RR 168-173

Secular Date for Yahrzeit

Is it wrong to observe the secular date only for Yahr zeit, or to use the secular date on a tombstone?

This question has come up frequently in many families. In the changing conditions of modern life the extent of traditional observance varies from one generation to another, or with the passing of the years it often varies within the life of one generation. This variation in observance often becomes evident in relation to funerals, mourning, and Yahrzeit. Since a death in the family will bring scattered relatives together for one service or group of services, the wide range of variation in observance within the larger family comes to clear expression. Shall the garments be torn (Keriah), shall they sit Shivah for seven days, and how strictly, et cetera? These matters are usually compromised at the time of the funeral. But in later years with regard to the Yahrzeit, the variation in observance leads to permanent difficulties.

Sometimes there is one pious member of the family who keeps record of the Hebrew date of the Yahrzeit and every year informs the rest of the family of the corresponding secular date. But if there is no such person, many of the family forget the Hebrew date and observe the secular date or, believing that the secular date is not the true Yahrzeit after all, tend to forget the Yahrzeit altogether.

Whether it is wrong to use the secular date therefore becomes an important question in the religious life of most Jewish families of the Western world, especially in connection with funeral and mourning rites. It came up first in connection with the permissibility of using the secular date (and also the modern name of the deceased) on the tombstone.

Moses Schick, of Hust, the famous Hungarian authority, was asked about a tombstone that carried the secular date. His responsum is dated 1879 (Yore Deah 171). The rabbi who asked the question wanted to know whether the tombstone should be plastered over or thrown out altogether. Moses Schick is shocked that anyone would put up a stone bearing a secular date, but he has quite a difficult time proving the necessity of the inscription being in Hebrew. His arguments are worth recording since they indicate whatever traditional objections there are to the use of the secular calendar. He says that the first tombstone was set up by our father Jacob, who spoke Hebrew, and that he called the stone matzeva from the root-word meaning “to stand” which therefore was a declaration of the faith that the dead will stand up again in the resurrection. To use any language other than Hebrew is, in effect, a denial of the faith in the resurrection! Furthermore, the secular date is Christian and therefore a violation of the commandment of the Torah (Deuteronomy 18 : 20), that “the name of other gods” shall not be mentioned. A stone thus marked will mislead those who visit the cemetery into the sin of mentioning other gods, and it should therefore be thrown out. The same question was asked of Elazar Deutsch, of Bonyhad (“Peri Ha-sodeh,” I, 3). He also speaks of the Hebrew word matzeva being a proclamation of the faith in the resurrection of the dead (including, of course, the righteous of the Gentiles). He adds that in the world to come the departed will be asked his name (his Hebrew name), and that his non-Hebrew name on the tombstone will create misunderstanding in Heaven, et cetera.

It is evident from the pathetically weak arguments used by the learned rabbinical scholars that there were none stronger, and that the rabbis used any they could find in order to combat what they considered a dangerous tendency to modernism. This is admitted by Rabbi Greenwald in his handbook on funeral customs, “Kol Bo Al Avelus” (p. 381 n.).

Although we do not share the panic of the old Orthodox leaders at the appearance of new social habits and observances, nevertheless, we do share to some extent their preference for the use of Hebrew dates, especially with regard to funeral rituals. We recognize that the experience surrounding funerals and Yahrzeits is frequently of value in re-establishing much religious loyalty in many a family. The people themselves are often eager to follow tradition at funerals as far as they can without too much inconvenience. Therefore we too are inclined to consider whether or not the Yahrzeit can be a means of keeping valuable traditions alive. For example, if each family possessed, as they once did, a Hebrew calendar and had, chiefly because of Yahrzeit, reason to consult it, they would be kept in contact with the dates of the festivals, the names of the Hebrew months, et cetera. This might be our opportunity to spread the little learning involved in the possession and use of a Hebrew calendar.

Pending this, we might do what a number of congregations have been doing—inform each family each year of the date of the Yahrzeit, thus keeping in touch with them and strengthening their desire to come to worship on the Yahrzeit, as tradition requires. In other words, holding to the Hebrew date may give us an opportunity to strengthen Jewish knowledge and observance to some extent.

However, this procedure may not be successful; in that case, we must realize that the likelihood is slim that the average family will, of their own accord, keep in touch with the Hebrew calendar. It has happened frequently that people have felt that only the Hebrew date marks the true Yahrzeit, and that if they have forgotten the Hebrew date, they have forgotten the Yahrzeit. They therefore tend, as is already the case in many families, to abandon the Yahrzeit observance altogether. If they could have been sure that the secular date is acceptable, they might have been more likely to keep the Yahrzeit.

Therefore, a practical and constant question is: Is it wrong to use the secular date? We might say immediately that the Orthodox scholars quoted, who fought so hard against use of the secular date, were unable to find more than a few pathetically weak arguments against it. This would indicate in itself that the secular date cannot be strongly objectionable. There were a number of Jewish eras, besides the present, of reckoning from the presumed creation of the world, as we do today. They sometimes used the Jubilee sequence, sometimes the era since the Exodus from Egypt, and sometimes the date of the destruction of the Temple. Yet simultaneously with these “Jewish dates,” there was in official use, from the days of the Tanaim, a secular calendar, namely, the Seleucid calendar. Although this was openly known as the Greek reckoning, it was also officially known as “the reckoning of contracts” (Minyan Shetarot), and was loyally held to by Jews all through the Talmudic and Gaonic periods. In fact, it was not abolished in Egypt until the sixteenth century and has, until recently, continued in use among Yemenite Jews. The modern Christian date cannot in any way be deemed worse than the pagan Seleucid dating. In fact, the rabbis in the Mishna (Gittin VIII: 6) insisted that the dating of the emperor’s reign was required to make a divorce valid. Joseph Caro (in “Beth Joseph” to Tur, Even Hoezer 127, near the end) says that the rabbis ordained the royal dating for good public relations (Mipne Shalom Malchus).

To us, the common dating is not particularly Christian; it is merely secular, and it is interesting to note that many of the great scholars, leaders of Orthodoxy, did not hesitate to use the secular calendar at times in their correspondence and even in their religious responsa. Many of the responsa given in “Pachad Yitzchok” used the secular date. Moses Isserles begins his Responsum #5 1 with the dating in December of the year 1546. Jair Chaim Bachrach, the great German authority, giving the date of a book, speaks without hesitation of the date, 1428, “according to their record.” Even the paladin of modern Orthodoxy, Moses Sofer himself, wrote letters in German using the secular date (see Igros Soferim, p. 105-6); and in his responsa (Even Hoezer #43), where he discusses the evidence of the death of a soldier, he quotes without hesitation all the secular dates involved.

Clearly, then, the Christian era dates, like the old Greek heathen dates, have simply become general dates for us. There is therefore no traditional ground (except timorousness) for objecting to keeping the Yahrzeit on the secular date and to the use of a modern language on the tombstone.

It might be well if someday we could devise means of using the piety that people feel in relation to funerals and Yahrzeits as a vehicle for inculcating a greater knowledge of Jewish tradition, but until that is done, the notion that only the Hebrew date is correct for the Yahrzeit tends to destroy observance of the Yahrzeit itself. In this case, then, as the Mishna says, “Its reward goeth out with its loss.” It is much better to make it clear, as is the fact, that the secular date is quite acceptable, than to weaken or lose the Yahrzeit altogether.