TALIT FOR THE DEAD AND CREMATION
It is a custom and many people, including Reform Jews, ask that a talit be placed on the deceased prior to the funeral. We, of course, cut off one of the tsitsit. We had a recent request as to whether or not a talit could be placed on a body that is going to be cremated. (Question from Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)
THE SITUATION which prompted this interesting question is in itself rather puzzling. Orthodox Jews who are buried with a talit would not be cremated, since cremation is against Jewish law. Non-Orthodox Jews who would permit cremation are almost invariably buried in everyday clothes. The question, therefore, is rather curious: Why should the family of a man who is to be cremated want to have a talit placed on him? Evidently these people, not otherwise observant in the Orthodox sense (since they will permit cremation) are under the impression that clothing the departed in a talit is one of the essentials of Jewish observance. Therefore it is necessary, as a basis for the answer to the question asked, to analyze the status of this law or custom.
The fact of the matter is that the status of this law or custom is so uncertain that even to this day the law has not been completely clarified and there is an astonishing range of variations as to its observance. Basically, the law stems from the Talmud (b. Menachot 41a) which says that if an old man has prepared a talit to be buried in, this is done and he is so buried (cf. Rashi to the passage). However, the Tosfot to Berachot 18a quotes Rabenu Tam, who says that only those who wear the talit all the time should be buried in it, but we who do not wear it all the time must remove the fringes from it (thus making it pasul, or cancelling its sanc-tity) . The opinion of Rabenu Tam is repeated by many authorities and reflects the basic change of costume as the Jews migrated out of the East to the Western lands. In the East people wore the long loose garment every day, and when this garment was four-cornered, it had to have tsitsith. So they wore the fringes all the time without interruption. But in the West where the long garment was not worn they did not wear a talit all day except at prayer or at study.
The Tur in Yoreh Deah 351 gives the main variation of opinions on this matter. One scholar says that we do put the talit with tsitsith on the dead (Nachmanides) ; another that we remove the tsitsith; and still another that we put the talit on him only while we carry him to the grave and then remove it.
As a matter of fact, it has been the fixed custom in Palestine for many centuries and still firmly held in Israel today that no body is buried in a talit. See the detailed discussion and foundation for this unshaken custom in Gesher Hachayim (Tekuchinsky) Volume II, p. 122 ff.
By the way, this difference between Palestine (Israel) and the rest of the Jewish world on this matter leads to some unhappy incidents as Tekuchinsky records in Gesher Hachayim. A very pious old man, an immigrant from Russia, who was a member of the Chevrah Kadisha in his own city where people were buried in a talit, is shocked at the Palestinian custom and is heartbroken that he will not be so buried. However, in spite of his grief, the custom was to be observed nevertheless. When bodies arrive in Israel for burial there, they come covered with the talit, as is the custom outside of Palestine. But in Israel that talit is removed and generally buried, but not on the body.
In places outside of Palestine and modern Israel, where the custom is to bury with the talit, the com-promise was arrived at to make the talit pasul by cut-ting off one or a number of the fringes. It has, however, happened that very pious scholars, who actually did wear the talit all day, since they did nothing but study, would feel that they had the right to be buried in the kasher talit with its fringes (according to the opinion of Nachmanides mentioned above); but generally the custom of cutting off the fringes was preserved. (See two such incidents referred to in Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Deah 351.)
Another variation besides that of the fringes being removed or not, is the opinion that a man who did not wear the talit at all in his lifetime, even in prayer, should not be permitted to be buried in a talit, even with the fringes gone. Jacob Emden, in his responsa, Volume I #124, refers to such an opinion. See, also, Moses Schick in his responsa, Yoreh Deah 350.
All these variations of the custom, the different opinions outside of Palestine, the sharp distinction between Palestine (Israel) and the rest of Jewry, show that the placing of a talit on the dead is based on custom and not on law. Furthermore, these variations give us some guide as to how to act in circumstances mentioned in the question.
First, it should be explained to the family of those who never wore a talit that while it is not prohibited for such a person to be covered with a talit, it certainly is not in accordance with his own ideas of religious observance. In all the discussion of the variations of observance the scholars are concerned that the talit should bear true testimony to the man’s life. If the man’s life involved worship without a talit, the talit, as it were, misrepresents him. In other words, if it is possible to discourage such families without hurting them, it should be done. If, however, they insist, then their request may be granted since neither Jacob Emden nor Moses Schick strictly forbid the talit under such circumstances.
Then this brings us to the heart of the question. In such a case it will often occur that the body and the talit will be cremated. Can we permit this to be done to a talit? The answer seems quite clear that there is no objection. First of all, the cutting off of some of the fringes makes the talit pasul and it is now only a gar-ment. Its sanctity does not exist. In the small post Talmudic treatise on fringes (tsitsith) Rabbi Abba Saul Ben Botnis said that his father before his death warned him to remove the tsitsith from the talit because the talit is holy (and therefore should not be destroyed by decay). To which the rabbis answered that the talit (i.e., with the fringes) is not holy at all and therefore you may make of it shrouds for the dead and even a saddle for a donkey. So, therefore, there is no harm done if this cloth (certainly if the fringes are removed or cut off) is burned up.
In this regard it certainly has less sanctity than tefilin which have sacred Biblical texts written on parchment, and yet certain pious men have asked to be buried in tefilin (cf. Kol Bo Al Avelut, Greenwald, p. 92, reference to Radbaz). And, also, a Sefer Torah which is pasul is buried with a pious man. It is perhaps possible that some distinction might be made between slow de cay and quick burning. But this is not an essential distinction.
To sum up, then: Since the wearing of a talit is merely a custom and in Israel the dead are never buried in a talit, families of non-Orthodox people should be discouraged from asking that the talit be put upon their dead. If they insist, then there is no objection if the talit be cremated (with the body) since it has no sanctity (cf. Hil. Tsitsith cited above) especially with the fringes removed or spoiled.