February 13, 2022

Moed Katan 27

Sometimes you can read about an incident that took place in the past and not fully appreciate the impact that it had on those living at the time and its implications for today – and a case in point is what we are taught in today’s daf (Moed Katan 27b) about Rabban Gamliel and the cost of burial where we are taught:

‘Originally, the cost of burial was harder on the deceased’s relatives than the death itself, to the point that there were those who, [unable to afford the burial costs], would simply abandon the corpse of their relative and flee. This continued until Rabban Gamliel came and made the decision [that instead of his own death placing a heavy financial weight on his family, notwithstanding the fact that they could afford this cost, he would] treat himself lightly [through leaving instructions] to be taken out to burial wearing [simple] linen shrouds. Following his example, the people adopted the custom to be buried in linen burial shrouds. Rav Papa says: Nowadays, the people have accustomed themselves [to be buried] with coarse canvas which only costs a zuz.’

What we see here – which is a phenomenon that was prevalent then with burial but which continues to be prevalent in other aspects of Jewish living – is that situations arise when those with limited funds cannot afford to give their loved ones the honour they deserve, and given the heavy financial weight that often comes with celebrating life-cycle events or honouring the dead, this then impacts the sense of self-respect felt by the living – and in the case described in the Gemara, the human dignity shown to the dead.

Having observed this phenomenon, Rabban Gamliel realised that something urgent needed to be done to demonstrate that everyone could – and should – be buried in a manner that would ensure that funerals could be affordable to all. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher explains in a responsum on this topic (Divrei Menachem 4 No. 5), this comes to show that religious leaders need to be sensitive to the financial strains of a community and be an example to the rest of the community in terms of modelling how things should be done.

Yet here’s the thing: imagine this was done now. There would be some who applaud Rabban Gamliel for his commitment to preserve the dignity of the poor, and who would also likely be inspired by the humility that he showed by ‘treating himself lightly’. But there would be others – and especially those who are in a financial position to afford costly funerals – who would likely criticize him for challenging and changing the past customs, for being a ‘reformer’, and for doing things differently.

Of course, this is why, as Rabbi Kasher explains, these changes need to pushed and modelled by senior religious leaders to ensure that they get the traction they need to spread within the community, and also to avoid the likely criticism that such changes might attract.

The problem, however, is that there are times when senior religious leaders are unprepared to ‘treat themselves lightly’, when such leaders are not sufficiently sensitive to the financial strains of a community, and when the fear of being criticized for challenging and changing the past customs and of being labelled as a ‘reformer’ for wanting to do things differently will be enough of a factor to stop senior religious leaders from doing what needs to be done.

When this happens – and sadly I think that this is happening in our day and age – we all need to do what we can to change things from a grassroots level notwithstanding the criticism that will likely be directed to those who push for such changes. And why? Because, as the Meiri writes (in his Beit HaBechira on Brachot 19b), כבוד הבריות חביב עד מאד אין לך מדה חביבה ממנה – ‘human dignity is very special; there is no principle more special than this’. 

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