Question #1: I have heard eulogies where the speaker seemed more interested in demonstrating his speaking prowess or saying clever divrei Torah than in commemorating the departed. Is this the proper way to eulogize?
Question #2: Is there a halachic definition of what constitutes a eulogy?
Question #3: Should the bereaved or the deceased’s individual circumstances affect how one eulogizes?
“And Sarah died in Kiryas Arba, which is Hebron, in the Land of Canaan. And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her.” This is the earliest of many verses the Gemara cites when discussing the mitzvah of eulogizing. People often avoid writing halachic articles about hespedim in favor of more exciting or popular topics, leaving many unaware that there is much halachah on the subject. Are there rules to follow when organizing or delivering hespedim? Indeed, there are many, as we will soon see.
Most authorities do not count performing eulogies as one of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah. Indeed, most consider it only a rabbinic mitzvah. Nonetheless, the hesped accomplishes the Torah mitzvah of ve’ahavta le’reicha komocha, loving one’s fellow as oneself, since a properly delivered hesped is a very great chesed. To quote the Rambam:
“It is a positive mitzvah of the Sages to check on the ill, to console mourners… to be involved in all aspects of the burial… to eulogize… Even though all of these mitzvos are rabbinic, they are all included in the mitzvah that one should love one’s fellow as oneself. Anything that you want someone to do for you, you should do to someone else who also keeps Torah and observes mitzvos” (Hilchos Aveil 14:1).
As the following passages demonstrate, our Sages strongly emphasized the importance of performing this mitzvah properly :
“When a Torah scholar passes away, the entire nation is obligated in his eulogy, as it states: ‘and Shmuel died, and all of Israel eulogized him’” (Mesechta Kallah Rabbasi Chapter 6).
“Whoever is idle in carrying out the hesped of a Torah scholar does not live long” (Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 35).
“Whoever is idle in carrying out the hesped of a Torah scholar deserves to be buried alive” (Shabbos 105b)!
“A voice from above declared, ‘Whoever was not idle in participating in Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi’s eulogy is assured of life in the World to Come” (Koheles Rabbah 7).
“If someone cries upon the passing of an adam kosher (a halachically observant person) Hashem counts his tears and then stores them (Shabbos 105b).”
From all of the above we see that the responsibility of hesped applies both to the person eulogizing, to those who attend, and even to the individuals who are required to attend and participate. Furthermore, we see that the reward for fulfilling this mitzvah properly is very significant, both physically and spiritually, and that the eulogy and the crying associated with mourning are both highly important.
A “Kosher” Person
Above, I cited the statement: “If someone cries upon the passing of an adam kosher, Hashem counts his tears and then stores them.” I translated adam kosher as a halachically observant person.
Who qualifies as an adam kosher?
The Rishonim discuss this question. Although the Rosh (Moed Katan 3:59) notes that his rebbe¸ the Maharam of Rottenberg, was uncertain what the term means, he himself concludes that it refers to someone who observes mitzvos properly, even if the person is not a talmid chacham and one sees nothing particularly meticulous about his religiosity. The Shulchan Aruch follows this definition.
Others explain that this is not enough to qualify as an adam kosher. Rather, the title applies to someone who, in addition to observing mitzvos properly, also pursues opportunities to perform chesed (Shach, Yoreh Deah 340:11, quoting Rabbeinu Yonah, Ramban and Bach). According to either approach, one should cry at the funeral of an adam kosher.
What is a proper hesped?
“It is a great mitzvah to eulogize the deceased appropriately. The mitzvah is to raise one’s voice, saying about him things that break the heart in order to increase crying and to commemorate his praise. However, it is prohibited to exaggerate his praise excessively. One mentions his good qualities and adds a little… If the person had no positive qualities, say nothing about him (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 444:1).” (In a different article, I will discuss why one may exaggerate “a little bit,” even though, it would seem, a small lie is also a falsehood.) The eulogy should be appropriate to the purpose and extent of the tragedy. For example, one should eulogize more intensely for someone who died young than for an older person, and more for someone who left no surviving descendants than for someone who had children (Meiri, Moed Katan 27b). The crying of every hesped should not be to excess (Meiri, ad loc.).
