RRT 182-186



The custom is growing in our city of detouring the funeral procession to pass the synagogue. The procession is halted at the synagogue door, and often El Mole Rachamim is recited there. (Asked by Rabbi Morris M. Tosk, Bayonne, New Jersey.)


YOUR INQUIRY includes a number of interesting questions. Let me answer your last question first. You ask about the propriety of holding funerals in the synagogue. I have already dealt with the matter rather fully in Reform Jewish Practice (Vol. II, pp. 54 ff.) and have included nearly all the material.

Your other question concerns the custom of the funeral procession making a detour in order to pass the synagogue where there is often the recitation of El Mole Rachamim. This is a well known practice. I have heard of the custom, although I have never participated in this type of funeral procession. Since, however, it is so well known, I thought it would be an easy matter to find a discussion of it, either in the Codes or in the books of minhagim. To my surprise, there is no mention anywhere in any of the sources, as far as I could find, describing a funeral procession stopping in front of the synagogue. Why should such a well-known custom not be recorded? The only possible explanation, it seems to me, must be that the custom is not as well known or as widespread as we thought. Sometimes a custom is local in origin and therefore is not recorded. Then for some mysterious reason it becomes widespread, and one looks in vain for the expected description of the observance.

The diffusion process of a custom is exemplified in the supposed prohibition of burying a woman next to a man not her husband. The prohibition was completely unknown or disregarded in the great communities of Europe, but was followed in the province of Bukowina. Then it spread into wider observance; but you will seek in vain for a clear-cut reference to it in the codes or in the books of minhagim. So it may well have been with the custom of circuitous funeral processions arranged to pass the synagogue or synagogues. It spread from a local custom and has not yet had time to be permanently recorded.

Since there is no record of the widespread custom of halting the funeral procession at the synagogue, it seemed possible that this was a non-Jewish practice, or a folk practice, which found its way into Jewish life. But I inquired of two veteran undertakers, one Jewish and one Christian. The Jewish undertaker assured me that as far back as he remembers, at least half of Orthodox families ask that the procession be halted at the synagogue, and about half of them wanted the El Mole Rachamim recited there. The Christian undertaker told me that he knew of no Christian custom, Catholic or Protestant, to stop the procession at the gates of the church, except, he said, for Chinese families. It is evident, then, that this custom was not learned or did not seep into Jewish life from Gentile sources, but must somehow come from Jewish sources, if only in a folkloristic way.

However, although the circuitous funeral procession seems not to be recorded as such, it has some sort of authentic origin. First of all, the law required (Yore Deah 343, 4) that all work in the city cease when there is a funeral. The purpose of the cessation of work was that people might accompany the funeral procession, which was an important mitzvah. Now, of course, if there were a regular Chevra Kadisha in the city, or if the city were especially large, the duty of stopping work and accompanying the funeral was eased. These laws had specific reference at the funeral procession of a rabbi or teacher. His students had to cease their work, namely, their studies. Thus the school was closed. If the deceased was a chief rabbi of the city (av bes din) and presumably also teacher in all the schools, all the schools in the city were closed ( Yore Deah 444 : 18).

Now a rabbi’s funeral should take place in or inside of the synagogue; in fact, sometimes in the synagogue itself (or at least in the beth ha-midrash), as will be seen in the article in Reform Jewish Practice, Vol. II, pp. 54 ff. (Yore Deah 444:19). We pass over the dispute as to whether the body of the rabbi should actually be brought in or merely that the eulogy be given in the absence of the body. The fact remains that the funeral of a scholar was in one way or another connected with the synagogue building.

Now add to the fact that the study house, the beth ha-midrash, was part of the synagogue building, and since the work of study had to cease at the teacher’s funeral, it is obvious that the students would participate in the procession itself or utter prayers when the procession came to the synagogue (or more specifically, to the beth ha-midrash, the school). So the custom was primarily to bring the body of the teacher by the school {beth ha-midrash), where the students were obligated to quit their studies and participate in the service.

We must take into account the fact that there is a general tendency to democratize funeral practices in Jewish life (beginning with the Talmudic decision of Rabbi Gamaliel that all shrouds should be simple). This tendency can be seen in the matter of ceasing work in the city so that the dead can be adequately attended to. At first the law was that work needed to cease only for a scholar, and then it is noteworthy that Isserles (in Yore Deah 3 61:1) says that nowadays there is not a single Jew who has not studied Scripture and Mishnah, and therefore all deserve the cessation of work and a eulogy.

Because of this desire to equalize the status of the dead, there developed in America the custom of burying more and more of the nonscholarly dead from the synagogue sanctuary itself, a practice which was bitterly objected to by the Chochmas Adam (158:18) and by Yudelevitch in Bes-Ov, V, at the end of the volume (cf., also, Divre Malchiel, II, 93). Perhaps because people wanted to avoid that much equalization which was against the law, namely, to have more and more funerals conducted from the synagogue itself, they were contented with at least riding by the synagogue and in some cases having a prayer recited at the door of the synagogue.

A minor spur to the development of the custom was the tradition to go to the cemetery by a roundabout way anyhow. This is based on the fact that Jacob’s children took his body from Egypt to bury him in Hebron. They went by the way of the threshing floor of Attad, which was far out of the way (cf. Minhagey Yeshurun). Furthermore, there was an old custom to halt the coffin a number of times (although this halting took place in the cemetery), and that made it easier to develop a custom of pausing at the synagogue. For all these reasons, the custom of halting at the synagogue developed, although, as I have said, I have found no single mention of it in any of the Codes or in the books of minhagim.

Your final question involves the use of the prayer El Mole Rachamim. This prayer is entirely new (perhaps a hundred years old) but is spreading greatly in popularity. Greenwald, in his Kol Bo Al Avelus, says (p. 22 1) : “The prayer El Mole Rachamim has greatly spread among all circles of Jews, and no one knows who is its author. It is not mentioned in any of the books of Reshonim. ” So we are dealing here with a comparatively new but beloved prayer-song, and there is no accounting for how it may have spread, nor definite requirement for when it must be sung or recited.