RRT 169-171



A request was made by someone closely bereaved that the face of the dead be photographed and the photograph be sent to relatives who live too far away to come to the funeral. Is this procedure proper according to Jewish law and tradition? (Asked by Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)


THE QUESTION is bound up with the broader question of whether it is proper to look at the face of the dead. In general, the law, as developed in the last century or so, is opposed even to looking upon the face of the dead. The question is comparatively new because it is only in recent years, when Jews have come into greater contact with non-Jews, that the custom of “lying in state” was borrowed by Jews. The rabbis, knowing that this is a new custom, and that it was bor rowed from the Gentile environment, were, of course, opposed to it, first, by their general feeling of opposition to any novelty in old customs (Moses Sofer said: “New things are forbidden by the Torah”), and second, and more specifically, because this was clearly an imitation of Gentile practice, which is in itself a sin, a violation of the Biblical command: “Thou shalt not go in the way of their practices” (Leviticus 18:3). In this specific case, however, the rabbis opposing “lying in state” had at least two Talmudic statements on which to rest their case, and these two statements have bearing on your specific statement about photographing the dead. One statement is in b. Horayoth 13b, in which it is said that the mind of the beholder is badly affected (i.e., his memory weakens) if he looks on the face of the dead. The other is from b. Moed Katon 27a, in which the Talmud says that the faces of the corpses of the poor were covered because their suffering made the faces ugly. “Then,” the Talmud continues, “they covered the faces of all [the dead] out of honor to the dead.” Clearly the Talmud considers it a violation of the honor or dignity of the dead that people should stare at their faces. At all events, the custom of covering the faces of the dead is recorded as law in the Shulchan Aruch ( Yore Deah 353:1).

Joseph Schwartz, who edited a rabbinic magazine, Vay’laket Joseph, in which many practical questions are discussed by various rabbis, chiefly Hungarian, deals precisely with your question of photographing the face of the dead. In Vol. 8, # 5 7 and (in the next issue) # 8 0, the question is dealt with. In # 5 7 he raises the question himself. In # 8 0 Rabbi Isaac Weiss of Karlberg gives his opinion. Schwartz himself, in #57, raises the general objection of the law against the living getting any benefit from the dead ( hanoasha-mayss). Then he raises the doubt whether mere looking is to be deemed a benefit (hanoa) to the beholder; but, he adds, the professional photographer who gets paid for doing the work is getting a benefit from the dead. Therefore a Jewish photographer should certainly not do the work if it is to be done at all. Rabbi Isaac Weiss is more definitely against the practice, and he speaks of the fact that when the great Hungarian rabbi, Judah Assad, died, a photograph was taken of his face to be distributed and sold. This was a wrong action which he properly denounces. In general, then, he is opposed to the practice.

Based upon what there is in the law on the matter, I would say as follows: The mood of the law is clearly against it, although the arguments (benefits from the dead, etc.) which are cited are not very strong. These arguments may be weak, but the feeling is strong that it ought not to be done. If, then, the person had never been photographed before, and there is no picture of him as a remembrance, there might be some justification for photographing the face of a corpse, but nowadays this is highly unlikely. Let them keep the picture of him taken in life, not the pathetic picture of the dead face; or as Rabbi Weiss said at the end of his responsum, “Let them remember his words and his good deeds.” In short, while I would not forbid the practice, I would discourage it as much as possible.