“OUT OF RESPECT FOR THE POOR.” ORIGINS OF JEWISH BURIAL PRACTICES (TRACTATE MO’ED KATAN 27A-B)

From a class at OneShul.org on The “Jewish Way” in death and mourning, starting from the egalitarian transformation of burial practices in the era of the Talmud up through modern day practice in the US and Canada. Dr. Michael Slater discusses the Jewish rituals surrounding death and burial, along with how decentralized Jewish communities and chavurot can provide this mitzvah to those in need. Michael, a long-time chavurah Jew, is a leader in the North American chevra kadisha movement, Kavod v’Nichum (www.Jewish-Funerals.org)

SOURCE: BABYLONIAN TALMUD, TRACTATE MO’ED KATAN 27A-B

Our Rabbis taught:
Formerly, they would bring food to the mourner’s house in the following way: To the rich, in baskets of silver and gold, to the poor, in baskets of peeled willow, and the poor were ashamed. The sages corrected the practice such that all would bring food in baskets of peeled willow out of respect for the poor. Formerly they would bring drinks to the mourner’s house in the following way: To the rich, in (fine) clear glass, to the poor, in (coarse) colored glass, and the poor were ashamed. The sages corrected the practice such that all would bring drinks in colored glass out of respect for the poor. Formerly they would leave the face of a rich person’s corpse uncovered, and cover the face of a poor person’s corpse, because the poor people’s faces were blackened by famine, and the poor were ashamed. The sages corrected the practice such that all would have their faces covered out of respect for the poor. Formerly, they would carry the rich person’s corpse on a “state bed,” and a poor person’s corpse on a simple bier, and the poor were ashamed. The sages corrected the practice such that all would be carried on a simple bier out of respect for the poor…..Formerly, the process of burying the dead was harder for the family than the death itself, to the point that the the family would abandon the body and flee.

Finally, Rabban Gamliel (1st Century CE) decided to set the standard for changing the custom by ordaining that he himself should be carried to his burial in flaxen shrouds. The rest of the nation followed his example, adopting the custom of using flaxen shrouds.

 

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