Performing a Proper Hesped

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: I was told that sometimes one obeys the request of a person not to be eulogized, and sometimes one may ignore it. How can this be?

Question #3: Is it true that one may not schedule a hesped within thirty days of a Yom Tov?

Our Parsha

Both the hespedim for Yaakov Avinu and for Yosef Hatzadik are mentioned in this week’s parsha, providing an opportunity to discuss 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.

The Mitzvah

Most authorities do not count performing eulogies as one of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah since they 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 take care of 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 for your fellow 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 away (Shabbos 105b).”

From this, we see that the responsibility of hesped applies both to the person saying the eulogy, and to those who attend, and that this obligation sometimes applies to each individual. 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 away.” 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 concluded 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 344:1).” (I will soon discuss why one may exaggerate “a little,” 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, a young person should be eulogized more intensely than an older one, and a person without surviving descendants should be eulogized more intensely than someone who had children (Meiri, Moed Katan 27b). Also, 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, it is forbidden to eulogize someone inappropriately.

At this point, we can answer the first question: “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?”

Despite its frequency, such eulogies are halachically wrong. This sin of eulogizing for one’s own self aggrandizement or exaggerating excessively, is so serious and apparently is so commonplace that there were places that developed a custom never to 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 to 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 is the law if someone requests not to be eulogized?

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 negate 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 a common practice 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 one can require them 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 parshas Chayei Sarah that the mitzvah is in honor of 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 for eulogies where appropriate.

Pre-Torah

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.

Exaggerate a Little

The hesped should be appropriate to the deceased; one may exaggerate slightly (Rosh, Moed Katan 3:63). You might ask, how can any exaggerating be permitted? Isn’t the smallest exaggeration an untruth? What difference is there between a small lie and a big one? (See Taz, Yoreh Deah 344:1)

The answer is that there is usually a bit more to praise about the person than we necessarily know, so that, on the contrary, adding a bit makes the tribute closer to the truth (based on Taz, Yoreh Deah 344:1).

Ignoring a Request

I mentioned above that the Gemara concludes that if the deceased requested no eulogies, we honor his/her request. However, this ruling is not always followed. When the Pnei Yehoshua, one of the greatest Torah scholars of the mid-eighteenth century, passed away, the Noda BiYehudah eulogized him, even though the Pnei Yehoshua had expressly requested that no eulogies be given. How could the Noda BiYehudah ignore the Pnei Yehoshua’s express request?

The answer, as explained by the Noda BiYehudah’s disciple, is that for a gadol hador to be buried without proper eulogy is not simply a lack of the deceased’s honor, which he has a right to forgo, but also a disgrace to the Torah. Even though a talmid chacham may (in general) forgo the honor due him as a Torah scholar (talmid chacham shemachal al kevodo, kevodo machul [Kiddushin 32b]), this applies only to forgoing honor. He cannot allow himself to be disgraced, since this disgraces not only him but also the Torah itself (Shu’t Teshuvah Mei’Ahavah, Volume I #174; see also Pischei Teshuvah 344:1).

We now understand why there are times when one obeys the request of a person to omit his hesped, and times when one may ignore it. Usually, we obey his/her request because of the general principle retzono shel adam zehu kevodo, the fulfillment of someone’s desire is his honor. However, if a gadol hador requests omission of eulogies, and major authorities consider this a breach of respect for the Torah itself, they may overrule the gadol’s request out of kavod for the Torah. (Of course, this implies that the departed gadol felt that the absence of hesped would not be a disgrace to the Torah, and that his halachic opinion is being overruled.)

At this point, we can now address the third question raised above: Is it true that one may not schedule a hesped within thirty days of a Yom Tov?

Hesped before Yom Tov

The Mishnah (Moed Katan 8a) forbids scheduling a hesped within thirty days before Yom Tov for someone who died over thirty days before Yom Tov (as explained by Rosh ad loc. and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 347:1). What is wrong with scheduling this hesped, particularly since performing a proper hesped is such a big mitzvah?

