Jewish cemetery in Vienna (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)
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Properly eulogizing the dead is a sobering, but important mitzvah.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion (in Israel) is “Chukat” (Numbers 19:1-22:1) which contains the saddening deaths of Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister of Moses.

Regarding the death of Aaron the Torah states: “The entire congregation saw that Aaron had died and they wept for him thirty days, the entire House of Israel” (Numbers 20:29). This verse is one of the many Biblical sources for delivering eulogies when someone passes away. As such, it is a good opportunity for us to discuss this sobering but important mitzvah.

It is a mitzvah to deliver a eulogy. As Maimonides writes, “It is a positive mitzvah to visit the sick, to console mourners…and to eulogize the dead. Even though all of these mitzvot are Rabbinic, they are included in the Biblical mitzvah of “to love one’s fellow as oneself.”

The primary obligation to give or arrange eulogies falls upon the inheritors of the deceased. Obviously, not everyone is cut out to prepare or deliver a eulogy and, therefore, the family is required to hire people to delivery eulogies if necessary. A husband must eulogize or otherwise ensure that his wife is eulogized. One receives reward for participating and attending a eulogy.

We are told that one should eulogize the deceased in a manner that moves the audience and emphasizes the greatness of the deceased.

Therefore, it is permitted to exaggerate the virtues of the deceased “a little bit.” One is to praise the deceased’s level of Torah knowledge, his piety, and his good character traits. The eulogy should also convey the significance and gravity of the death. For example, the funeral and eulogy of one who died at 95 years old should be different than the funeral and eulogy of one who died young.

A man and woman should be eulogized equally. In most communities, children are eulogized from the age of 5 or 6 upward. However, in some communities, children are not eulogized at all.

It is taught that the deceased hear the eulogies given at their funeral. Indeed, it is taught that a deceased is aware of all that is done in his presence until he (or she) is buried in the ground.

There is a dispute in the Talmud whether the eulogy is meant to show honor to the deceased or to show honor to the surviving relatives. According to the view that the eulogy is intended to honor the deceased, we are to follow the wishes of an individual who requested that no eulogies be delivered at his funeral. However, according to the view that the eulogy is intended to show honor to the surviving relatives, any such requests may be ignored.

It seems that the Talmud sides with the view that eulogies are indeed meant to honor the deceased. Interestingly, however, the actual burial is largely for the honor of the surviving relatives. As such, a deceased who asked to be left unburied (or cremated) is to be ignored as doing so would be a disgrace to the surviving relatives.

Eulogies are generally not delivered on festive days such as Chanukah, Purim, or Rosh Chodesh. It is permitted to speak about the positive attributes of the deceased even when delivering a formal eulogy is forbidden.

While a funeral should not be held in a synagogue sanctuary, it is permitted to hold the funeral of a great rabbi or Torah scholar in a synagogue and deliver the eulogies there.

With only very minor exceptions, a coffin should never be brought into a synagogue sanctuary.