CCAR RESPONSA

Contemporary American Reform Responsa

118. Tombstone with Christian Markings

QUESTION: The Christian spouse has placed a tombstone with crosses upon it on the tomb of her Jewish husband, who is buried in the Jewish cemetery. Should this tombstone be permitted to stand in the Jewish cemetery? (Rabbi K. White, Lincoln, NE)

ANSWER: We should begin by looking briefly at the historical background of tombstones. Some Biblical graves were marked, so Jacob placed a pillar on the tomb of his beloved wife, Rachel, (Gen. 35.20). Similarly we find various Biblical and post-Biblical kings marking their graves (Il Kings 23.17; Mac. 13.27). Tombstones were, of course, also used to warn priests (kohen) so that they would not become ritually unclean (Tos. Ohalot 17.4). Tombstones were also mentioned in the Talmudic period, but nothing indicated that their erection was a universal custom (M. Shek. 2.5; Hor. 13b; Er. 55b). Some of the medieval authorities considered a tombstone as customary on every grave (Solomon ben Aderet, Responsa #375). He also felt its erection was an obligation to be met by the family (Responsa, Part 7, #57). Joseph Caro followed this thought (Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 89.1; Yoreh Deah 348.2) and stated that a husband is duty bound to provide a stone along with burial for his wife. The commentaries continue that emphasis. It is clear, therefore, that the grave must be marked.

We must now ask whether it is permissible to use a stone with a Christian symbol in a Jewish cemetery. There is, of course, no discussion of this in the traditional literature, for such a stone would have been unthinkable in the past and the question would not have arisen. We can, however, be guided by it in a lengthy discussion of Moses Schick of the nineteenth century (Responsa Yoreh Deah #171) which dealt with inscriptions of the date from the Christian calendar on the tombstone. He was outraged and felt that this violated the commandment of Deuteronomy (18.20), "The name of other Gods shall not be mentioned." Others, however, felt that this system of dating had become completely secular, and therefore, could be used on a Jewish tomb along with the Hebrew date. I cite this instance simply to indicate sensitivity on a the matter which is peripherally Christian.

The cross, however, is the central symbol of Christianity. It is sacred and universally recognized. It would, therefore, be absolutely wrong to have this or any other Christian symbol in the Jewish cemetery. In our instance it is also misleading as the individual buried there was a Jew.

When we permit a non-Jewish spouse to be buried in our cemeteries, it is a courtesy to the family. This can not be extended to non-Jewish services in our cemeteries or to Christian symbols on any grave. Anyone who is uncomfortable with these conditions should be buried in a Christian cemetery.

Many of those buried in the cemetery already, and their survivors, would feel that their religious status had been violated by such a stone.

In our instance, it seems quite likely that the widow simply ordered the stone without giving the matter any thought, and would be willing to alter it or replace it. If, for some reason, the widow is adamant and insists upon having her husband's grave marked with a cross, then her husband should be be reinterred in the general cemetery where she can mark the grave in any way that she wishes.

May 1983

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