Contemporary American Reform Responsa

145. Memorial Gifts

QUESTION: The National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods Board would like to establish a way of honoring deceased members without seeking separate contributions on each occasion of sorrow. Does our tradition encourage equality, or should rank and past service be recognized? What precedent does Jewish tradition provide? (A. Raizman, Pittsburgh, PA)

ANSWER: We should divide this question into two segments, one dealing with honors due to the deceased, and the second with memorial gifts. Judaism has, for along time, stressed equal and simple treatment for all our dead. Rabban Gamliel (Ket. 8b; M. K. 27b), a wealthy Jewish leader of the second century, specified that he be buried in linen shrouds, and encouraged his disciples to follow that example. Such simplicity has been basic Jewish practice ever since. Many European communities carried this matter further and established strict regulations about grave markers to assure that they were equal in size, and in some communities even the inscription was scrutinized to avoid excessive elaboration (Maharam Schick, Responsa Yoreh Deah 170; J. Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut, p. 380). We have continued to follow these customs with our deceased and try to maintain simple dignity at our funerals and in our cemeteries.

Gifts made in memory of those who are dead also have a long tradition behind them. The custom of reading names of the deceased began in the Rhineland during the Crusades, when lists of martyrs were recited on Yom Kippur, and eventually on the last day of the festivals. Later names of those deceased who left a gift to the congregation were added. Still later, this custom spread to the shabbat in the form of a mi sheberakh recited after the Torah reading. Similar blessings can, of course, be recited for the living as well as the dead.

Memorial gifts, therefore, became a way of helping maintain the synagogue and honoring the dead. Naturally, large gifts were encouraged, but we should note that the mi sheberakh remained the same whether it was accompanied by a large or a small gift, though at times the specific sums given were announced. A general mood of equality prevailed in most communities (Or Zaruah II, 21b; J. Zunz, Die Ritus, pp. 8 f; I. Elbogen, Gottesdienst, pp. 201 ff).

Equality in the maintenance of religious institutions was emphasized through the ancient Temple tax of one-half or one third sheqel per person levied upon Jews throughout the ancient world. It was based on Exodus (30.11- 16) and is discussed thoroughly in the Talmudic tractate Sheqalim. After the destruction of the Temple, this tax was paid directly to Rome as the fiscus Judaicus. This became the basis for the special Jewish taxes in the Middle Ages.

We may conclude that our tradition has sought to honor our be loved dead while maintaining a sense of equality. Perhaps the Brotherhood Board might continue this by providing gifts of books to colleges through the Jewish Chautauqua Society. The number of volumes might vary according to the means available, but that information would remain confidential; everyone would simply know that an appropriate memorial gift had been made. Certainly other means of expressing this thought are possible.

January 1978

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.