Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
I see that a Southend rabbi refused to attend a shiva for a person who was cremated. What is the reason?
Reform and liberal congregations permit cremation if it is carried out in a reverential manner. Orthodoxy, however, is severely opposed to cremation for a number of reasons. (1) Cremation was a pagan practice in ancient times so that the memory of it is still taints it. (2) Burial in the earth is a religious duty (Deuteronomy 21, 23 as interpreted in Sanhedrin 46b). (3) It is forbidden to mutilate a corpse (Hullin 11b). (4) Cremation is said to contradict belief in the resurrection of the dead.
Some of these reasons a more convincing than others. The last, for instance, depends on a crude, literalist view of the resurrection of the dead. In any event it is certainly true that cremation is against Jewish law as Orthodoxy sees it. (For the vehement opposition to cremation in comparatively recent responsa see the sources quoted by S. Braun: Shearim Metzuyanim Ba-Halacha, New York, 1952).
What of shiva for a person who has been cremated? The only reason I can see for a refusal by a rabbi to attend such a shiva is that the cremated person is to be treated as a sinner who “separates himself from the congregation” of whom the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 345, 5) rules that there is to be no shiva. But nowadays it is surely far-fetched to treat a person who wishes to be cremated as the kind of sinner to whom this applies.
In Grünvald’s Kol Bo on Mourning (New York, 1956, p. 54, note 38) authorities are quoted who state explicitly that it is permitted to visit those who mourn for a person who has been cremated, while they are sitting shiva. So it would seem that the rabbi you mention has favoured an unduly harsh interpretation of the law.
But it is not the habit of this column to give decisions on individual cases in which particular rabbis are involved, not alone for reasons of professional etiquette but because all the circumstances must be known before a definite opinion can be expressed.
Why is a yahrzeit lamp burned in memory of the departed?
Although the custom is not mentioned in the earlier sources, it is generally said to be based on the verse: “The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord” (Proverbs 20, 27). Since the soul is compared to light it is appropriate when the departed is remembered to have a light burning in his memory.
I notice that some headstones at Jewish burial grounds also bear the names of the relations of the deceased while others do not. What are the reasons for this?
These matters are not covered at all by Jewish law and are left solely to the wishes of family of the deceased.
3 July 1970:
What is the rule about a Cohen visiting a cemetery?
A Cohen must not come into contact with a corpse (see Leviticus 21, 1), contact being understood (on the basis of Numbers 19, 14) to mean not alone actual touching but also being under the same roof. The rabbis, as a “fence to the Torah,” extended this to include the presence of the Cohen within four cubits (about six feet) around a grave. Thus in Orthodox Jewish law it is forbidden for a Cohen to be very near to a grave and, at a funeral, he must not stand in the hall where the coffin rests. In many cemeteries a special section of the hall, under a different roof, is set aside for the use of Cohanim. Some teachers have seen in the prohibition the idea that the Cohen as a “priest” must not come into contact with a corpse because the religion he represents, Judaism, is a religion of life, not one centred around death.
24 July 1970:
What is the ruling about women going to cemeteries?
There is no objection whatever to women going to cemeteries except, according to the practice in some communities, for the purpose of a funeral. The Cabalistic reason given for this is because Eve brought death into the world by eating of the forbidden fruit.
28 August 1970:
What is the meaning of the Yahrzeit light?
The custom is in fact very late. It is not mentioned in any of the early sources, but is now fairly well established. The more or less obvious reason is that the light is symbol of the soul: “The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord.” (Provervs 20, 27).
11 September 1970:
I lost my husband recently. Knowledgeable friends tell me that I must not send New Year cards while I am in mourning. Is this correct?
In this instance, at least, your “knowledgeable” friends are not. New Year cards are a recent innovation and could not therefore have been mentioned in the sources in connection with the laws mourning. What it amount to is whether there is any prohibition of a mourner expressing New Year greetings and good wishes and the answer is emphatically in the negative. You need have no qualms about sending New Year cards. Possibly the idea that it is wrong for a mourner to send New Year cards arose out of the laws against mourners giving and receiving greetings during the shiva. But this only applies to the actual week of mourning immediately following the death.
