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The Mitzvah of Levayas Hameis


Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal

Tevet 15 5780
In this week’s parsha, we find that Yosef, his brothers, most of their families as well as "all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt" (Bereishis 50:7) accompanied Yaakov Avinu on his last earthly journey. Although we learned about the burial of the other Avos and Imahos in previous parshiyos, this is the first time that the Torah describes an actual funeral procession. Therefore, this week’s discussion will focus on the mitzvah of levayas hameis, accompanying the dead, in order to bury him.

A Rabbinical-Torah Mitzvah
The Rambam (Hilchos Aveil 14:1) writes: "It is a positive Rabbinic mitzvah to visit the sick, comfort the mourners, escort the dead, marry off a bride, accompany guests, to be involved in all the needs of the burial, to carry the dead on one’s shoulder, walk before him, to eulogize, to dig and bury, to gladden the bride and groom, and provide them with all their needs. All of these are gemilus chasadim (acts of kindness) that one performs with his body, and they have no limit (as to how much one can do). Even though all of these mitzvos are Rabbinic, they are included in the mitzvah of ‘You shall love your friend as yourself.’ [This refers to] all of the things that you would want others to do for you, you do them for the one who is your compatriot in Torah and mitzvos."
We see from this Rambam that the mitzvah of levayas hameis, while Rabbinic in nature, has its roots in the Torah precept of Ve’ahavata lerei’acha kamocha.
When Yaakov Avinu requested that his son, Yosef, bury him in Eretz Yisrael, he said to him, "Do with me kindliness and truth (chesed ve’emes)" (Bereishis 47:29). Rashi, there, notes that chesed one does with the dead is referred to as "chesed shel emes," true chesed. In other words, it is a chesed that is 100% altruistic, as the one performing it does not expect anything in return from the one for whom he is performing the chesed.

The Mitzvah
In Halachic Literature, we find several levels of performing the mitzvah of levayas hameis:
1) The preferred course of action is to accompany the dead to the place of burial and remain there, until the burial is complete (Sefer Chareidim, Mitzvos Aseih 6:11; Shu"t Minchas Elazar, vol. IV, #2). Some say that this is especially true at the funeral of a great individual (Maharil, Semachos #24; Orchos Rabbeinu, page 312).
2) According to some authorities, one can fulfill the mitzvah of levayas hameis, even if they are not bringing the body to burial. An example of this is when the body is transported from the place of death to the location where they will perform the taharah, the ritual cleansing procedure (Rabbeinu Yonah, Brachos 11a [dapei harif], s.v. kol haro’eh; Shu"t Tzitz Eliezer, vol. V, Ramat Rachel #50).
3) Minimally, one can fulfill the mitzvah by walking four ammos (seven to eight feet) to accompany the bier [Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei’ah 361:3).
According to some authorities, the preferred method of performing levayas hameis is to wait until after the body has been taken outside and walk behind it (Yosef Ometz, page 326; Nitei Gavriel, Aveilus I, 65:3).

Does Not Participate
The Gemara (Brachos 18a) states: "Anyone who sees the dead and does not accompany him, transgresses, ‘One who mocks a pauper (lo’eig larash), insults his Maker’ (Mishlei 17:5)." In other words, Chazal understood that the "pauper" in the pasuk refers to someone who is dead, for he truly has nothing of his own. One who sees the dead and does not perform the mitzvah of levayas hameis transgresses this concept as, in effect, he is saying, "why should I bother to do a chesed with this individual, as he cannot pay me back" (see Rabbeinu Yehonasan Meilunil, Brachos 11a [dapei harif], s.v. hameshamer).
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 361:3) codifies this halachah and adds that one who does not accompany the dead should be excommunicated.
There is discussion among the Acharonim (see Nitei Gavriel, Aveilus, vol. I, 65:2 and footnote #4) concerning how literally one has to take the words of the Gemara. The Gemara speaks about "Anyone who sees the dead." Does this mean that one is obligated to perform the mitzvah of levayas hameis only when he sees a dead body? What is the halachah if he knows that there is a levayah in progress, but he does not actually see it? Also, what is the halachah if he sees a crowd of people accompanying the body, but does not see the actual casket? For answers to these questions, one should consult with his or her rav.

