2-7-13 by Shlomo Brody- Under pressure from the Israeli Supreme Court, the Chief Rabbinate recently issued a halachic ruling permitting women to deliver eulogies. This declaration was the culmination of a legal battle led heroically by the ITIM organization following highly publicized incidents in which women mourners were forcibly prevented by the municipal burial society (hevra kadisha) from eulogizing their loved ones. These incidents highlight the widely divergent views within Jewish sources regarding the participation of women in funeral services.
In antiquity, many cultures featured lamentations at funerals, a phenomenon also found in Jewish sources. Jeremiah, for example, proclaims, “Summon the dirge-singers... send for the skilled women... Let them quickly start wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears...” (Jeremiah 9:16-17). Based on this verse, the Sages asserted that dirge-singers were featured at the funerals of the greatest scholars.
Elsewhere they detailed the various lyrics recited by the women of Babylonia, which included rich, poetic imagery. One sage went so far as to assert that a husband, within his marital contract, becomes obligated to provide a dirge-singer at his wife’s funeral. This requirement was codified by Maimonides as well as Rabbi Yosef Karo, even as he noted that this was only true in societies that had this custom. The basic principle guiding this law is that the marital contract obligates one to provide appropriate ceremonies in accordance with contemporary practice.
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