PERPETUAL LIGHT ON A GRAVE
A family in the congregation is considering the installing of a perpetual light on the grave of a newly deceased member of the family. Would such an installation comport with Jewish traditional law and sentiment? (Asked by Vigdor W. Kavaler, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)
THE PERPETUAL LIGHT has had a well-established place in Jewish tradition from its very beginning. In the laws governing the Tabernacle in the wilderness, there is a mandate that there shall be a perpetual fire on the altar, never to be extinguished (Leviticus 6:6). Also, in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Menorah which stood before the sacred curtain burned perpetually. The idea of perpetual flames or light was carried over to the synagogue itself as the heir to the Tabernacle and the Temple. Thus to this day all synagogues have an Eternal Light burning in front of the Ark.
In the home, lights were always kindled as symbols of the sanctity of the Sabbath and Chanukah. Later, in the Middle Ages, the light came to be used in personal life in connection with the memory of the dead. Thus the custom developed to bring to the synagogue, on Yom Kippur Eve, a candle to be lit during the service in memory of the departed (see Isserles, Orah Hayyim 610:4). Then, still later, possibly about three centuries ago, the memorial light was kindled in the home of the bereaved. This light, now a present custom, was lit during the seven days of mourning (shiva). Possibly the idea of these two types of memorial light was inspired by the verse in Proverbs (20:27): “The soul of man is the lamp of God.”
However, these two late light-customs, the Yom Kippur memorial candle and the candle of mourning in the home, were, of course, not perpetual lights at all. They burned for one evening on Yom Kippur and for seven days during mourning; and moreover, they are only a late development in Jewish custom and have no strong foundation in Jewish law.
As to an eternal light in the cemetery, that has no foundation at all in Jewish law or tradition. The first mention of such a light that I heard of was when I was asked by a midwestern congregation, four or five years ago, as to whether an eternal fire might be lit in the cemetery of the congregation in memory of the six million martyred Jews of Europe. It is certain that the idea of a perpetual light in the cemetery suggested itself to the congregation as a fitting memorial because of the eternal light burning under the Arch of Triumph in Paris in memory of the dead French soldiers (see Modern Reform Responsa, p. 249). The question of a perpetual memorial for the martyred Jews concerned one single light for the entire cemetery. The present question does not apply equally to the entire cemetery, but only to an individual grave. Perhaps the present request was suggested by the light that is kept burning by the Kennedy family on the grave of the martyred President, John F. Kennedy.
As far as I know, there is no mention anywhere in Jewish tradition of an eternal light burning in the cemetery, neither one general light for the entire cemetery, like the memorial for the six million martyrs, nor an individual light at a single grave. Of course, the fact that there is no precedent at all in Jewish tradition does not necessarily mean that we may not start a new custom. The question, then, is whether such a custom is desirable and comports with the general mood of Jewish burial practice and attitude toward the cemetery.
From the point of view of the mood of the tradition with regard to the cemetery, the suggested innovation is objectionable for two reasons, first, from the point of view of conspicuousness, and second, from the point of view of distinctiveness. First, as to conspicuousness: The mood of our cemeteries, from the very beginning, has been subdued, and objections were always raised to too much adornment or conspicuousness of a grave. Many congregations, therefore, guard against the setting up of too large or too ornate a tombstone, or perhaps too much noticeable flowering of plants or trees around the grave. An effort is made that each grave comport with the subdued mood of those who come there for the burial of a dear one or return at a later time to pray at the grave. Therefore, nothing—tombstone, planting, or whatever else—should be other than quiet and subdued.
As for the second consideration, distinctiveness: While it is true that not all graves need to be arranged alike, and there are allowable differences between shapes of tombstones and plantings, care was always taken that no grave should be outstanding as exceptional. Sometimes, of course, the grave of some honored, saintly rabbi had a small hutlike structure over it. This special arrangement was allowed because people came from many communities to pray at the grave of this righteous man, and the grave had to be distinctive so that the pilgrims could find it. But other than that, care was taken that no grave should be outstandingly different from others. In fact, many European communities had special committees to watch over the tombstones, not only as to their size, but to see to it that the inscriptions on them be not too flowery, overpraising the departed (see Kol Bo Al Avelus, p. 380, citing Joseph Schwartz in Hadras Kodesh). Generally the term “partnership” (Maharam Schick, Yore Deah 170) is used concerning the cemetery. We are all equal partners in the cemetery, both the de ceased and the living, and therefore no one grave should stand out as an exception.
All this is not a matter of strict law, but of the mood and spirit of the tradition. If, for example, it were already an established custom to have perpetual fires on many graves, that might be endurable, although of debatable propriety. But to begin a new custom of having a perpetual light on one especial grave would mean taking a step which not only has no basis in Jewish tradition, but which certainly is contrary to the historic mood.