Cannot Remain
Although the mitzvah of levayas hameis is to accompany the dead, lechatchilah, the entire way until the beis hakevaros (cemetery) and minimally a distance of four ammos, there is another mitzvah of gemilas chesed, performing kindness, merely by being present at the hespeidim (eulogies). This means that even if one knows that he will not be able to perform the mitzvah of levayah, as the hespeidim will be too lengthy and he cannot remain for the entire time, there is still a mitzvah to attend (Nitei Gavriel, Aveilus I, 65:6).
The Acharonim mention that there is a custom that when taking leave of a funeral procession, one should not merely go his own way. Rather, he should stop and allow the procession to proceed until he can no longer see those accompanying the body (Sedei Chemed, Aveilus, #190; Gesher Hachayim 14:18; Pnei Baruch 5:7 and footnote #27).
Additionally, when taking leave of the funeral procession, one should recite the following: "Leich beshalom, vetanu’ach beshalom, vetaamod legoralecha lekeitz hayamin." In the event that the funeral is for a woman, one recites this using the feminine form: "Lechi… vetanuchi… vetaamdi…" This means: "Go in peace, rest in peace and arise for your reward at the end of days." This is also customarily said to the dead at the conclusion of the burial. This statement acts as a protection for the dead, and it is a part of the mitzvah of levayas hameis (Gesher Hachayim 14:19; Pnei Baruch 5:7 and footnote #76, citing Chochmas Adam and Maavar Yabok).
In the event that a person cannot attend a funeral at all, the Acharonim write that minimally, he should daven for the one who has died, ask that Hashem be compassionate towards him, and recite some Tehillim in his merit (Maavar Yabok, Sifsei Renanim, chapter 21; Pnei Baruch 5:9).

The Procession
There are numerous halachos and minhagim that pertain to the funeral procession. These include:
1) Minimally, there should be a minyan accompanying the body until after the burial so that the mourners can recite kaddish (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei’ah 361:1 and Shach #4).
2) According to some opinions, the preferred method of accompanying the body is on foot, walking behind the casket (Nitei Gavriel, Aveilus I, 65:7).
3) Numerous sources (see Gesher Hachayim 14:17; Nitei Gavriel, chapter 65, footnote #13) write that the custom during the funeral procession is for those accompanying the body to recite the pasuk "Vihi no’am" (Tehillim 90:17), together with the entire chapter of Tehillim 91 ("Yosheiv beseiser elyon").
Those who are unable to recite these pesukim should walk silently, with a serious demeanor. It is considered inappropriate and shows a lack of respect for the dead to engage in irrelevant conversation (Gesher Hachayim ibid.).
It is also a mitzvah during the levayah to daven for the one who died and to give tzedakah for his benefit (Pnei Baruch 5:12).
4) One who is walking within four ammos (seven-eight feet) of the body should cover his tzitzis. This is because having uncovered tzitzis in the presence of the dead is considered lo’eig larash, mocking a pauper, as the dead can no longer perform mitzvos. Even if the deceased person is a woman or child, who during their lifetimes are exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis, one should still cover his tzitzis (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 23:2).

Greeting Others
Based on Meseches Semachos (1:7), the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 343:2) writes that when a meis is present in a small village, she’eilas shalom is prohibited. (We will explain this phrase shortly.) The Acharonim (see Kerem Shlomo and Daas Torah ad loc.) explain that a "small village" is any place with a population of 100 or less. However, in a larger city, she’eilas shalom is permitted. The Rema adds that when the body is in the cemetery prior to burial, she’eilas shalom is forbidden there. After the burial, she’eilas shalom is permitted as long as one is at least four ammos distant from the graves.
The Acharonim (Aruch Hashulchan ad loc.) extend this prohibition to include any city, even a large one, where the meis’s presence is felt. An example of this would be where a great Torah scholar has passed away. Since everyone in the city feels the loss, she’eilas shalom is forbidden there until after the burial. Another example of this is at the funeral itself, no matter how large, as the meis’s presence is felt there.
What is "she’eilas shalom?" This includes any type of greeting using the word "shalom." Included in this is "shalom aleichem" or "mah shlomcha" (Hebrew for "how are you"). The Acharonim also maintain that it includes wishing someone "good morning" or "good evening" (Elyah Rabbah 554:21; Pri Megadim 554, Eishel Avraham #21; Mishnah Berurah 554:41).

