Burials in Judaism

I want to understand this. There are some Jewish burial societies that refuse to allow women to attend burials at their cemeteries. I recently attended the funeral of a lovely woman who had lived a long life, a life full of the joy of children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Her daughter, and the deceased’s elderly sister, and all the women in the family were denied “permission” (I cannot even think of a better way to put it right now) to accompany the body from the funeral home, to its final resting place. This was a woman who had lost her mother, a mother who had been a major part of her life for 60 years! She needed to be there to say her final goodbyes. Her sister of almost 90 years, who went through the holocaust with her, lost family members with her, and made a new life here with her, was not allowed this final mitzvah of Halvayat Hamet (accompanying the dead).  If this woman’s burial plot had been in a different but still Jewish cemetery the women would have been allowed to be there.

I have a couple of friends who unfortunately have suffered the heartbreak of losing children and have had to bury their child. I cannot imagine how much worse their pain would have been had they been unable to be at the gravesite. It must have been torture to walk away from the gravesite, to leave their child there, cold, in the dank earth – but somehow it’s known that that is how it is supposed to be. That was the final chapter in this child’s / person’s life. It doesn’t make it easier to walk away, no, but there is a sense of closure.

I know the difference it makes not being at a gravesite. I know how much your heart suffers more when you haven’t had the closure of seeing that coffin lowered into the ground and covered with earth. I was not there to bury my father or my paternal grandparents. I was on the wrong side of the world. We had funerals for them in North America, and buried them in Israel. My maternal grandmother was buried in the UK, I couldn’t make it there in time. Your mind and soul need that finality. It takes so much longer to deal with a loss without it.

I just want to understand. We hurt too. We need to throw that earth on the coffin of our dearly departed relative and friend. How is this even close to being ok? And how is it acceptable in some cemeteries for women to be there, and some not? Are we not all Jews? What is the halacha here?

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47 responses to “Burials in Judaism

  1. I only heard of a woman not going if she is obviously pregnant.. I didn’t go to my grandma’s b/c of that..

  2. In my opinion, it is a cruel custom of some UO Jews (and even some Yeshivish Jews that are trying to emulate the UO’s).

    I think that not only should women be at the gravesite, but that they should also be permitted to place a shovelful of dirt onto the niftar just like every male does!

  3. I don’t think it’s cruel.. For me it would be too emotional to do that..

    • But that’s EXACTLY the point – emotions!!!

      You cry the most at the moment of extreme separation, the placing of the niftar into the ground and covering the guf with dirt. Then you cry for a week of shiva. Then you wind it down at the end of the week. Then you have 11 months of kaddish in which you are reminded a few times a day. Then you only “cry” once a year, and then you remember more than (or instead of) cry.

  4. I think these are minhag-not halacha-I think yerushalmi-I went as did my girlfriends-[and vered], to my late husband’s burial as did his mother,his grandmother and sisters.A long and happy life to you and your men and future daughters!!

  5. there are no Halachot. it’s all custom. and if the woman/women is/are assertive and of a confident persuasion, she can be there. it also helps if a male relative or Rabbi simply informs the Chevra Kadisha what will be.

  6. While there are halachic reasons for some (bat cohen) some say pregnant women(although not sure if this is halachic or not) shouldn’t.
    Evidently some haredi communities do not allow women.
    Personally if she wants to go, and not sure why she wouldn’t, she should go anyway.
    The community you are a part of sadly rarely meets one’s needs across the board from beginning to end.

    • The problem is that sometimes the burial societies are run (and controlled by) Charedim. And sometimes (especially in various places in Israel), they attempt, and often succeed, to impose their will on others that believe differently.

      • see, I can say that it’s not a Charedi thing. I’ve never seen it, or heard of it in my circles. I don’t know who the cruel “them” are, please don’t attribute falsely.

        • I am not saying that any particular person is cruel. I am saying that the custom is cruel to women that want to be there, and participate in, the “final goodbye” to the shell that once housed the neshama of their loved one.

  7. The only funeral I attended in Israel, I was the only woman I noticed not accompanying the body of the boy to his final resting place. A friend told me I shouldn’t go since I was pregnant, so I didn’t. All the other women (from RBS) went with no problem. I’ve never heard of women being excluded. The levayas I’ve seen that pass through the streets have always had a fairly large number of women also. Dunno, *shrug*

    • I think it is a relatively recent phenomenon among some UO cults, um, sects. I recall reading about it recently (in the context of a big stink that went on during a levaya in Israel), but I can’t find the link right now.

