CORR 177-181



At our funeral services there are usually two lights, candles or electric, burning at the head of the coffin. Is this custom based upon tradition? Must there always be two lights? (Asked by Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)


THERE ARE MANY types of light that are used in connection with funerals and mourning: one, the seven- day memorial (shiva) lamp in the house of mourning; two, the annual yahrzeit lamp in the family dwelling; three, the candle that pious people would light on Yom Kippur in memory of their dead (the nehoma light.) And now, in addition, the question concerns lights that burn near the coffin during the funeral service.

The first three lights mentioned have already been discussed in various places in Reform Responsa, Vol. III, 14, 129, etc., but this particular question about lights at the coffin during the service is one that I have not been asked.

First let us dismiss one possible explanation for this light, namely that it is for the purpose of illuminating the face of the departed. It is contrary to Jewish tradition to look at the face of the dead (b. Horayos 13b) and therefore tradition is generally opposed to having the coffin open at all during services (Greenwald, Kol Bo, p. 3 6, #10 ) . It is clear, therefore, that if these lights were for the purpose of illuminating the face of the dead while the coffin is open, it would be simply compounding a sin.

We must therefore look for another source for the lights placed near the body of the dead. Tekuchinsky (of Israel) in the first volume of his two-volume work on mourning laws, Gesher Ha-Chaim {The Bridge of Life) in Volume I, page 49, gives the Palestinian custom (which is of course followed elsewhere) as to handling the body at the time of death. He says that twenty minutes after the time of death, the body is removed from the bed where it died and placed upon the ground. Then, he says, a light is kindled near his head, or, many lights are kindled around him. Some say (he continues) that as many as twenty-six candles should be kindled around the whole body while the bystanders (usually the Chevre Kadisha) recite (three times) the verse from Isaiah 2:5: “O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Then again in Chapter 17, page 157 of the same volume, he deals with the question of whether these lights may be lit on Yom Tov if the person dies on Yom Tov. He answers as follows: “In those places where they are careful about lighting a light at the time when the person dies (i.e., as above) they may do so also on Yom Tov. ”

Joseph Schwartz in his book of funeral customs, Hadras Kodesh, in the closing section, Likkute Dinim, #25, also mentions the fact that we light lights by the dead. But he does not say how many lights are to be lit.

Also Greenwald, in his compendium, Kol Bo, page 23, says: “In many places they light candles after the person dies.”

What is the purpose of these lights, except perhaps the general symbol of the verse in Proverbs 20:27, that the soul of man is a light kindled by God. It is possible that there is a practical purpose, namely, that since now the body will be washed, the lights were simply for the purpose of seing the work more clearly. This explanation is quite possible. But there is also a strange and a mystical explanation for those lights. This explanation is found in the published ethical and ritual will left by Chaim Chiskia Medini, the author of the well-known collection of responsa, S’dey Chemed. He speaks of handling of the body of the dead (in this case, his own body). He says that the body should be subjected symbolically to the “four species of execution” practiced by the Jewish Sanhedrin upon criminals. The purpose of symbolically subjecting the deceased to these four deaths (arba missos bes din) was that whatever sin the departed might have committed, he will now receive its legal punishment and he will be forgiven. Therefore Chaim Chiskia Medini asks that the following shall be done to his body: When it is being lowered onto the stone floor, that for the last handbreadth, it should actually be dropped onto the stone floor. This will be a symbol of execution by “sekilla, ” “stoning.” Then a candle should be lit beside his body and some of the drops of wax be allowed to fall upon his body, and that will be a symbol of the mode of execution “serefa, ” “burning.” And so through symbols of the other two deaths. This symbolization of the “four deaths” was a fairly widespread custom. Cf. Ha-Kuntres HaYechieli, II, 46b.

Thus it would seem possible that these candles had a mystic origin besides the practical usefulness of helping in the washing of the body.

While the above may be a sufficient explanation of the custom asked about, yet after all, it would seem strange that the candle placed by the body at the time of death should be carried over to the funeral service. Actually there is a further explanation closer to being the true origin.

The Mishnah ( Berachos VII, 6) says, “We do not recite a bless ing over the light or over the spices of the dead.” The Talmud (in Berachos 53a) discusses this and Rashi explains the “light of the dead” by saying that in order to honor the dead, they had candles as they led the body to the grave. This custom of the candles lit in the procession of the funeral is also given in the Shulchan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 298:12. Here, then, we have what may be the most plausible source of the custom. It was a well-established practice since Mishnaic times to have candles as part of the funeral procession, and thus it was a part of the preliminary to the procession, namely, the service in the home (or chapel).

It is to be noticed that neither in Tekuchinsky nor in Greenwald, nor in Joseph Schwartz, is there any men-tion of numbers of lights. As for the position of the lights, since in ancient times the candles led the pro-cession, it is logical that they should be at the head of the coffin.