American Reform Responsa
110. Insignia on a Tombstone
(1980)QUESTION: Is a Jewish cemetery justified in its rule that each headstone or family memorial must have the insignia of either the Star of David or a Menora? (Dr. Frederick C. Schwartz, Chicago, Illinois)ANSWER: This question should be answered in two parts. First, let me deal with regulations, with the tradition and its statements about tombstones. The Bible already records marking graves of various individuals through a special monument, e.g., Jacob set up a pillar for Rachel (Gen. 35:20). It seems that rather grand markers were placed over the graves of kings (II Kings 23:17), and this custom was continued by some of the Maccabean rulers (I Macc. 13:27ff; B. San. 96b). We now know a good deal about grave markers and sarcophagi from the Greco-Roman period through the efforts of modern archaeology. Many of them used both Jewish and Greek symbols as decoration. The grave markers as discussed by the Talmud not only honored the dead, but also warned priests of the presence of a grave, as priests were forbidden to come into any kind of contact with the dead (M. Mo-ed Katan 1.2). Every effort has been made through the centuries to simplify everything connected with the funeral and burial, and to make burial democratic. Thus, Rabban Gamliel of the Mishnaic period had himself buried in a simple linen garment as an example, although he was a man of considerable wealth (B. Ket. 8b, Mo-ed Katan 27b). An extreme statement in this regard concerning tombstones is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, which, in one instance, stated that “righteous people do not need a tombstone, as their words are their memorial” (Yer. Shek. 2.6). Subsequently, everything has been done to assure simplicity of tombstones; so Moses Schick (Responsa Maharam Schick, Yoreh De-a, #170) objected strongly to a tombstone on which a portrait was to be engraved, as that violated the spirit of uniformity and democracy. Abraham Isaac Glick similarly emphasized uniformity (Yad Yitschak, 3.83). Parallel objections have been raised to placing photographs on tombstones as occurred in some Orthodox cemeteries (Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut, pp. 380ff). The emphasis, therefore, has always been on simplicity, and it is certainly within the prerogative of any burial society or cemetery association to enforce rules which demand simplicity and uniformity (Joseph Schwartz, Hadrat Kodesh, pp. 30bff). There could be no objection to requiring the Star of David or a Menora on every tombstone. A word should be said about the two symbols which have been prescribed by the cemetery association. Although the Star of David is an old symbol, and has been used by many people throughout history, its Jewish association began with mystical circles of the 12th century. A broader use of the Star of David as a Jewish designation had its inception in the Prague Jewish community, which had been given the privilege of its own flag by Charles IV in 1354. The insignia chosen was the Star of David. It eventually spread from the flag to ritual items and books. No world-wide use of the Star of David occurred until the 19th century, when Jews felt the need for a universally recognized symbol, and adopted the Star, which eventually also became the symbol on the flag of the State of Israel. The Menora is, of course, the oldest symbol of Judaism associated with the ancient desert tabernacle, as well as Solomon’s Temple, and was used in many ways, including frequent use as decoration on tombstones in the Greco-Roman period and in subsequent times. We can see that both the Star of David and the Menorah are appropriate symbols for Jewish tombstones. It is within the prerogative of a cemetery association to require their use on each stone as a way of emphasizing the uniformity and the democratic spirit of Judaism.Walter Jacob
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