Funeral Service in the Sanctuary
If a funeral takes place in a synagogue, do the Torah scrolls need to be removed from the ark? Does the presence of a deceased person render the scrolls impure? An article in the recent Reform Judaism magazine noted that there is a congregation which holds services in a Chevra Kadisha, so the scrolls must be removed because the deceased makes them impure. (Rabbi Amy Bigman, Lansing, Michigan)
We are not familiar with the practice of the congregation to which the article refers. What we can say, however, is that the presence of a deceased person does not render Torah scrolls impure. Neither, for that matter, does anything else. This is based on a statement in the Talmud, in the name of R. Yehudah ben Beteirah, that “the words of Torah do not contract ritual impurity” (ein divrei torak mekablin tumah). Both Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh cite the statement as authoritative halakhah: “any impure person, including a menstruating woman, is permitted to take hold of a Torah scroll and to read it, since ‘the words of Torah do not contract ritual impurity.’” Thus, if a funeral service is held in a sanctuary, the Torah scrolls need not be removed for fear of ritual defilement.
There is another reason, however, for removing a Torah scroll from the vicinity of a corpse. Another talmudic statement informs us that “one should not enter a cemetery while holding a sefer torah (Torah scroll) and reading from it. One who does so transgresses the maxim: ‘He who mocks the lowly (lo`eg larash) shows contempt for his Maker (Proverbs 17:5).’” The person carrying the Torah scroll “mocks the lowly” – that is, the dead – because he flaunts his ability to read the Torah and study it, mitzvot they can no longer fulfill. The Talmud passage sets a four-cubit limit to this prohibition: so long as one maintains at least that distance from a corpse, one may read and study Torah at that spot. The major codifiers cite the rule, which in turn serves as a possible justification for removing the Torah scrolls before bringing the coffin into the sanctuary. The congregation might easily rectify this problem, of course, by making sure that the ark is closed during the funeral or that the coffin is kept at least four cubits away from the ark.
Parenthetically, we would add that, from our perspective, the concept of lo`eg larash is an exceedingly weak reed with which to support the prohibition. We no longer believe that the dead are somehow “mocked” or insulted when we perform mitzvot in their presence. The opposite, in fact, is the case: we believe that we fulfill the mitzvah of kevod hamet (showing honor to the dead) when we pray or study Torah in their presence as acts of tribute to them and to the example they set for us in their lives.
All of this, however, raises another question for us: if there is no objection to bringing a corpse into a room that houses Torah scrolls, is it permissible for a Jewish community to hold funeral ceremonies in its synagogue sanctuary? This is a disputed question in the tradition. On the one hand, the practice is prohibited as a general rule. The Talmud includes the “private funeral” (hesped shel yachid) among a list of activities forbidden in the synagogue on the grounds of kalut rosh, an attitude of disrespect that is out of keeping with the dignity of the place. On the other hand, a “public funeral” (hesped shel rabim) is permitted there. Rashi explains a “public funeral” as that of a deceased Torah scholar, “for which a large crowd will gather, and the synagogue, being a large structure, can accommodate them.” The precedent for such a “public funeral” is that of R. Yehudah HaNasi, whose body was carried into eighteen separate synagogues. The codifiers limit the permit of public funerals to ceremonies for outstanding Torah scholars. Yet even they are willing to make exceptions for “communal leaders” (gedolei ha`ir) and their relatives, for whose funerals a large crowd can be expected to assemble. More recent halakhic authorities have complained that these limited exceptions have by now become the rule, to the point that “the funeral of every person, no matter how nonobservant he or she may have been in life, is held in the synagogue, so long as they pay the fee in full.”These authorities urge that the strict limits be restored: only the funerals of outstanding Torah scholars may be held in the synagogue.
What does this history say to us, as Reform Jews? We can learn from it, first of all, that there is no hard and fast prohibition in Jewish law against holding funeral services in the synagogue sanctuary. And we can also conclude that there is no good reason any longer to distinguish between “public” (permitted) and “private” (prohibited) funerals: to allow “important” persons a funeral ceremony in the synagogue while denying that option to “lesser” individuals is surely offensive to our democratic and egalitarian commitments. We are also not likely to be persuaded by the tradition’s rationale for the prohibition of private funerals. A funeral, no matter how “private,” is hardly an occasion for kalut rosh. On the contrary: we would say that the synagogue setting is especially conducive to an attitude of solemnity and reverence. In addition, there are substantive positive arguments for holding funeral services (even “private” ones) in the synagogue. For example, a small Jewish community that lacks convenient access to a Jewish funeral home might find it quite helpful, for the same reasons offered by Rashi in justifying the permit for “public” funerals in the synagogue, to schedule many or even all of its funeral ceremonies in its sanctuary space.
