Menachem Mendel

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Jewish Funeral Adventures

In the wake of the controversy, real or imagined, regarding the political overtones at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, Professor Bainbridge (via Kevin Drum) has dug up an example of a truly politicized funeral:

“…and in the second place, after Caesar’s body had been brought to the forum, Antony pronounced the customary eulogy, and when he saw that the multitude were moved by his words, changed his tone to one of compassion, and taking the robe of Caesar, all bloody as it was, unfolded it to view, pointing out the many places in which it had been pierced and Caesar wounded. All further orderly procedure was at an end, of course; some cried out to kill the murderers, and others, as formerly in the case of Clodius the demagogue, dragged from the shops the benches and tables, piled them upon one another, and thus erected a huge pyre; on this they placed Caesar’s body, and in the midst of many sanctuaries, asylums, and holy places, burned it. Moreover, when the fire blazed up, people rushed up from all sides, snatched up half-burnt brands, and ran round to the houses of Caesar’s slayers to set them on fire.”
(Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, par. 20)

That got to me thinking as to what examples of out-of-the-ordinary acts from funerals are preserved in Rabbinic literature. One source for some interesting information about Jewish funerals are the takkanot (enactments) or by-laws of various Hevra Kadisha’s (Burial Societies).

“We have also voted unanimously no longer to tolerate the disorder of women who jostle each other at funerals and at the funeral preparations, which is a terrible thing…And also, this disorder that reigns at the burial of a met mitsva [an abandoned corpse], where the women rush almost into the midst of the men, which puts us in grave danger and, as a result, the men no longer attend the burials of met mitsva.”
(Rules of the Hevra Kaddisha of Prague 1692-1702, article 25 in Sylvia Anne Goldberg, Crossing the Jabbok, p. 223)

Many of these by-laws give us more information about the Hevra Kadisha’s themselves than about funerals. From the well-documented Jewish communities of Italy we have much interesting information. Ariel Toaff has said that “The Jewish funeral was often quite an adventure.” The following is from Toaff’s Love, Work and Death: Jewish Life in Medieval Umbria:

The strange procession accompanying the coffin beyond the walls of the city, intoning dirges so unlike those of Christian funerals, attracted general curiosity, not to say spite and irritation. These processions sometimes aroused people’s most aggressive instincts, and on such occasions the Jews, for whom a funeral was a rare occasion to appear in public in relatively large numbers to celebrate a distinctive religious ceremony, became the target not only of insults, obscenities, and boorish comments, but of vicious and even fatal stonings. (p. 55)

Toaff cites a responsum of R. Azriel Diena in which he recounts a funeral from Pavia in 1514 in which the Jews were subject to such a vicious attack that they had to actuall retreat and bury the deceased somewhere else.

“None the less, to our misfortune, when we tried to take our first deceased to burial, all the Christians living in those parts gathered around us, assaulting the funeral cortege with lances and swords. We were in such danger that the relatives of the dead man were forced to retrace their steps and take the bier back home in all haste.” (ed. Boksenboim, i, pp. 244-5 quoted in Toaff, p. 56 n. 68).

Another source which he brings describes how even when guards may have been provided they were also subject to vicious attacks. “At last the said family and the other Jews were obliged to lay down the bier, and take flight. And two guards of the Podesta were killed, and many of those of the Podesta and Capitanio were wounded, together with many Jews.” (Toaff, p. 56)

An definite adventure, sometimes quite sad and upsetting, to say the least.

One Response to “Jewish Funeral Adventures”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    So does this mean that any Jews at the ceremony for Coretta Scott King should have jumped out of the funeral procession with swords and lances, and attacked Bush? Admittedly, while I happen to be a huge fan of the Kings’ and their message, I would really have rather attend the latter funeral, with the swords and lances. I would say, though, that then Bush Sr. would have a legitimate beef. Oh well, can’t win them all.
    ScottageB | Homepage | 02.13.06 – 11:52 pm | #

    I think that Abraham Geiger was once shouted down at a funeral by Orthodox members of the family or the city or something.
    andy | 02.14.06 – 8:21 pm | #

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