– Author: Rav Udiel Hadad

The Gemara in Sanhedrin[1] cites a dispute regarding how women should participate at a funeral. The Gemara states:

The Sages taught in a baraita: In a place where women were accustomed to follow the bed (deceased’s body), they would follow it, and the men would walk in front of the bier, and if the women were accustomed to walk in front of the bed, they would go in front of it. Rabbi Yehuda says: Women always go in front of the bed.

The Yerushalmi[2] explains that the Sages who opine that men should go first held this way due to the “honor of the daughters of Israel,” that men should not stare at them. The Yerushalmi then states that the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda that women should go first is due to the fact that Chava caused death to come to the world. Tosafot[3] explain that Rabbi Yehuda is not concerned that men will have inappropriate thoughts, due to the morbid setting of a funeral. The Sages, on the other hand, hold that one must still be concerned for the honor of the daughters of Israel even if there are no inappropriate thoughts.

From this Gemara, it seems clear that women are permitted to, and indeed went, to funerals on a regular basis. Though concerns for mingling and men staring at them may exist, these issues were apparently resolvable, and there does not appear to be any problem with women attending.

However, the Zohar[4] states that great danger exists when women are present at a funeral.[5] How do we reconcile these two seemingly conflicting sources?

At first glance, one could surmise that the Zohar and the Talmud simply disagree. In such cases, the halacha generally follows the Talmud, though different explanations have been given as to why that should be. The Divrei Yatziv[6] explains that the Zohar is comparable to a “bat kol or prophecy,” but the halacha was given to the Sages of Israel to decide and “lo bashamayim hi”- it is not in heaven.” The Chacham Tzvi[7] posits that we do not rule like the Zohar because the reasons behind the rulings are hidden and mysterious. If we would accept its rulings over those of the Talmud, many people would interpret them incorrectly and terrible disasters could result (he is referring to the tragedy of Shabtai Tzvi). Rav Ovadia Yosef[8] rules regarding uprooting a corpse for reburial in Israel: “Even though the Zohar states otherwise, we only follow the Talmud, poskim and Shulchan Aruch… even though many Sephardic Kabbalists follow the Zohar, they have stated that in practical matters we rule according to the Gemara.” Rav Ovadia Hadaya,[9] on the other hand, quotes Rav Chaim Palagi in his responsa Chaim V’shalom, who implies that when there is a conflict, we follow the Zohar.

Whether we follow the Talmud or Zohar when they conflict, the difficulty remains in the present case, since Rav Yosef Karo brings both rulings, one after the other, both in the Beit Yosef[10] and later in the Shulchan Aruch.

The Shulchan Aruch[11] rules as follows:

מקום שנהגו לצאת נשים לפני המטה, יוצאות. מקום שנהגו לצאת לאחר המטה, יוצאות. ועכשיו נהגו שאין יוצאות אלא לאחר המטה, ואין לשנות.

In a place where the custom is that women go before the coffin, they should go first. In a place where the custom is that they go after the coffin, they should go after. Nowadays the custom is that they follow the coffin, and one must not change this.

Yet, in the very next halacha, the Shulchan Aruch writes:

יש למנוע מלצאת נשים לבית הקברות אחר המטה.

One must prevent women from going to the cemetery following the coffin.

The Shulchan Aruch in se’if 1 codifies the halacha from Masechet Sanhedrin, concluding that the custom today is for women to follow after the deceased, and one must not change this. He does not mention any danger or problem of women going to the funeral. Yet, in the next halacha he rules that women should be prevented from going to the funeral. It seems that the Shulchan Aruch rules like both sources and apparently believes that they do not contradict.

We will bring four different approaches to resolve the seeming contradiction in the sources and the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch.

1.The Shach[12] explains that the Shulchan Aruch’s first ruling refers to women joining the funeral procession up until the actual cemetery. The second halacha states that women should not actually enter the cemetery due to the danger involved. Hence according to the Shach, there is no contradiction between the Talmud and Zohar, and that is why the Shulchan Aruch codified both.

2.The Beit Hillel[13] posits that there is indeed a contradiction in the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch. In the first halacha, the Shulchan Aruch rules according to the Talmud and this is the ikar hadin – the primary law. In the second halacha, he quotes the Zohar but only as a minhag. The Beit Hillel explains that Rav Yosef Karo wished to show that there is a source for the custom of women not going to the funeral and someone who wishes to act in this manner is permitted to do so. This interpretation is slightly difficult, though, as in the first halacha he stresses that one must not change the minhag.

  1. The Darkei Moshe[14] quotes the Mordechai, citing the Riva, that women follow behind the coffin so that they are the last ones to walk to the cemetery and are first to return. This thereby ensures that the men do not meet them. According to this reasoning, the Gemara in Sanhedrin discussing the order of whether women or men go first actually relates to the theme of the Zohar in discussing the innate danger of women going to the funeral. Based on this, one can answer that there is no contradiction between the Gemara and the Zohar, since if the ladies go last and leave first, there would be no danger of meeting them. Although this answer would resolve the conflict between the Gemara and the Zohar, it would still not resolve the formulation of the wording of the Shulchan Aruch.[15]
  2. The Responsa Yad Eliyahu Ragular[16] holds that the danger mentioned in the Zohar is only applicable when the deceased dies of natural causes. But if one dies in an accident or other unusual circumstance, which is not dependent upon the involvement of the angel of death, the danger described by the Zohar does not exist.

