RRT 95-99



At present there is no clear rule as to which funerals may be held in the main sanctuary of the temple and which in the chapel, etc. This uncertainty can, and sometimes does, create difficulties for the families involved and for the temple also. When a family is waiting to complete funeral arrangements, and the temple needs time to decide whether the service may or may not be held in the main sanctuary, this delay often adds to the sorrow of the bereaved family; and if, for some reason, the request for the use of the temple auditorium is denied, this may create ill will for the temple. Is there a clear rule of procedure in this matter which is in consonance with our religious tradition? (Asked by Vigdor W. Kavaler, Executive Secretary, Rodef Shalom Temple, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)


ON THE FACE OF IT, the problem would be easily solved if the temple simply permitted the use of the main sanctuary to any member family which asks for it. However, this simple suggestion is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the Jewish legal tradition on this matter. If we are to find a solution for the problem, it should be in consonance with the spirit of Jewish tradition. What, then, is the traditional point of view as to funerals taking place on the synagogue premises?

Basically, the traditional law is opposed to any funeral at all taking place in the synagogue! This law is derived by clear implication from the statement in the Mishnah (Megillah 4:3) which declares that even when a synagogue is in ruins, it still retains its inherent sanctity, and therefore no funeral service may be conducted there. Thus it is clear that all the more is it prohibited to hold funeral services in a sanctuary that is still in use for public worship. However, there are notable exceptions which are made to this general prohibition. The Tosefta (Megillah 3:7) takes the law to mean that no private funeral services may be held in the synagogue, but public funeral services may be held there. In his comment on Megillah 28b, Rashi, the prime authority, explains this distinction as follows: Only such funerals may be held in the synagogue as involve a public obligation of the community to participate in the mourning. That is to say, a great scholar or communal leader may be buried from the synagogue because a large place is needed so that the entire community can gather and fulfill its obligation of mourning for the deceased leader, or teacher (see further references on this decision in Reform Jewish Practice, Vol. II, pp. 55 ff.).

Of course, in the earlier centuries “community” and “congregation” were identical terms. The whole community was organized into one congregational unity, even though there may have been a number of synagogue buildings. But nowadays, when there are separate and independent congregational units in every large city, the terms “community” and “congregation” are no longer identical. Therefore the historic law must be interpreted as follows: Only such funeral services shall be held in the sanctuary at which the entire congregation owes the duty to attend; in other words, the services for the leaders of the congregation.

The question now is: Who are to be deemed “the leaders of the congregation” that would fit into this category? It is important that such a definition be clear cut and definite because the whole purpose of this inquiry is to avoid uncertainty and discussion when a family is bereaved.

It would, therefore, be in consonance with the mood of tradition to adopt the following rule: The right to hold a funeral in the main sanctuary should be given to the rabbis and officers and board of trustees of the congregation. Of course, since the presidents of the three subsidiary organizations, sisterhood, men’s club, and junior congregation, are members of the board, they are included in the above rule. This rule should apply to rabbis, officers, and trustees, past and present. Are the spouses of the above to be included in this regulation? Again, here, tradition gives us some guidance. Of all the authorities who discuss this question, only one includes the privilege of synagogue burial to the spouses, namely, Yore Deah 344:19. However, all other authorities disagree with this extension of the law and insist that only the scholar or leader himself shall have this privilege. Of course, in the older law that meant only men, but in Reform Judaism, which declares as a basic principle the religious equality of men and women, the rule shall apply to the leader or trustee whether a man or a woman. But in accordance with the weight of legal opinion, the spouse (husband or wife, respectively) of the leader, shall not be included.

All this applies only to the main sanctuary. However, the chapel (our Josiah and Carrie Cohen Chapel) is in a different category. There is a general principle in the legal tradition that if, at the time of the building of a synagogue or a chapel, a permissive precondition is made, then many prohibitions, because of this preliminary condition, may be bypassed. Our Josiah and Carrie Cohen Chapel was built and given to Rodef Shalom with a precondition, namely, the understanding that its use be not confined to regularly scheduled services, but that the chapel should be made available at all times to all who wish to enter to meditate and pray. This condition allows us to open the chapel for funeral services to any member of the congregation who requests its use. In fact, it has become an established custom with us, and with many other metropolitan Reform congregations, to allow the chapel to be used for the funeral service for any member family which requests it.

However, this practice of our congregation and others may sometimes involve a difficulty. When the deceased had many friends or the family is large, then the family may say that the chapel is too small and will request a larger auditorium, preferably the main sanctuary itself. It would be logical, therefore, for the congregation to decide that if a family is not eligible by rule to use the main sanctuary, this family, if it finds the chapel too small, may use the J. Leonard Levy Hall. This hall also has the mood of a sanctuary. It has an Ark, and services are frequently held in it during the year. The fact that the J. Leonard Levy Hall is also used for school purposes does not detract from its status as a sanctuary. On the contrary, a school ( bes ha-midrash) under certain circumstances is deemed to have a sanctity equal to that of the synagogue sanctuary ( bes ha-knesses). (See Shulchan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 151:1, which groups synagogue and study-hall in equal sanctity.)

Since, therefore, it is important to have a consistent rule as to the use of the temple premises and thus avoid uncertainty and possible unhappiness, and since tradition gives us fairly clear guidance in developing such a rule under our modern conditions, the practice should be as follows: rabbis, officers, and members of the board of trustees, past and present, are in the category of “leaders of the congregation” to whom the entire congregation has some obligation of mourning. For these, therefore, the large sanctuary may be used. All other members of the congregation may use the chapel and, if they request it, the J. Leonard Levy Hall. This rule is in accordance with the spirit of tradition and, if accepted, should be made known to the entire congregation.