  8. The justifications are based on irrational, and possibly assur superstitions (of which there are many in the areas of death).

    We do know that women used to be an integral part of the Jewish burial process. M. Mo’ed Katan 3:8 states

    נשים במועד מענות אבל לא מטפחות רבי ישמעאל אומר הסמוכות למטה מטפחות

    “Women during chol hamo’ed answer, but do not beat on drums. R. Yishmael says those who are next to the bed (of the deceased) also beat on drums”

    Thus at least in Mishnaic times, the norm included women standing next to or in close proximity of the body of the deceased.

    • and how did these superstitions originate? and why are they still perpetuated?

      • I’m not up on the evolution of all of these customs – that’s more the area of Dr. Daniel Sperber.

        In terms of why they’re perpetuated, I think people are particularly nervous regarding death (consider how seriously people take kaddish and yizkor despite neither being “halakha” per se)

        If I can share one story from yeshiva, R. Zevulun Leiberman told us of some really odd customs from the sephardi community. For example, if a family lost 2 or 3 members in a year, they would throw a lock into the grave should be “locked up” from taking more family members.

        I asked R. Leiberman how that wasn’t avoda zara. He said, “you’re right, but then isn’t the time to tell people”.

        I think psychologically, the additions and inventions of rituals regarding death give people the perception of being able to control the uncontrollable.

  9. well, if we’re to quote sources, let’s do the Rambam
    הִלְכּוֹת אֵבֶל פֵּרֶק ח
    ד קוֹרְעִין לַקָּטָן, מִפְּנֵי עָגְמַת נֶפֶשׁ. וְחוֹלֶה שֶׁמֵּת לוֹ מֵת–אֵין מְקָרְעִין לוֹ, וְלֹא מוֹדִיעִין אוֹתוֹ, שֶׁמֶּא תִּטָּרֵף דַּעְתּוֹ עָלָיו, וּמְשַׁתְּקִין אֶת הַנָּשִׁים מִפָּנָיו.

    notice that there are women there. if you say, well, the ripping is not necessarily done at the cemetery, try this:

    הִלְכּוֹת אֵבֶל פֵּרֶק יב

    א הַהֶסְפֵּד, כְּבוֹד הַמֵּת הוּא; לְפִיכָּךְ כּוֹפִין אֶת הַיּוֹרְשִׁין לִתֵּן שְׂכַר הַמְּקוֹנְנִים וְהַמְּקוֹנְנוֹת,

    notice the job of the professional bewailers whoo are … women? at the cemetery.

    and one more there:

    יב … וּמְקוֹם שֶׁנָּהֲגוּ נָשִׁים לָצֵאת לִפְנֵי הַמִּטָּה, יוֹצְאוֹת לִפְנֵי הַמִּטָּה; לְאַחַר הַמִּטָּה, יוֹצְאוֹת לְאַחַר הַמִּטָּה.

    if the custom is that women go out to the cemetery accompanying the body, they do.

    it’s all custom

  10. Mark – why the vehement anti chareidiness? not your style!
    I believe its based in Kaballah and is therefore not a halacha rather a minhag, and more prevalent by chasidim and sefardim whose minhagim usually reflect kabalistic practices. IIRC the minhag Yerushalayim is that no family members go to the funeral. Although much can be blamed on the UO I don’t believe this is included.

  11. Addendum – It IS Halacha: Sholchun Aruch Yoreh Deah 359:2 (see also Rav Akiva Eiger ther). In the Artscroll mourning book they say that many are lenient, but it is Halacha.
    The Zohar writes that the Angel of Death hangs out with the women at the cemetery (something to do with Eve who was the catalyst for death). Perhaps this is a reason for not allowing them to go.

    • Tzvi writes: “Addendum – It IS Halacha: Sholchun Aruch Yoreh Deah 359:2 (see also Rav Akiva Eiger ther). In the Artscroll mourning book they say that many are lenient, but it is Halacha.”