^Visiting a Cemetery While One Is a Nidda

From the above sources, there seems to be no reason to prohibit a woman who is a nidda from going to a funeral or the cemetery in general. However, the Chayei Adam,[17] cited by the Mishna Berura,[18] states that women should not enter the cemetery until they have gone to the mikveh. The Beit Baruch (a commentary on the Chayei Adam) points out that from the wording of the Chayei Adam, it is clear that she should not go even during her seven clean days, but the Beit Baruch quotes other authorities[19] who permit it in cases of great need. The Pitchei Teshuva[20] similarly writes that the custom is that women do not go to the cemetery to pray while they are in the state of nidda.

What is the source for this custom mentioned by the Chayei Adam and other Acharonim? Perhaps it is based upon considerations of mystical impurity mentioned by the Vilna Gaon and the Arizal. The Beit Baruch quotes a letter from the Vilna Gaon to his son in which he writes: “Do not go constantly to the cemetery for there the kelipot (a kabbalistic term) cling to people, especially women. Many troubles befall a person who does so constantly. If one does so, one needs to immerse one’s hands or do netilat yadayim.”[21]

The Magen Avraham[22] writes the following in the name of the Arizal: “It is written in the writings of the Ari that one should not go to a cemetery unless it is for the sake of a funeral, especially if one has not atoned for the sin of wasting seed.”

From the writings of the Arizal and the Gra, it appears that some element of danger exists in frequenting a cemetery, as the kelipot cling to both men and women there. The Arizal stresses that this is particularly problematic regarding a ba’al keri. Perhaps one can understand that the chumra of the Chayei Adam and Pitchei Teshvua is based upon a similar understanding. Just as there is a heightened danger of kelipot clinging to a man who is impure (due to wasting seed), so too a woman who is a nidda is also at greater spiritual risk, as both a ba’al keri and nidda possess a certain level of tumah.

^ Visiting the Cemetery During Pregnancy

Although there is a well-known custom that pregnant women should not go to the cemetery, it is difficult to pinpoint a source for this minhag. The Minchat Yitzchak[23] was asked about its source and answers that he did not know of any. However, he quotes the words of the Rashba that “even though we do not know the source of a custom, we should not belittle what elderly, saintly women say regarding a certain custom.” He also brings the responsa of the Heishiv Moshe that one must not abandon the customs that the elderly women know… for the law of Israel is above natural boundaries and logic.”

It should be noted that the words of the Heishiv Moshe offer a novel perspective on everything discussed in this article. Although a lack of early sources in the Talmud and Rishonim exists regarding many of these issues, one should not hastily disregard the traditions that have been passed down.

The Minchat Yitzchak does suggest his own understanding of this custom. He explains that not visiting the cemetery is connected to the laws of tumah and tahara. In earlier generations, women who were pregnant were careful not to become impure in order that their children would be able to draw the water from the Shiloach spring that was sprinkled over the Kohen who sacrificed the para aduma (red heifer).[24] Even today, when we anxiously await the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, the custom remains to guard ourselves from tumah as much as possible.

Perhaps we can suggest another possible answer that this custom is rooted in the words of the Arizal and the Gra cited above that a general mystical danger exists to frequent a cemetery. Since a pregnant woman must take extra precautions due to her fragile situation, here too, regarding a nidda, we also take extra precautions and recommend that she not visit the cemetery.

[1] Sanhedrin 20a

[2] Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin ch. 2

[3] Tosafot, Sanhedrin 20a s.v. nashim

[4] Zohar, parshat Vayakhel, p. 196

[5] The Gemara in Berachot also mentions the possibility of danger with a slightly different nuance.

[6] Responsa Divrei Yatziv, o.c. 2

[7] Responsa Chacham Tzvi 36

[8] Responsa Yabia Omer, Vol. 7, y.d. 39

[9] Responsa Yaskil Avdi, Vol. 6, e.h. 123

[10] Beit Yosef, y.d. 369

[11] Shulchan Aruch, y.d. 369:1-2

[12]  Shach, y.d. 369:2

[13]  Beit Hillel, y.d. 369

[14] Darkei Moshe, y.d. 369

[15] One could answer that the Shach is in essence following the opinion of the Mordechai. The Mordechai feels that if the women arrive last and leave first, the danger described by the Zohar would be avoided. However, the Beit Yosef was still concerned that there might be some mingling, and hence added another chumra of his own that they not enter the cemetery at all.

[16] Brought in the “Minhag Pressburg” regarding women going to a cemetery .

[17] Chayei Adam, Vol. 1, 3:38

[18] Mishna Berura, o.c. 88

[19] E.g., Leket Kemach

[20] Pitchei Teshuva, y.d. 369:19

[21] Another version of the Gra’s letter states that one should not go to the cemetery at all.

[22] Magen Avraham, o.c. 569

[23] Responsa Minchat Yitzchak, y.d. 4:35

[24] See Mishna, Para 3:2.

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