Are headstones necessary?

May 11, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

TOMBSTONES

Q. Does Jewish law require graves to have tombstones?

A. There is a passage in the Talmud that says it is not necessary to erect a tombstone for the righteous because their words are their memorial (J. Shek. 2:5), but this is not taken literally.

It is true that the best memorial is a living memory in the minds and hearts of those who survive, and no-one is completely dead if their words and deeds have an influence on earth, but at the same time, the erection of a tombstone has been the norm in Judaism from ancient days.

It is derived from Jacob’s action in placing a stone over the grave of his wife Rachel near Bethlehem: “And Jacob set up a monument by her grave; this is the monument of Rachel’s grave to this day” (Gen. 35:20).

Rachel’s tomb is one of the Jewish holy places; indeed every cemetery is a hallowed place and it is a tragedy for both the living and the dead if a cemetery is desecrated.

Every community has rules and conventions that govern the type and size of tombstones; ideally, every tombstone would be neat and modest without over-ostentation.

Who should pay for the tombstone is sometimes a matter of dispute. Naturally, it helps if the deceased left money for this purpose, but if not it is the solemn duty of the family to make and pay for the arrangements.

There are times when, if there are no relatives, the erection of the tombstone is undertaken by the community, but if a person has no family they should ensure that they leave instructions (and the necessary funds) during their lifetime.

FAITH & REASON

Q. How is faith possible if one’s reason is uncertain about its claims?

A. I have abbreviated your question but this is the gist of what you ask.

What faith is saying is that reason is a great pointer to truth but not the only one. There are realms beyond and above reason.

Reason works with the mind; faith works with the soul.

The relationship of faith and reason is described in these words by the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz), the great sage of the first part of the 20th century:

“If a man is spiritual and his eye is bright with the glory of the sky above and the earth below, he becomes moved and enraptured with the marvellous and insoluble riddle of the world.

“When the intelligence of man sees at last the truth of God’s reality, blessed be He, at once an infinite joy enters into the man and his gladness is a delight.

“When a man rises to such heights of holiness, a new world is revealed to him, for the possibility is given to a man in this world below to be as an angel for a moment and to enjoy the Holy Glory.

“All the pleasures of the world below are as nothing compared to this pleasure of a man cleaving to his Creator, blessed be He.”

A DATE FOR SHAVU’OT

Q. Why is Shavu’ot on 6 Sivan since no date is given in the Torah for the festival?

A. It was worked out on the basis of hints in the Torah.

The Israelites came to Mount Sinai in the third month after they left Egypt. In that month is Shavu’ot. We have to count seven weeks of the Omer beginning on the second day of Pesach, and the seven weeks bring us to 6 Sivan.

A further significance applies to the sixth day, since the sixth day of Creation is when man was made, and only when man received the Torah on the sixth day of Sivan was the Creation able to be completed morally.

In addition, there were six hundred thousand Israelites (apart from women and children) at Mount Sinai, and the Torah is said to have six hundred thousand Hebrew letters.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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