Still, we hesitate to give a blanket affirmative response. The fact that Jewish tradition actively discourages (even though it does not absolutely prohibit) the holding of funerals in the synagogue is of considerable weight in our thinking. It is tradition, after all, that defines the nature of our religious observance. Put differently, it is tradition that tells us what is “Jewish” about a Jewish funeral. When that tradition instructs us that funerals as a general rule are not to be held in the synagogue, it may be saying less to us about kalut rosh than about the simple fact that our people have historically tended to reserve mourning for places other that the synagogue, the space set aside for communal prayer. These geographical lines, as we have seen, are not set in stone. Yet they do outline for us the contours of our communal religious life, not all of which must take place within the confines of the synagogue building. To the extent that we continue to find those contours meaningful, and to the extent that they continue to distinguish our own religious observance from that of our neighbors, their observance is beneficial to us all.
For these reasons, we would encourage Reform congregations to think carefully about their policies regarding funeral services in the synagogue sanctuary. A congregation may decide to prohibit all such services, or it may permit all funerals of members to be held in that sacred space. We think it is more likely that congregations will adopt or continue to follow the traditional practice of allowing funerals in the sanctuary in exceptional cases. If so, they should make sure to define “exceptional cases” in a way that is not divisive to the community and that does not conflict with the egalitarian values that ought to characterize Reform Jewish life.
- B. Berakhot 22a.
- Yad, Tefilin 10:8.
- SA Yoreh De`ah 282:9. The passage in SA omits the final dependent clause, but it is clear that R. Yosef Karo accepts Rambam’s reasoning – “the words of Torah do not contract ritual impurity” – from his comment to the parallel passage in the Tur (see Beit Yosef, Yoreh De`ah 282, s.v. kol hateme’im).
- B. Berakhot 18a, in a baraita.
- See Rashi to B. Sotah 43b, s.v. lekeri’at shema.
- Jewish law measures one’s “personal space” or domain as a radius of four cubits. One who stands beyond that distance is no longer literally standing in the “presence” of the other person. See, for example, Yad Talmud Torah 6:1: one is obliged to rise before a Torah scholar once the latter has approached to within a radius of four cubits.
- Yad, Sefer Torah 10:6 and SA Yoreh De`ah 282:4. Neither posek cites the justification lo`eg larash, but that detail is supplied by the commentaries to both.
- SA Yoreh De`ah 367:6: the “four cubit” rule is waived when there is a partition (mechitzah) between the corpse and the Torah scroll.
- See, in general, R. Solomon B. Freehof, Modern Reform Responsa, no. 48.
- B. Megilah 28b.
- See Rashi, Megilah 28a, s.v. ein okhlin bahen: “all these prohibited activities are examples of kalut rosh, in that they cheapen or degrade (mekilin) the place.” Elsewhere, Rashi defines kalut rosh as as latzon (“joking” or “foolishness”; B. Shabbat 30b, s.v. kalut rosh ). In Suukkah 25b, s.v. umin hatefilin, he pairs it with shikhrut, “drunkenness.”
- Rashi, Megilah 28b, s.v. hesped shel rabim.
- Midrash Kohelet Rabah 11:7.
- Yad, Tefilah 11:7and, especially, SA Yoreh De`ah 344:19: “for no one else is this permitted.”
- SA Orach Chayim 151:1 and Magen Avraham, no. 3. The precedent on this point is the funeral of the daughter-in-law of the amora Rafram; B. Megilah 28b.
- “The speaker will eulogize them with lies and falsehoods, and the rabbi makes no effort to protest”; R. Yekutiel Greenwald (20th-century USA), Kol Bo al Aveilut, p. 100.
- R. Avraham Danzig (18th-19th century Germany/Lithuania), Chokhmat Adam 155:18; Resp. Maharam Schick, YD 345.
- As we have written in another context (Responsa Committee, no. 5764.3, http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=3&year=5764:Liberal Judaism affirms the value of religious pluralism in our society. Our understanding of pluralism allows us to engage in interreligious dialogue, participate in interfaith worship that is respectful to all faiths involved, and occasionally borrow non-Jewishpatterns and styles of worship and adapt them to our own distinctlyJewish worship. That understanding, however, also presumes the existence of real and essential differences,distinctions, and boundaries between religious faiths and faith communities. Judaism, therefore, is different from other faiths in its commitments and practices, and it is frequently the task of rabbis to call ourpeople’s attention to this distinctiveness and the boundary lines that define our unique religious tradition.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.