WOMEN AS PALL BEARERS
According to Jewish law and tradition, may women serve as pall bearers in a funeral? (Asked by Vigdor W Kavaler.)
It is difficult to give a definite answer to this question since it involves the general status of women in Jewish law, which is in itself rather complicated and often vague. But if we take up the question element by element, we may be able to come to an adequate conclusion.
1. Is pall bearing a religious duty? Definitely it is to be so considered. The law states that when a person has the duty of burying his dead (“He whose dead lies before him”) he is free from fulfilling all other religious duties such as, for example, the recital of the prayers, etc., because “when one is engaged in a mitzvah, he is free from another mitzvah.” The Mishnah (Berakhot 3:1) then discusses whether the pall bearers, too, are free from the recital or prayers during their service as pall bearers; and the answer is that those who are actual pall bearers necessary for the carrying of the coffin (i.e., not honorary pall bearers) are free from the need to recite the prayers, just as the chief mourner is. So it is clear that the actual pall bearing is a mitzvah which, at a time when it must be accomplished, is paramount.
2. Are women in duty bound to fulfill this mitzvah? The general rule is that women are free from the obligation of fulfilling such mitzvot which are determined by a fixed time as, for example, the shema that must be recited at a certain hour (Eruvin 27a). Yet participating in a funeral procession cannot be considered under the rule of “a mitzvah that is fixed by time.” The Talmud in Eruvin, discussing this principle, mentions such commandments as a redemption of a first-born as not being a commandment fixed by time, although it must occur thirty days after the birth of the first-born. What the rule “fixed by time” actually means is that it is the commandments fixed by calendar or by hours from which women are free, but not such commandments that come at a certain time through chance or accident. Of course, even with regard to those commandments that are fixed by time which are described as not being obligatory on women, if a woman wishes to fulfill them, she is not prohibited to do so.
3. Is there a general objection to women participating in a funeral procession? Certainly not in Biblical times. It was the custom to provide women mourners (singers of dirges) to weep at the funeral (II Chronicles 35:25). This custom continued in the Mishnah (Qedushin 4:4) and indeed the requirement is still mentioned in the Shulhan Arukh (Even Haezer 89:1). Moreover, the Talmud speaks of a definite custom for women to march in the funeral procession, and says that it depends upon the local custom whether they march in front of the coffin, or whether they march behind it (Sanhedrin 20a). However; the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 359.2) giving this rule that women may either precede a coffin or follow it, adds that it would be better to keep women entirely away from the funeral procession. This negative attitude is based upon the Zohar as quoted by Caro himself to this passage in the Thr. However, we need not be too concerned with the Kabbalistic anxiety about possible immoral thoughts in seeing women march in the funeral procession. We follow the common sense statement of the Tosfot to the passage in Sanhedrin which says that since the funeral is a time of sadness, we need not be concerned that there will be immoral thoughts at the sight of women in the procession.
To sum up: Pall bearing is a definite commandment but not one fixed by calendar or by hour and therefore it cannot be said that women are not obligated to fulfill it. From earliest time, too, women participated in the funeral ceremony as chanters of dirges and by walking in the procession. We may, therefore, not hesitate in modern times to permit women to serve occasionally as pall bearers.