Banning Women from Funerals?

Q. I read recently in the Jerusalem Post about a funeral that took place in the Yavneh cemetery, where the women were prohibited from walking near the graves, and one of the reasons given was because it “damages their wombs.” Another Orthodox woman said, “Due to the high rate of deaths of young people in Yavneh, the community undertook a vow not to approach the grave during a burial – and that would be the tikkun (healing) of Yavneh.”

A woman defending the custom, explained:

We implored the woman from the cemetery. We argued with her and amongst ourselves. In the meantime, some men were already returning from the burial. As they passed near us, they said we could approach the grave now since the burial had been completed. Yet the cemetery woman still refused and said, “It is not good for the departed. Don’t you understand? You are sinning against the dead. You are harming his soul” and with that she silenced us. She overwhelmed us. The father of my departed cousin is religious and some of the women said he might want us to obey these shocking orders. We did not want to endanger him or his son in any way in the world to come. So we stopped trying …) [Jerusalem Post, March 12, 2009]

What is the reason for this antiquated custom? Why is there an association between a woman’s menstruation and death? Can a woman serve as a pallbearer?

A. Great questions!

The Talmud in BT Sanhedrin 20a discusses funeral etiquette:

“Our Rabbis taught: Wherever it is customary for women to follow the bier, they may do so; to precede it, they may do so likewise. R. Judah said: Women must always precede the bier, for we find that David followed the coffin of Abner, as it is written, “And King David followed the bier” (2 Sam. 3:31). They the Rabbis said to him: ‘That was only to appease the people, and they were indeed appeased, for David went to and fro, from the men to the women and back from the women to the men, as it is written, So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it was not of the king to slay Abner’ ( 2 Sam. 3:37).

Ba’ale Tosfot cites two views from the Jerusalem Talmud regarding this Talmudic passage: one approach suggests the reason why women should not lead a funeral procession, because it was Eve, who introduced death to the world.[1] However, others contend that because of modesty, it became customary for men to lead the procession (which is contrary to the view expressed by R. Judah cited above).

There is a big difference whether the custom of women following the bier is because of modesty or whether it is attributed to Eve’s sin.

Now, the Zohar (ca. 12th century) complicates the discussion and adds an entirely new wrinkle to the above Talmudic discussion.

R. Simeon further said: ‘I swear to you that the majority of people do not die before their time, but only those who know not how to take heed to themselves. For at the time when a dead body is taken from the house to the place of burial the Angel of Death haunts the abodes of the women. Why of the women? Because that has been his habit since the time that he seduced Eve, through whom he brought death upon the world. Hence, when he takes a man’s life, and the males are accompanying the dead body, he mingles himself on the way among the women, and he has then the power to take the life of the sons of men. He looks on the way at the faces of those who come within his sight, from the time they carry the dead body out from his house to the place of burial until they return to their homes. It is on their account that he brings about the untimely death of many people. Regarding this it is written: “But there is that is swept away without justice” (Prov. 13:23). For he, the Angel of Death, ascends and brings accusations and recounts man’s sins before the Holy One, blessed be He, so that the man is brought to judgment for those sins, and is removed from the world before his time.

The Zohar now offers its own view of proper funeral etiquette:

What is the remedy against this? When the dead body is carried to the place of burial, a man should turn his face in another direction, and leave the women behind him. Should the latter pass in front he should turn round so as not to face them. Similarly, when they return from the place of burial he should not return by the way where the women are standing, and he should not look at them at all, but should turn a different way. It is because the sons of men do not know of this, and do not observe this, that the majority of people are brought up for judgment and are taken away before their time..[2]

The Zohar’s position ought to be fairly clear: all women must atone for Eve’s sin. The connection between menstruation and death has long been a part of Western religion, for among the punishments Eve receives in Genesis 3, according to rabbinic folklore, was the beginning of her menstrual cycle—all this is subsumed under the penalty “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing” (Gen. 3:16) as noted by Seforno and Malbim in their biblical commentaries.  Women are thus viewed in early rabbinic tradition as being responsible for the presence of death in the world, and the menstrual cycle is a collective punishment all women must bear for a substantial part of their lives.

Kabbalists sometimes cite another verse in Scriptures that associates women with death, “Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave” (Proverbs 5:11)–as an allusion to Eve! For this reason, women are forbidden to serve as pallbearers among the Orthodox. Non-Orthodox brands of Judaism allow women to serve in this capacity.

R. Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch rules that women should not participate in the procession to the grave, lest they bring harm to the world.[3] Rabbinical scholars like  the Kabbalist R. Isaac Luria[4], as well as the Vilna Gaon, urge women not to even enter a cemetery until they have gone to the mikveh (a ritual bath for purification).[5] According to Luria, the law applies no less to men who had sexual relations or a seminal emission as well, for they too, must immerse themselves in the mikveh since the demonic forces of evil are believed to cling to an individual who has not immersed.

The Kabbalah influences the Jewish legal system known as “Halachah” more than most people realize. Halachic authorities are divided whether this applies when the woman is counting her “seven clean days” after her menstrual bleeding has ceased. As a side note, some rabbis believe that a woman should not go to a synagogue while she is bleeding, but most authorities think it is permitted during her seven clean days.

As mentioned above, nowhere in the Talmud is there any mention at all of this custom. Jewish mysticism modifies the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and redirects the blame–to the women [men have been blaming women for the ills of the world since ancient times], who are believed to represent the incarnation of Eve. These mystics influenced the tradition, and that would explain why the incident in Yavneh created a ruckus.  Of course, this law, like many others, is rooted in classical misogyny. To our regret, sexism retains an honored place in the Zohar and for those who admire the study of the Kabbalah, it is imperative we realize that its authors had feet of clay, and were indeed men of their age. The Zohar is far from being an inerrant work of religious literature.

In the spirit of speculation, I would add that customs, such as this one, may have a basis in something tragic that occurred in a Jewish community long ago. Perhaps a pregnant woman attended a funeral one day, and she miscarried while she was standing in front of a grave. The horror of such an awful experience might have left the community in a state of trauma, and as Kabbalists and rabbis tried to find a connection between the events (the funeral and the miscarriage).[6]

Lastly, the term “kever” (that typically means “grave”), but may also signify uterus and womb.[7] This could partially explain basis for the Zohar and subsequent Lurianic custom about women not entering a cemetery in a funeral procession.

[1] Tosfot, s.v. Nashim – Sanhedrin 20a.

[2] II Zohar 196a-b.

[3] YD 359:1-2.

[4] Cited in the Magane Avraham O.H. 559, s.k. 19.

[5] Cited in the Pitechei Teshuvah Y.D. 119 , s.k. 119.

[6] Of course the idea that women are responsible for the evil and death of the world derives from texts that are even more ancient than the Talmud or Midrash, e.g., Sirach 15:24,25:24; Life of Adam and Eve 44:2; Apocalypse of Moses 14;2. Long before the Zohar or Kabbalah was a twinkle in some rabbi’s eye, generations of people attributed the evils and problems of the world to women; subsequent rabbinical tradition only confirmed a belief that amounts to an early Judaic version of Original Sin that eventually influenced Christianity.

[7] For an illustration of this concept, the Talmud in tractate Nidah 21a raises the question whether it is possible for the uterus to open without bleeding, see also Even Shoshan Hebrew Dictionary s.v. “kever.”