In summation, we see that the purpose of a hesped is to cause people to cry over the loss of a Jew who observed mitzvos properly. On the other hand, eulogizing inappropriately is very sinful.
At this point, we can answer the first question: “I have heard eulogies where the speaker seemed more interested in demonstrating his ability as a speaker than in commemorating the departed. Is this the proper way to eulogize?”
Despite its frequency, such behavior is obviously wrong. I discovered that this sin of eulogizing in non-accordance with halachah, such as speaking for one’s own self aggrandizement or exaggerating excessively, is so serious that in some places there was a custom to never eulogize and to forgo the mitzvah altogether, despite its importance (see Gesher HaChayim 1:13:4).
Why Do We Eulogize?
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 46b) raises a halachic question: Do we eulogize out of respect for the deceased, or in order to honor the surviving family members? In other words, is the chesed of this mitzvah due to the posthumous dignity granted to the departed, or is it due to its inspiring people to realize the extent to which the surviving family members have been bereaved? The Gemara devotes a lengthy discussion in proving which option is correct.
Do any variations in observance result from this question?
The Gemara notes two such differences:
No Hespedim for Me!!
I. What happens if a person requests that no one eulogize him?
If the purpose of a eulogy is to honor the deceased, the deceased has a right to forgo the honor and request that no eulogies be recited. Since the hespedim are in his/her honor, he/she has the right to forgo the honor and we respect this request. However, if the purpose of a eulogy is to honor the surviving relatives, a request of the deceased does not forgo the honor of the survivors, and we will eulogize him/her anyway if the family so desires.
Paying for a Speaker
II. A second halachic difference resulting from the above question (whether the mitzvah is to respect the deceased or to honor the surviving family members) is whether one may obligate the heirs to pay for the eulogy.
In many circles and/or eras, it is or was common to hire a rabbi or other professional speaker to provide the eulogy. May one hire such a speaker and obligate the heirs to pay his fee? If the mitzvah is to honor the deceased and hiring a professional speaker is standard procedure, then one can obligate the heirs to hire a speaker just as they are required to pay for the funeral. If eulogizing is for the sake of the bereaved, one cannot obligate them to pay for professional eulogizers if they prefer to forgo the honor.
The Gemara rallies proof from this week’s parsha that the mitzvah is to honor the deceased. As the pasuk clearly mentions, Avraham Avinu was not present when his wife Sarah died. The Gemara asks why did they wait until Avraham arrived to eulogize her. If the reason for the hesped is indeed to honor the living, Sarah should not have been left unburied until Avraham arrived. On the other hand, if the mitzvah is to honor the deceased, then Sarah was left unburied so that Avraham should honor her with his hesped.
Although the Gemara rejects this proof, it ultimately concludes that the purpose of a hesped is to honor the deceased. Therefore, if the deceased requested no eulogies, we honor his/her request, and also, heirs are obligated to pay eulogies where appropriate.
You might ask, how can we derive halachos from events that pre-date the Torah? Didn’t the mitzvos change when the Torah was given?
The answer is that since this mitzvah fulfills the concept of ve’ahavata lereiacha kamocha, love your fellow as yourself, we can derive from its mode of performance whether its purpose is to honor the deceased or, alternatively, the surviving family members.
The Torah begins and ends by describing acts of chesed that Hashem performed, the last one entailing His burying of Moshe Rabbeinu. Our purpose in life is to imitate Hashem in all activities until our personality develops to the point that we instinctively behave like Hashem. Fulfilling the mitzvah of hesped correctly, whether as a speaker or as a listener, develops our personality appropriately, and thus fulfills another highly important role in our Jewish lives.