HALTING FUNERAL SEVEN TIMES
In the absence of an Orthodox colleague, I officiated at an Orthodox funeral. The procession was halted seven times on the way to the grave. Is there any historical basis for this practice? (Asked by Rabbi Iwan Gruen, New Castle, Pennsylvania.)
Greenwald, in his complete compendium on funeral practice, gives only a passing reference to the custom mentioned in the question. On page 108 of his Kol Bo he says: “When the body is brought into the cemetery, they stop it every four cubits before it is buried, but on those days on which no tahanan is said (as on the New Moon, etc.) these stops are not made.” Greenwald also refers to a custom in Jerusalem that they stop a number of times on the street on; the way to the cemetery, and also that a Rabbi Sheftel put in his will the request that they should stop seven times with his body and recite Psalm 91.
Greenwald bases his comment chiefly on a statement by Isserles in Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 358:3. There Isserles gives this custom, but with the heading, “Some say,” which means that it is not a widespread custom. Isserles’s statement is as follows: “Some say that when they reach the cemetery, they stop the body every fourth cubit before he is buried, and the present custom is to stop three or four times and they recite the prayer tziduq hadin.”
As to why this halting is done, the Shah (and the Be-er Hetev) give a folkloristic explanation. They quote the Levush to the effect that the purpose of these halts is to drive away unclean spirits who seek to attach themselves to the corpse and be buried with him.
Now the question is whether this custom (whatever folkloristic reasons became attached to it) has any ancient traditional basis. As I told you orally, it was my impression that something like this custom goes back to talmudic times. That is so. Actually it goes back to tanaitic times. The Mishnah in Megillah 4:3, listing the various ceremonies that may not be conducted with less than ten people present (such as qedushah, etc.), mentions also ma-amod umeshiv, standing and resting. Jastrow in his dictionary (under ma-amod) understands this custom of ” standing and resting” to mean the custom which takes place after the burial, when the friends line up to greet the bereaved. But in this regard, Jastrow, who is usually exact, is quite mistaken. If you look at the commentaries to the original source in the Mishnah, Bertinoro and Tiferet Yisrael both say it means stopping on the way to the grave. The words of Bertinoro are: “When they carry the corpse to the grave, they stop seven times in honor of the dead, and at every stop they say words of hesped.” So, too, Tiferet Yisrael. He says that they stop on the way to the grave and also that the reason for the stops being seven in number is to parallel the seven times of “Vanity of Vanities,” used in Ecclesiastes.
The Mishnah (Megillah 4:3) mentions the halting toward the grave in a whole list of other rituals, such as the blessing by the priests, the prophetical reading and the Torah reading. But it would be incorrect to conclude from this listing that just as these other rituals are a fixed and required part of religious life, so too the halting on the way to the grave was a definite ritual requirement. As a matter of fact, the Tosefta (Pesahim 2:4) says definitely that it is only a local custom. That, indeed, is why Isserles introduces it with the words, “Some say.” Besides, had it been a regular religious rite, it would long have been purged of the folkish demonology to which the Levush refers.
Evidently there was a local custom in ancient times to stop seven times on the way to the grave. This custom largely lapsed and the number seven is no longer practiced.
My own opinion as to one reason at least for this ancient custom was the fact that the dead was carried on the shoulders of friends. This was considered a great mitzvah, but it was also a considerable burden. So we are told that sometimes they stopped in the streets on the way to the cemetery, and also as we see here, in the cemetery itself. Thus, it was possible to give the carriers relief and allow others to participate in the mitzvah.
To sum up: This custom, although it is old, is not widespread. As Isserles says, “Some say” And it has become connected with the belief in evil spirits. Perhaps that is why the old custom mentioned in the Mishnah has tended to fade away.