AN ETERNAL FLAME IN THE CEMETERY
A proposal has been made that in our local Jewish cemetery, which is used by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, that a special type of memorial be built. There is to be a bronze Magen David out of which will emerge a perpetual flame. Is there any objection in Jewish law against this type of memorial? (From Rabbi John Rosenblatt, St. Joseph, Missouri.)
THE QUESTION would not have been asked if there had not already been considerable discussion about the proposed memorial in the community. No doubt a good deal of the discussion involved emotional reactions. People must have expressed certain feelings against or in favor of the plan. There is no use in discussing the various possible types of emotional reactions and the various mental associations that some people might have at the thought of the perpetual flame in the presence of the dead. These reactions are difficult to explain and often have no real basis. Let us assume that the general emotional reaction tends to be favorable and that, therefore, the question is now being asked on the more realistic ground: namely, whether there is any objection in Jewish legal tradition to this plan.
While of course there is no direct precedent (as far as I know) in past Jewish law or practice for the use of a perpetual fire as a cemetery memorial, the fact that it is new does not necessarily make it wrong, provided the spirit of Jewish law would not have been against it had this, let us say, been proposed in the days of the Talmud. In other words, let us imagine that this was proposed seventeen hundred years ago. Are we now able to judge what the answers of the rabbis would have been? I think that we can, because the Talmud contains considerable discussion on a rather analogous subject.
It is true that they did not know of any permanent flame, but in Biblical times they did light a bonfire of the king’s possessions at his grave. This we know from the passage in Jeremiah 34:4-5. The Prophet Jeremiah reassures King Zedekiah that in spite of invasion by the Babylonians, he will not die by the sword, but will be buried with his ancestors and that the same bonfires (misrafot) that were burned for his ancestors will be burned for him. This custom of burning a fire at the grave is discussed in the Talmud in two places, in Avodah Zarah 1 1a and in Sanhedrin 52b. The question that concerns the Talmud is whether or not this is a heathen custom. Evidently they had observed that the heathens did have such a fire at the grave and so they ask, how is it possible that Jeremiah should promise the righteous King Zedekiah that he would be given the privilege of such a fire as his ancestors had?
The Talmud settled this question in a way that becomes a principle in Jewish law, namely, that since Scripture mentions it, then “we did not learn it from them.” In other words, the heathens may do the same thing, but we do it not because they do it, but because of our own tradition. It is only if we learned it from them that it would be a violation of the prohibition of “imitating Gentile customs,” i.e., the prohibition involved in the commandment, “Thou shalt not walk according to their statutes” (Leviticus 18:3). There-fore as far as one possible prohibition to the proposed memorial we can say this: There is no Christian observance, as an official part of the Christian religion requiring such a flame. Of course, certain Christians may have used such a flame. There is a memorial flame under the Arch of Triumph in Paris in honor of the French soldiers. There is also a flame on the grave of President Kennedy. But such a flame is not a widespread custom, nor is it an established observance in the Christian religion. See the Tosfot to Avodah Zarah 1 la, beginning with the words i chuka (“if it is a law”). Only if it is an established law or custom of the Gentile religion or even the Gentile community, would such a flame be prohibited to Jews as a violation of “walk not in their statutes.” This is the Talmudic test.
Now there is another possible objection that might be raised. The eternal fire is found in ancient Jewish tradition in the Temple: “An eternal fire shall burn upon the altar, never to be extinguished” (Leviticus 6:6). Now since this eternal fire was on the altar in the Temple, it might be argued that we have no right to imitate it. There is a definite law stemming from the Talmud (Menachot 28b) that we may not imitate the architecture of the Temple or the porch or the sacred table or the menorah. Maimonides (Bet Habechirah VII: 10) upon the basis of the Talmud, says that what is prohibited is an exact copy. Therefore, if you made a menorah not of seven but of eight or of five branches, or even if you made one of seven branches and it was not of gold as in the Temple but of other material, this would not be prohibited.
So here, too, if this proposed flame rose from what purported to be a copy of the altar in the Temple (as described minutely in Scripture) there might be an objection on that ground. Yet even so the objection would not be a firm one, because we have no right to add prohibitions to those mentioned in the law; and the Talmud in Menachot, listing what may not be imitated, makes no mention of a copy of the altar being prohibited. Besides, the memorial as described has a flame spring out of a foundation that is nothing like the altar. Thus, neither the prohibition of imitation of Gentile practice, nor the prohibition of copying the appurtenances of the Temple can be applied to this proposal. Actually, something positive may well be said in favor of the plan; and here we must return to what is a matter of sentiment. If there is a widespread feeling in the community that this flame would be a worthy way of honoring the dead, then this motivation of honoring the dead is not only praiseworthy but has a strong validity in the law. This is clearly evident from the law requiring immediate burial. This law is clear and definite; nevertheless, the exceptions to it in the Shulchan Aruch are also definite. In Yoreh Deah 357:1 it says, “It is forbidden to keep the body overnight, except when it is done for the honor of the dead, to inform his relatives, or to make adequate announcement, or to procure the proper shrouds,” etc. In other words, a great deal is permitted if it is for the honor of the dead.
Since, therefore, there are no legal objections to this proposed flame, and also, provided that there is a widespread sentiment that it would be an appropriate honor to the dead, this memorial may well be established in the cemetery.