Contemporary American Reform Responsa

117. The Sh'ma as a Tombstone Inscription

QUESTION: Would it be permissible to inscribe the verse Sh'ma Yisrael on a tombstone? (R. W., Pittsburgh, PA)

ANSWER: Inscriptions on Jewish tombstones may be found as early as Greek and Roman times. Usually they were confined to the name of the deceased and a brief description of his life. This practice was continued in subsequent centuries. Only rarely were any quotations from Biblical or later literature found on stones until modern times. There would be no problem with such inscriptions, even with those intimately connected with the synagogue service. In fact, the more familiar synagogue psalms are used most frequently for such statements. Tradition has, of course, prohibited the conducting of a formal service on a cemetery and the building of a synagogue with a Torah on a cemetery. The general statement made in connection with these prohibitions was that we do not mock the inability of the dead to praise God (Ber. 18a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 367.2). Everything is done to help overcome sorrow and not to reemphasize it. Nothing would prohibit the use of this verse which has become so central to Judaism on a tombstone inscription.

June 1983

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