VISITING THE CEMETERY
A man from Hartford, Connecticut, visiting his father in Milwaukee, decided also to visit his mother’s grave in the Milwaukee cemetery. It was Chol Ha-Moed of Passover. When he returned from the cemetery, his father rebuked him, saying that he should not have visited the cemetery during this period. Was he right? What rules govern visiting the cemetery? (Asked by Rabbi Harold Silver, Hartford, Connecticut.)
THIS FAMILY INCIDENT involves a rather important question. When is it proper and when is it improper to visit the cemetery? And are these rules a fixed and an authoritative part of Jewish traditional law?
This question, like many other questions of popular observance, involves a number of larger questions. The first is: Are the laws of visiting the cemetery to be deemed Biblical law (which is the most authoritative) or only rabbinical law in elaboration of the Bible ( M’d’Oraisa or M’d’Rabbanun)! The second question is: Is this, altogether, a question of law, or is it a question merely of popular custom ( Din or Minhag) ? If it is only Minhag, then there is this further question: Is it a well-established or widespread Minhag (in which case it would be deemed as authoritative as law itself) or is it merely a local Minhag? All these questions need to be settled in all cases where there is a dispute with regard to any observance, in order to know how strictly the observance must be followed.
As soon as one looks at the question of visiting the cemetery, one finds an astonishing vagueness as to the observances and a curious variety. In almost every case where the visiting is mentioned, it is mentioned with the words, “It is a custom in some places to visit on this and this day,” etc. In some places it is a custom to visit on Erev New Year and Erev Yom Kippur. (This custom is traced to Frankfurt; mentioned by the recorder of Old Frankfurt customs, Yosef Ometz). In some places the cemetery is not to be visited during the month of Nisan. Some Cabalistic sources (mentioned in the name of the Ari) say that a woman in her period should not visit the cemetery. The variety of customs indicates in itself that the entire question of cemetery visiting is not really in the realm of law, but only in the realm of custom, and not too widespread a custom either. The best proof of this fact is that you do not find in any of the codes any worked-out listing of the days in which the cemetery may or may not be visited.
If that is the case, the best thing to do is to go back to basic principles and decide the question involved here on more general grounds. The basic question involved here is derived from the Talmud. The Talmud, in Taanis 16a, describing the ritual on the fast days (referring to the special fast days called in case of drought) says that among other observances, people visit the cemetery on these fast days. To which the Tosfos comments and says, “That is why we visit the cemetery on the Ninth of Av.” This comment of the Tosfos on the Talmud establishes a general rule for us, namely, that the proper time to go to the cemetery is on fast days or, in general, at penitential times; hence Erev Yom Kippur, Ten Days of Penitence, etc. We may also derive the reverse rule that we may not visit the cemetery on days of happy holidays; so not on the Sabbath, nor on the Yom Tov.
This reasoning, however, leaves the specific question of Chol Ha-Moed somewhat open. Is Chol Ha-Moed holiday enough to make cemetery visitations improper? After all, we do have funerals on Chol Ha-Moed (but perhaps that is because a funeral cannot be long postponed). On the other hand, it is a generally observed rule not to have weddings on Chol Ha-Moed, so as not “to mix one joy with another.” So Chol Ha-Moed is enough of a holiday to say, perhaps, there is justification for the custom not to visit the cemetery then. But this is not really well-established. If you look in the Shulchan Aruch (Orah Hayyim 548) where the laws of Chol Ha-Moed are given, there is no mention at all of prohibiting cemetery visiting; and if you look in the Yore Deah (401) where the law of mourning is given as it applies to Chol Ha-Moed, there is no mention there either. So in general we may say affirmatively, there is a custom to go to the cemeteries at penitential times, the Ninth of Av, the month of Elul, the Ten Days of Penitence, Erev Rosh Hashonah and Erev Yom Kip pur. As to the days, then, on which we may not visit the cemeteries, we may say on Sabbath and holidays and possibly, also, on Chol Ha-Moed.
But a clear proof that all this is only Minhag is to be found in Greenwald’s well-known handbook, Kol Bo, page 166, who quotes an authority, Mishmeres Shalom, (Shachne Tcherniak) to this effect: If a person has a sick person at home and he wants to go to the cemetery to pray in his or her behalf, he may go even on Chol Ha-Moed, the New Moon and the Sabbath.
So the whole matter is based on custom. While generally we may say that it is preferable not to visit on Chol Ha-Moed, nevertheless if the son came halfway across the country for a brief visit, he certainly may violate this custom and visit his mother’s grave on Chol Ha-Moed, as he would have been permitted had he a sick person to pray for at his mother’s grave. His father should not have rebuked him, unless, of course, what he really wanted was for the son to prolong his visit and then he could go to the cemetery after Pesach.