I’m six months pregnant. My husband will attend the stone-setting of his late grandmother next week. I would like to go to support him and his family certainly expect me to be there. My mother, however, insists a pregnant woman is not allowed to enter a cemetery. I asked around and have heard many different points of view and conflicting opinions. I know this is the one place I can turn to for a coherent answer. My husband and I are relying on you for clarification.
As a rule of thumb, when you hear so many conflicting opinions on a matter of Jewish law then, in all likelihood, there is no basis for it in Jewish law and people are just reporting what they saw or heard elsewhere. The hard fact is that there is no clause in Jewish law that forbids pregnant women from entering a cemetery.
So where did the rumour start and why does it seem to be a long-standing prevalent Jewish story? Here are a few theories: I have heard it suggested that it is out of concern for the health of the mother and foetus. A pregnant woman’s emotional well-being impacts her unborn child, and attendance in a cemetery engenders negative emotions which can be potentially unhealthy for the baby.
I have also heard it said that there are certain negative ‘spiritual forces’ which linger in a cemetery, hence we wash our hands upon leaving, just as we do each morning when we wake. A pregnant woman is arguably more vulnerable than others and can be more readily adversely affected by this energy. Hence the spirits will stay away. I should stress I have found no reliable source for either of these reasons and welcome readers to submit reasons if they know of any that are well documented.
The nearest I got to anything was from a renowned 20th-century codifier, Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, who suggested the following: In Temple times there was a ritual where the ashes of an all-red heifer were mixed with water and used in the ablution of one who came in contact with the dead and was thus ritually impure. Precautions were taken to ensure whoever handled the ashes and the water was pure. The Mishna relates (Para 3:2) that a special colony of children in Jerusalem lived in an area constructed specifically to prevent their contracting any ritual impurity. These super-pure children would then have the honour of drawing water to be mixed with the ash.
Rabbi Weiss posits that the women who chose to raise their children in this colony would take care not to come in contact with anything impure –including cemeteries – already throughout the duration of their pregnancies. He suggests that even though today we don’t have this red heifer process or such colonies, pregnant women still avoid going to cemeteries out of faith and hope that the Messianic era will come soon, and their children will yet again be the first to enrol in the special colony.
There is also a custom that women married to members of the priestly Cohen families, whose male children will then also be Cohanim, don’t enter cemeteries during their pregnancies. This is because it is forbidden for a priest (even a very little one) to enter a cemetery. Even as there are strong halachic grounds for leniency in this case, some women married to Cohanim are nonetheless careful. I can only reiterate that this is not a law but a time-honoured custom. Therefore, I suggest a compromise. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being in the prayer hall for a stone-setting, and to that you should go.[divider]
thank you for your response to my letter regarding Cynthia, who asked about sitting shiva. Notwithstanding your cynicism, I am a genuinely interested individual who wants to know what the benefits of sitting shiva really are, excluding the assumed religious obligation.
How do you figure excluding the religious obligation? Without that, it remains purely subjective – for some the so-called therapeutic benefits can be achieved in one day, for others maybe ten days. The particular significance of seven days is as I outlined in my previous response to Cynthia.
Does sitting shiva altogether have benefits? Yes! Having been through it myself just a few months ago, the steady flow of people coming in from all parts of the world was in fact very touching and com- forting. And when many shared wonderful anecdotes and personal stories of my father, it helped some of the healing. But I maintain that beyond religious obligation, even the particularity of the benefit is unique to each individual. Sometimes Benjy my boy, you just gotta do what you gotta do![divider]
What is the significance of mourners saying the Kaddish prayer when it makes no reference to the deceased at all like Yiskor does?
Wow! A morbid week of questions! Kaddish is a powerful prayer – its words are rich with significance. But what has it to do with a loved one? We are all endowed with a piece of God within us. When a human being passes away, that piece of God as contained within each of us ‘dies’ together with the person, figuratively speaking. Man was created in the image of God and the fate of man is ultimately the fate of God himself. As per the verse in Isaiah: “In all their afflictions He was afflicted.” Every human life is a divine piece of art and has infinite and eternal value. In reciting the Kaddish, we attempt to rebuild not only shattered souls, but also to rebuild a shattered and devastated God. This, in turn, gives immense comfort to the souls of our dearly departed.
Isaac’s life is reported as strangely non-verbal and, apparently, unoriginal. Like his father before him, Isaac creates a very awkward misunderstanding with the Philistines: he tells their king that Rebecca, his wife, is in fact his sister. This myth sustains itself until Abimelech observes them in an intimate situation. He then calls Isaac to account in an embarrassing exchange which seems to confirm a family reputation for unco-operative passivity. Non-communication creates a rift between husband and wife later when the time comes to bless the children in their old age.
Favouritism is the result, with Rebecca preferring Jacob and Isaac wishing to bestow his loving blessing upon Esau. A scene of deceit and dramatic farce ensues, with a mother dressing up her adult son in hairy skins to convince the father that he is the other son. Jacob does nothing to de- serve his father’s blessing, relying on his mother’s own curried goat to masquerade as Esau’s hard-won hunted venison. Jacob then receives the coveted blessing. Esau reacts hysterically and pronounces a death wish upon his brother. Isaac reacts by giving both a blessing, convincing neither of its value. As we know, exile now be- comes the lot of one son (Jacob) and his descendants from this point onwards.
Meanwhile, the other son (Esau) will maintain an eternal reputation for hating his brother. Hiding true motives and not speaking out is more dangerous than open feud. Abraham and Sarah argued over love and propriety and despite that their marriage still thrived. How- ever, when one sits on the fence in a relationship and does not declare one’s position clearly, much suffering is sure to ensue. Lack of clarity in communicating politics is bad enough; silence in a marriage is positively lethal for the children and their future descendants.
In 2004, I delivered an exciting set of lectures on Judaism at Oxford University. I offered the chance for the assembled academics to ask the question that most bothered them. Half the assembled audience put their hands went up – and all asked the same question: How do Jews view Jacob’s deceit? I pointed out that much later in the story, when the brothers met again, Jacob begged his brother to “take back” the paternally-ac- corded privilege, something that Esau declined to do. Surely the Judeo-Christian tradition of forgiveness precludes us from withholding Jacob’s attempt at putting right any perceived or actual wrong!
The episode at Oxford was a powerful reminder to me of the way in which deficient communication can spawn hate and resentment for thousands of years.
• Read Rabbi Schochet’s blog at shul.co.uk/rabbi or follow him on Twitter at @RabbiYYS