The Bracha
The Gemara (Brachos 58b) states that upon seeing Jewish graves, one recites the bracha of "asher yatzar eschem badin." This requirement is also codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 224:12). There is some discussion among the poskim how one should conduct himself concerning this bracha during a funeral.
1) Some maintain that the rule of "ha’oseik bemitzvah patur min hamitzvah" applies. According to this concept, anyone who is involved in a mitzvah is exempt from performing other mitzvos. Since a person participating in the funeral is performing the mitzvah of levayas hameis, he is exempt from the mitzvah of reciting the bracha.
This opinion maintains that he is exempt from the bracha, even after the funeral is over. This is because the halachah is that one does not recite this bracha if he has seen Jewish graves within the last thirty days. Since this person saw the graves during the levayah, he will have to wait until he sees graves again after thirty days to recite the bracha (Kaf Hachayim 224:37, citing Eishel Avraham; Ketzos Hashulchan 46, Badei Hashulchan #18).
2) Others contend that the rule of "ha’oseik bemitzvah patur min hamitzvah" does not apply here, as it is possible to perform both mitzvos simultaneously, i.e., he can recite the bracha while accompanying the meis (Shu"t Kinyan Torah, vol. III, #27.2).
3) Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled that the bracha should be recited after the levayah, before leaving the cemetery. Although it is true that one may recite this bracha only once in thirty days, the entire time that someone is in the cemetery is considered one long "seeing" (Pnei Baruch, chapter #5, footnote #48).

The Rema (Yoreh Deah 358:3) writes that some places have a custom when arriving at the beis hakevaros to stop with the meis prior to burial. This is known as the "maamados" which refers to the act of stopping. There are numerous customs concerning how many times to stop. The Rema, himself, writes that some have a custom to stop every four ammos in the beis hakevaros until they reach the grave, while others suffice with stopping two or three times. Other sources write that one should stop seven times (Nitei Gavriel, Aveilus I, 74:14). In Yerushalayim, the custom is to stop in front of every shul (Gesher Hachayim 14.3:1).
The Shach (Yoreh Dei’ah 358:3) writes that the reason why maamados are performed is to chase away the negative spiritual forces that seek to latch on to the dead body. By halting the procession, these forces leave the body alone.
Concerning what is recited during the maamados, there are numerous customs cited in the various sources, and each location should follow the local custom.

In the Beis Hakevaros
Although a separate discussion is required to cover many of the halachos and minhagim pertinent to a cemetery and the actual burial, we will mention a few that relate directly to the mitzvah of levayas hameis:
1) One should not step on other graves unnecessarily. However, if there is a need to do so, for example, in order to bury a body, it is permitted (Taz, Yoreh Dei’ah 364:1; Chochmas Adam 158:12).
2) There is a mitzvah to assist in covering the body with earth (Nitei Gavriel, Aveilus I, 77:2). The custom is that when one finishes with the shovel, he does not hand it to the next person, but rather leaves it on the ground (Maavar Yabok, Sefas Emes #27; Chochmas Adam 158:30).
3) When leaving the cemetery, one should pick up some earth along with some foliage and throw it behind him, and recite the pasuk, "zechor ki afar anachnu" – "remember that we are like earth." Also, one should wash his face with water. Two reasons are cited for these practices:
a) It is to remind us of techiyas hameisim, the resurrection of the dead, as the pasuk (Tehillim 72:16) states that people will sprout like grass of the earth.
b) It is with these three items, foliage, water, and afar (literally earth, but since eifer, ashes, is linguistically similar, they are often exchanged) that the tumas meis will be removed when we will have the ashes of the parah adumah (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei’ah 376:4 and Shach ad loc.).
4) Some have a custom that when leaving the cemetery they go in a different way from which they came, if possible (Pnei Baruch 5:25).