The Gemara cites two approaches to explain this ruling, both explaining that some form of Yom Tov desecration may result from such a eulogy. Rav (according to our version of the text) explained the reason with an anecdote:

“A man once saved money in order to fulfill the mitzvah of aliyah la’regel, traveling to the Beis HaMikdash for Yom Tov. A professional eulogizer then showed up at the man’s door, and convinced his wife that her recently departed relative deserved another eulogy. She took the money her husband had saved for aliyah la’regel and gave it to the eulogizer. (This indicates that ambulance chasing is a time-hallowed profession.) At that time, Chazal decreed that one should not make a post-funeral hesped during the thirty day period before Yom Tov.”

The Gemara then quotes Shmuel, who cited a different reason for the ban: Usually, thirty days after someone’s death, he or she is sufficiently forgotten for people not to discuss the death during Yom Tov, which would diminish the festival joy. However, performing a eulogy during these thirty days refreshes people’s memories, and as a result, they discuss the passing during Yom Tov and disturb the Yom Tov joy (Moed Katan 8b).

The Gemara notes that there is a practical difference between the two approaches. According to the first approach, our concern only applies if someone hires a professional speaker, and there is no stricture against conducting voluntary eulogies. However, according to Shmuel, one may not conduct even an unpaid eulogy, since this may revive the loss for the close family and result in a desecration of Yom Tov.

Contemporary Problem or Not?

Some raise the following question: Why doesn’t the Gemara point out yet another difference that results from the dispute: According to the first approach, the prohibition would have existed only when the Beis HaMikdash was standing, and there was a mitzvah of aliyah la’regel. Today, however, when we unfortunately cannot fulfill this mitzvah, one should be permitted to hire a professional speaker to eulogize within a month of Yom Tov, even after the funeral (Ritz Gayus, quoted by Ramban and Rosh)? Obviously, according to Shmuel’s approach the same concern exists today that existed when the Beis HaMikdash still stood. Yet the Gemara does not mention such a halachic difference between the two opinions.

The Ramban explains that the first opinion agrees that the prohibition exists even today. Since the story mentioned in the Gemara happened during the time of the Beis HaMikdash, the Gemara cites a case of someone saving up for aliyah la’regel. Thus, even though we have no Beis HaMikdash, the reason for the prohibition still applies, since people save money in order to be able to celebrate Yom Tov. Thus, the concern still exists that in order to pay for the eulogy, one might take from one’s Yom Tov savings.

What about Rosh Hashanah?

Does this law apply even within thirty days of Rosh Hashanah, or only before the festivals of Sukkos, Pesach, and Shavuos?

Since the Gemara mentions that the person spent the money set aside for aliyah la’regel, a mitzvah that applies only for Sukkos, Pesach, and Shavuos, this implies that our concern is only about the special Yom Tov expenses associated with the three regalim festivities, and not Rosh Hashanah, =when there is no mitzvah of celebration (Yeshuos Yaakov, Orach Chayim 547:1).

Eulogizing Children

Does one recite eulogies for children?

Theoretically, one could argue that since the purpose of a hesped is to honor the deceased, perhaps children do not require this type of honor. Nevertheless, the Gemara states that one does perform a eulogy for children of a certain age.

From which age does one perform a hesped?

“Rabbi Meir, quoting Rabbi Yishmael, said that the children of poor people should be eulogized when they are only three years old, whereas the children of wealthy people are eulogized only if they are five. Rabbi Yehudah quoted Rabbi Yishmael differently: the children of poor people at five, and the children of wealthy people at six. The halachah is according to the last opinion quoted (Moed Katan 24b).

Both opinions agree that the age is earlier for the child of a poor family than for the child of a wealthy family. What is the reason for this difference?

Rashi explains that a poor person, who has nothing in the world but his children, suffers the loss of his children more intensely, and the need for a hesped is greater. One might challenge that answer: since the conclusion of the Gemara is that a hesped is for the honor of the departed, why is it a halachic concern that an impoverished family suffers the loss of a child more? The hesped is not for their benefit, but for honor of the departed. I have not found this question discussed anywhere, although one later authority notes that the custom (at least in his time and place) was not to eulogize children at all (Beis Hillel to Yoreh Deah 344:4).

Conclusion

The Torah begins and ends by describing acts of chesed that Hashem performed, the last one entailing His burying 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.

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