CARR 217-218




Contemporary American Reform Responsa


145. Memorial Gifts


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


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


January 1978


If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.