Washing Hands
After leaving the beis hakevaros one should wash his hands (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 4:18) since negative spiritual forces accompany one who returns from the cemetery (Shu"t Maharil #23). The Mishnah Berurah (4:39) adds that some people are stringent in this regard and wash their hands three times. There is also a minhag to wash one’s face upon leaving the beis hakevaros (Magen Avraham 4:20 and Mishnah Berurah 4:42, quoting Maharil).
In addition to washing hands when leaving a cemetery, the minhag is to wash hands after a funeral or leaving the presence of a meis. The Rema (Yoreh Dei’ah 376:5, quoted in Mishnah Berurah 4:43) cites the minhag of not entering a house before washing one’s hands. Interestingly, the Rema concludes with the words: "u’minhag avoseinu Torah hi," "the custom of our fathers is Torah," that this is the way one should conduct himself.
There is a disagreement whether one is required to wash his hands if he did not come within four ammos of the dead during a levayah. (See Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 21, who writes that it is unnecessary. Sefer Shemiras Haguf vehanefesh chap. 54, footnote 35, quotes Imrei Yosher Leseder Nashim [Hanhagos Chazon Ish #116] that washing is required.)
There are various customs regarding whether one should dry his hands after washing, when leaving a beis hakevaros or a levayah. Some maintain that the custom is not to dry them, but they should be left to dry on their own (Sheyarei Knesses Hagedolah, Yoreh Dei’ah 376:14). Others maintain that one may dry one’s hands. The Ben Ish Chai draws a distinction between winter and summer, and maintains that one should allow them to dry on their own only during the summer. However, during the winter, when it is cold, he may dry them (Kaf Hachayim 4:78).
One of the reasons given for the custom of not drying one’s hands is to indicate that one is not diverting his thoughts from the eventuality of one’s death (Maavar Yabok, Sifsei Renanos 19).
Another custom related to washing hands is that one who has finished washing should not hand the washing cup to the next person. Instead, he should put it down (Beis Lechem Yehudah and Chidushei Rebbi Akiva Eiger 376). The minhag is to pour out the remaining water in the cup after one finishes washing (Pnei Baruch chap. 5, footnote 87, in the name of Maavor Yabok). It is possible that this is the reason for the custom of placing the cup in an inverted position after washing (Pnei Baruch ibid. in the name of Nachamu Ami).

Tefillah is the Answer
Although this story is only tangentially related to our topic, I decided to include it, as it was told to me while I was preparing this article, and we can glean a very important lesson from it.
Rav Elimelech Biderman, the noted darshan, related that the Chevrah Kadisha in Yerushalayim brought a meis to Har Hazeisim for burial. The meis had purchased two graves during his lifetime, for himself and for his wife. When the Chevrah Kadisha arrived, they were perturbed to see that the Arab workmen had mistakenly dug the grave that had been designated for the wife. They could not simply bury the meis there, as there was an unrelated woman buried in the neighboring grave, and it is considered inappropriate to do so.
Since they wanted to bury the meis before sunset, the members of the Chevrah Kadisha dug the man’s grave themselves. After completing the burial, a representative went to the house of mourning to apprise the family members of what had occurred. (The custom in Yerushalayim is that descendents of the one who died do not join in the funeral procession.)
Upon hearing the events, the mourners were astounded. One of the sons related that three months earlier, his father had written a tzavaah (will) which included burial instructions. A short while after giving it to his son, the father asked that it be returned, as he wanted to add something. The son asked him what he was adding and the father responded that he wanted only religious Jews to dig his grave. His son told him that such a request is unheard of, and it cannot be fulfilled. The father then called the Chevrah Kadisha and asked if such a thing was possible. They told him that there is no need for such a stringency and no one, even the greatest tzaddikim, has ever requested it. Upon hearing this, the father told his son, "If no one is going to help me, I’m going to daven and leave it up to Hashem to make the arrangements."
And, apparently, He did.

We see from this story the power of tefillah. Even if one davens for something that is seemingly unnecessary, Hashem still takes those prayers into consideration (Be’er Haparsha, Toldos, page 10, footnote #13).
This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site

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