      This is a tricky quotation because the reason for preventing entry into a cemetery is גורמים רעה לעולם חס ושלום according to the Siftei Kohen which is kind of folklorish and not rational Halacha but even so, if you checked the Beit Lehem Yehuda there (unless you just checked the Artscroll), he notes that the Beit Yaakov proves from the Gemara that women should not be prevented from attending the graveyard service and if there is a “danger” it’s when the women are returning from the cemetery which indicates a concern for a problematic mixing of the sexes in a social situation that some may sort of wander off and, well, you know…

      • I did look in the Shulchon Aruch, my understanding was that the danger was because of the malach hamaves who hangs with the womenfolk but is more of a danger to men

        • hangs with the women but is more of a danger to men? how does that work?

        • Am at work now so the SA is not before me but if I recall the Para. 1 of that 359 Halacha notes quite plainly that regarding professional female bewailers, whereas in previous times they attended, nowadays they don’t. So, I offer an understanding, it’s just a matter of contemporary considerations that influence the Halacha. At one time people didn’t get upset and neither did the Rabbis and at another time they did. And, IMHO, I would suggest that now in the 21st century, the time frame as perhaps swung around and the mixing of genders can be done properly with full accordance to modesty/morality regulations or that no one has the suspicion that cemetery meetings will lead to hanky-panky (well, anymore than any other congregating). But the reliance for your Halacha on the ‘Angel of Death’ or demons from ‘wasted seed’ should not be a basis for Halacha but for custom – and so we’ve made a full circle: funeral customs can be tolerated like throwing in a lock or not like preventing women from attending or even eulogizing.

  12. let’s not forget that it is a Yerushalmi custom that a son not participate at the graveside service of his father as well. That is root in Kabbalah in which it is believed that all the “spilt seed” of his father is gathered in and he should not be present when this occurs as his semen has produced demons who are as if they are his step-brothers and they might harm him (see this page: http://books.google.com/books?id=f83YJDHRZycC&pg=PA70&lpg=PA70&dq=zohar+son+not+at+funeral+of+father&source=bl&ots=HrIUbWuO0k&sig=k9lHlG9bkNW3ZY8EOqlB8Ki4rb0&hl=en&ei=KEK5SrjqNtqRjAf01_DwBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10#v=onepage&q=zohar%20son%20not%20at%20funeral%20of%20father&f=false)

    and getting back to women, try this pamphlet: http://www.jofa.org/pdf/opt_Death.pdf

  13. More: Emission of semen has been the subject of ramified mythical development, more than any other topic in the broad and complex realm of Eros. A comprehensive monograph on this subject was written by Meir Benayahu (1985) in the context of the customary Jerusalemite prohibition of the deceased’s sons participating in their father’s funeral. The Kabbalah, and especially the Zohar, assign paramount importance to the sanctity of the semen, going so far as to claim that it was responsible for the world losing its pristine status; and that the world cannot be perfected until this sin is corrected. The midrashic legend of the spirits, demons, and human afflictions that were created by Adam during the one hundred and thirty years in which he was abstinent from Eve was developed to an outstanding degree by the Zohar, which includes in this “sin” nocturnal emissions, that are against one’s will and detrimental to the sufferer.
    (http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/modesty-and-sexuality-in-halakhic-literature) and finally, see this:

  14. Lady Lock and Load

    It is painful for me to read everyone’s comments, but I would just like to add that I have heard of this minhag that women do not attend the actual grave site ceremony and burial. It is something I don’t understand but many of the laws and customs we practice are beyond my understanding and I have come to accept that, as hard as things can get. And I know I will get rewarded for following minhag and halacha even though I don’t understand it.

    • I think people might be rewarded for following their* minhag, but not necessarily minhagim of others!

      * “their” – i.e. from their family or their place of origin.

  15. I don’t suppose it’s just another way for certain patriarchies to keep women in their place, is it?

  16. I’ve lived in Jerusalem for almost 20 years and while I rarely attend funerals (since I am a cohen) there have been occasions when I took advantage of the loudspeakers outside to pay my respects.

    I was once at a funeral in which all women were told not to accompany the body to the cemetery (Mt of Olives). I asked someone why and was told that this is the observance of this particular hevre kaddisha and that each hevre kaddisha sets their own observances which must be followed. I was told that this was based on Kabbalah because women were especially vulnerable at graveyards at funerals (and even more so at night).

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