmuel and Ruchos Misapros “The case of Shmuel [the Amora] was done while he was awake and through Hashem’s names.. If one does no action and simply mentions names which causes the spirits to come and talk to him while awake its possible it is not forbidden due to Doresh El Hameisim”; See Perisha 179:23 that it is only forbidden when done with intent for the evil spirit to reside on him. However, if he does the actions with intent to simply hear the speech of the souls, then it is permitted; See Zohar Acharei Mos p. 71b that Doreish Eol Hameisim only applies when one does so with sorcery, as do the gentiles
 See Kesubos 103a regarding Rebbe; Gittin 56b regarding Titus and Balaam
 Taz Y.D. 344:1
 Mavor Yabok Sefas Emes 10
 Midrash Raba Vaeschanon
 Shlah brought in Alef Hamagen 581:113
 Maharam Shick 293; Alef Hamagen ibid
 Midrash Raba Vayikra 36:3; See Minchas Elazar 1:68
 See however Heichal Besht 15 p. 179
 Yagdil 4:128
 Sefer Hamamarim 5681 p. 202