American Reform Responsa
114. Mother’s Name on Son’s Tombstone
(Vol. LXXXVI, 1976, pp. 91-94)QUESTION: A young chaplain-rabbi was killed in Thailand. His family belong to the Hartford Reform Congregation, Beth Israel. His mother is an active National Sisterhood Board member. She asked that the Hebrew inscription on her son’s tombstone should include her name as mother of the deceased. The local funeral director said that this request is improper, that only the father’s name be used with that of the deceased. Is this correct? What traditional law is involved in this matter? (Rabbi Harold S. Silver, Hartford, Connecticut) ANSWER: There is very little firm law governing tombstones. Even the latest works that specialize in these matters have comparatively little to say. Greenwald in his Kol Bo has only a few pages, beginning with page 379, and Shalom Schachne Cherniak, in his Minsheret Shalom, has only a few columns. The reason for the paucity of the law on the matter has some bearing on this discussion. The main purpose of having a tombstone has changed in the passing years. Originally the stone was meant merely to mark a grave as a warning to Kohanim to know what spot to avoid, a warning which would be especially necessary if the grave were in some open field. Later, this purpose of the tombstone changed, since cemeteries (and not scattered graves or caves) developed, and the Kohen could simply avoid the cemetery. Now the purpose of the tombstone is not so much to be a warning to the Kohanim to keep away, but as a guide to the family, to tell them where to come to honor the dead or to pray. In other words, the tombstone is now for the benefit of the family. See, for example, the responsum by Isaac Glick (Yad Yitschak III, #38) who says that the tombstone is for the benefit of the living to know where to come and pray. This change of mood as to the purpose of the tombstone should indicate to us in our specific discussion that the feelings of the bereaved family deserve sympathetic consideration in all the discussions about the tombstone. The discussions that have arisen in recent law about the tombstone usually involve three questions: First, whether it is permitted (as is the custom in certain Orthodox cemeteries) to have a photograph of the deceased on the tombstone (cf. Greenwald, p. 380, note 1). The second discussion is whether the secular date may be used on the tombstone. The third question is whether the tombstone may be used for the benefit of the living (for example, to sit down and rest upon it). This third question has more meaning in the Orient, where the tombstones are not vertical as with us, but are laid horizontally, somewhat elevated, like a bench over the grave. As for the answers to these questions: (1) The photograph on the tombstone is generally frowned upon as a practice; (2) The secular date is reluctantly permitted, if it is at least accompanied by the Hebrew date; (3) As for sitting on the tombstone, that question has some bearing on our question, because what is involved is the question of whether or not the tombstone is not also for the benefit of the living, as mentioned above. Generally that is answered in the affirmative. So, as mentioned above, the desires of the living should have consideration in the discussion of the tombstone. Now as to the specific question: May the tombstone bearing the name of the deceased give the name as the son of his mother, rather than–as is generally the usage–giving his name as the son of his father? Of course, the funeral director (or the rabbi who advised him) would be quite correct if he had merely said that the general custom is to cite a man’s name with his father’s name, e.g., as “Moses, the son of Amram.” This is the way a man is called up to the Torah and thus is his name used in the Get and other formal documents. Nevertheless, the question must be raised–as it is raised here in this comparatively rare question–whether this general custom of using the father’s name is more than custom but is actual law. Is it wrong to use the mother’s name describing the man as “Moses, the son of Yocheved,” instead of “Moses, the son of Amram”? the answer goes to the heart of our question. The Bible records the name of a well-known Biblical character as the son of his mother, and never as the son of his father. King David’s chief general (and his nephew) was Jacob ben Zeruyah. Zeruyah was David’s sister (I Chronicles 2:16). Also in the Talmud there is an Amora whose name was Rav Mari ben Rachel (Yevamot 92b). In fact, the great authority of two centuries ago, Ezekiel Landau, in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (Dagul Merevava to Even Ha-ezer 129.9), speaking of the divorce document in which the proper rendering of each name is vital, says that, in the case of a proselyte, we should use his mother’s name instead of his father’s name, and he cites the precedent of the rabbi mentioned in the Talmud, Mari, the son of Rachel. As a matter of fact, the Pischei Teshuvah, at the end of paragraph 26 to the same divorce section, says that if a man’s name is better known by his mother’s name than by his father’s name, that should be used in the Get, and he says that it is obvious that if it is written thus, the Get is kasher. This permissibility with regard to the divorce document in which the names have to be precise is crucial in all discussion of the specific matter involved here. As a matter of fact, there were communities which actually had an established custom of using the mother’s instead of the father’s name on the tombstone. One such community (and it could hardly have been the only one) wrote to David Hoffman telling of their established custom and wanting to know whether it is correct. He answers (Melamed Leho-il, Orach Chayim 23) and says that the tombstones which he had seen of all the great Rabbis give the father’s name and not the mother’s. Nevertheless, if it is an established custom in the community to use the mother’s name, the custom should be continued, or at least not be objected to. Now, why should such an Orthodox authority as David Hoffman permit the custom of using the mother’s name, when he himself says that the tombstones of the great Rabbis that he saw had the father’s name? The answer clearly must be that although most tombstones have the father’s name, that is because this is the usual way of referring to a man, but that does not mean that the mother’s name may not be used. In fact, in his responsum, he gives some examples in which the mother’s name is used exclusively. In the prayer before the taking out of the Torah on holidays (“Ribbono Shel Olam”), the suppliant refers to himself by his mother’s name. Also in the regular text of the Yizkor on holidays, the deceased is referred to as the child of the mother. (In our Union Prayer Book, we merely say “father” or “mother” or “brother,” and do not use the personal name at all, but in all the Machzorim where the personal name of the deceased is used in the Yizkor, it is always as the child of the mother.) Also, as he correctly points out, it is a well-established custom when we pray for the sick to refer to the sick person by the mother’s name only. This custom is based upon the verse in Psalms 116:16, where the suppliant says, “I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaiden.” Because of all these reasons and established precedents, and in spite of the fact that most of the tombstones that he had seen used the father’s name, David Hoffman nevertheless was unwilling, in those communities where the custom was established to use the mother’s name on the tombstone, to recommend that the custom be no longer followed. To sum up: The tombstone was not a matter of strict detailed law, but largely of custom. When legal disputes have occurred, they emphasized the benefit that the custom might bring to the living. Hence their feelings must be consulted and considered. The devotional literature has many examples in which the mother’s name is used to the exclusion of the father’s name, and there are communities (or there were in Europe) in which the mother’s names were used regularly on the tombstones. In this specific case, therefore, we can say that there is no real objection to the son’s being called the son of his mother. In fact, we might follow the decision of Greenwald (pp. 380-381) with regard to the use of the secular date on the tombstone, namely, if the secular date is used together with the Hebrew date, the use of both dates would be permissible. So here, too, we might say that if the mother would consent to having the name of both parents–hers and her husband’s–there could be no objection at all. But if with her husband’s consent (as the inquirer states), her name alone is used as the parent, there is no real ground for objection.Solomon B. Freehof
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