12 February 1971:
I should like to bequeath my eyes for therapeutic purposes upon my death, but have been informed that it is contrary to Jewish law to desecrate the body. I also think that as kidney transplants become more successful more of us may decide to bequeath our kidneys to save lives. What is the halachic reasoning on these matters?
This kind of question has been widely discussed in recent halachic literature and it is very far from the case that, as you imply, the use of organs taken from the dead is forbidden by Jewish law. True, some authorities do take this extreme view, but others disagree with them.
Basically there are two possible offences which may be involved in corneal grafting, kidney transplants and the like. These are: the prohibition of mutilating a dead body and the prohibition of deriving any benefit from a dead body. As for the first, there is evidence from the Talmud that it is permitted to mutilate a dead body if this is done in order to save life or even, in one instance in the Talmud, to settle a monetary dispute. It follows that there would appear to be no reason why the necessary operation should not be done on the corpse in order to use one of his organs for the purpose of saving life or sight.
The same would apply to the second prohibition. Here, in any event, Chief Rabbi I. J. Unterman has recently argued that since the organ grafted becomes part of a living body it is no longer considered to belong to a corpse from which one must have no benefit.
Various complicated discussions are found in the recent legal literature but, according to the general principle in Jewish law that prohibitions can and must be set aside where life is at stake, it would certainly seem that the kind of bequest you have in mind would not only be permitted but would be a mitzva.
17 July 1970:
What is the origin and reason for keria?
Keria, from kara, “to tear,” is the rending of garments on the death of a near relative. The practice is referred to in the Bible, e.g. Jacob rent his garments when he feared that Joseph was dead (Genesis 37, 34) and David did likewise when he heard of Saul’s death. The Talmud (Moed Katan 24a) derives the law from the verse: “Let not the hair of your heads go loose neither rend your clothes” (Leviticus 10, 6), said to Aaron and his sons after the death of their relatives, with the implication that normally mourners are to rend their garments. The reason for the practice is clearly in order to give concrete expression to the grief felt at the passing of a dear one. Keria is performed at the death of a father, mother, husband, wife, brother, sister, son or daughter. Keria is nowadays performed in the following way. A small cut is made with a knife by a member of the burial society and the mourner extends it by hand. Keria for parents is performed on the left side of the garment (next to the heart) but for other relatives on the right side.
14 August 1970:
I find it difficult to keep track of the Hebrew date of my parents’ Yahrzeit. Can I not observe the anniversary of the civil date? And if not why not?
No, you may not observe the anniversary on any other than the Hebrew date. Why not? Because the observance of Yahrzeit is a Jewish religious obligation and should quite obviously be carried out on the date according to the Jewish calendar. The secretary of your synagogue will be prepared to work out the Hebrew date for you and keep you annually informed of it at the right time.
23 October 1970:
Why Yahrzeit? Is there a Hebrew word for the observance? Is it a purely Ashkenazi tradition?
The Hebrew term is: yom shemet bo, the day on which (the parent) died. The term is found in the Talmud (e.g., Nedarim 12a) and it appears that in Talmudic times people used to fast, or, at least, abstain from meat and wine, on the anniversary of the death of a parent. Dr H. J. Zimmels, former principal of Jews College (Ashkenazim and Sephardim, p. 186) notes that the day is called by the Sephardim Nachala and Meldado. Nowadays the anniversary is observed chiefly by attendance at synagogues to recite kaddish and by kindling the Yahrzeit light.
26 March 1971:
As a converted Jew could you clarify my position at the death of my parents (re kaddish, etc.)?
The actual laws of shiva and Kaddish do not apply (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dead, 374, 5). However, natural expressions of grief of a less formal nature are appropriate in such circumstances.
Are there certain times of the year when it is forbidden for tombstones to be consecrated?
In fact there is no law that a tombstone consecration ceremony has to take place at all. But since a memorial prayer is recited after the ceremony and an address delivered, some people avoid having the ceremony on a minor festival or on the new moon so as to avoid the prayer and the address on these days of minor festivities.