Monday, 7 July 2014

Tattoos, Cremations and Jewish Funerals

As always, I like to sneak football (soccer) into my conversations and the occasional sermon so this time I thought I would mention it in one of my blogs. I've never been a fan of tattoos but I really don't like all the players at the World Cup completely covered with tattoos. I've always found them off putting and I think our young can be easily influenced into wanting to have them. I would say 25 years ago tattoos were not a common site but today 40% of Americans aged 25 to 40 have tattoos (according to a Pew Research Study). 

So is there a problem with tattoos? The Torah (Vayikra 19:28) states "You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves. I am the Lord." Rashi (ibid) notes that a tattoo is defined as "sunken never to be erased, for one etches it with a needle, and it remains permanently black." Therefore temporary tattoos or henna tattoos do not form any prohibition as the paint erases after a period of time. 

All that being said there is perhaps one of the biggest babajadas (Ladino for old wives' tale or in the Yiddish bubba meise) out there is that a person with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Although as I have outlined it is a Torah prohibition, nevertheless a Jewish person will still be buried in the Jewish cemetery. Now that doesn't mean everyone should go out and get tattoos!

What isn't well known is the huge problem of Jewish people opting for cremations. Cremations are becoming more popular as the cost of burial is driving people to seek cheaper alternatives. However, halachically speaking it is probably up their as one of the biggest transgressions. Just as we are forbidden from taking our own lives or hastening our end so too we are forbidden to desecrate our bodies by having them cremated.

Hashem tells  Adam (Bereshit 3:19) "You will return to the ground, for it was from the ground that you were taken". 

Rabbi Maurice Lamm writes (The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning pp 56-57) "cremation is never permitted. The deceased must be interred, bodily, in the earth. It is forbidden - in every and any circumstance - to reduce the dead to ash in a crematorium. It is an offensive act, for it does violence to the spirit and letter of the Jewish Law...
1.Even if the deceased willed cremation, his wishes must be ignored in order to observe the will of our Father in Heaven. Biblical law takes precedence over the instructions of the deceased. 
2.Cremated ashes may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery...
3. Jewish law requires no mourning for the cremated. Shiva is not observed and kaddish is not recited for them. Those who are cremated are considered by tradition to have abandoned, unalterably, all of Jewish law and, therefore, to have surrendered their rights to posthumous honor."

Why does Rabbi Lamm write so sternly that one cannot even say kaddish for them? That they have abandoned Jewish Law? The answer I think lies with the fact that the act of willful cremation is a denial of one of our cornerstone beliefs of Techiyat HaMetim - The Resurrection of the Dead at the coming of Mashiach. By cremating oneself one is stating that they deny this belief and therefore they are set aside to not be included.

All that I have written so far is with willful cremation. This does not include the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. They did not choose their fate and they are obviously not held accountable for that. Far from it they are on the highest spiritual level of anyone who has lived. For those who aren't interested in halachic concerns some use the Holocaust to not disgrace the memory of our people who were killed through the crematoriums. 

There are many more details on this topic and I have merely touched the surface. For further information online please visit the following Chabad Article. This situation is becoming so severe it was mentioned at the recent Rabbinic Council of America Convention. There it was mentioned that at least 1 in 3 Jews are choosing cremation. Please use the information in this blog to encourage people to plan for a traditional Jewish funeral.

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