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Parshas Chayei Sara (5774)

Eulogy 101

Three friends die in a car accident. They go to heaven to an orientation. The angel Gabriel asks each, "When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say about you?

The first guy says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and a great family man."

The second guy says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a wonderful husband and school teacher who made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow."

The last guy replies, "I would like to hear them say... LOOK, HE'S MOVING!"

This might be a funny joke, but the mitzvah to deliver a hesped, or eulogy, for one’s deceased relative or friend is serious business.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Chayei Sarah, we find the first recorded eulogy in human history. This eulogy took place over 3500 years ago! As the Torah relates: “Sarah died in Kiriath-arba which is Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her” (Genesis 23:2).

Now the exact words with which Abraham eulogized his wife are not mentioned explicitly in the text, but our tradition has it that his eulogy consisted of the concluding twenty-two verses of Proverbs (31:10-31), collectively known as the Eishes Chayil (“Woman of Valor”), a prayer which is now traditionally sung by the Jewish husband in honor of his wife at the beginning of the Friday Night Shabbos Dinner.

Delivering a proper eulogy is a major mitzvah and is considered a great merit for the deceased. Unfortunately, many who are ignorant of Halachah (Jewish law) but who mean well will often say the most inappropriate things as they eulogize their friend or relative. Trust me, I have heard it all.

What is the proper way to deliver a eulogy according to Halachah?

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 344:1) states: “It is a great mitzvah to eulogize the dead person appropriately. And the mitzvah is to raise one's voice to say over [the departed] things that break the heart, so that there will be much crying; and also one should mention his [the dead's] good deeds [lit. praises].”

This means that a proper eulogy consists of two parts – arousing the people to tears (i.e. to bring them to do teshuvah and introspection in their own lives after witnessing how fragile and temporary this life can be, and getting them to shed tears over the realization of this devastating loss for the family, the community and the entire Jewish people), and mentioning the praises of the deceased so that people will emulate him.

The source for these two parts of a hesped can be found in the Talmud in Berachos 6b which states: “Agra d’hespeida deluyei – the main merit of a funeral eulogy is the deluyei”. Rashi interprets the word deluyei as “crying”, and explains the passage to mean that at a eulogy one should “raise one’s voice in lamentation and anguish, so that the listeners will be moved to tears”.

The Vilna Gaon interprets this Talmudic statement differently. He translates the word deluyei not as “crying” but as “drawing up”, with the intended meaning that the one delivering the eulogy should “draw up” from the deceased’s life his many good character traits and virtues, so as to inspire others to carry on his legacy.

From this perspective, we now can appreciate the words of the Shulchan Aruch mentioned earlier regarding the goals of a hesped and how ideally it is to be performed. The one giving the eulogy is directed to deliver words that "break the heart" and that lead to tears because we want to break the person down, to induce tears, all in the manner of leading the living to do teshuvah. And we retell the praises of the deceased so that we can learn from the way he conducted his life in order for us to emulate him and do better.

[Now I know that this is a far cry from how eulogies are delivered today – at least the crying part. Be that as it may, the Kabbalists teach that is considered a tremendous merit for the deceased in the next world if those attending the funeral can be moved to tears and teshuvah during the eulogy.]

It is also important to know that according to our tradition, everything that is said during the eulogies at the funeral is actually heard by the deceased. As the Darkei Moshe cites from the Jerusalem Talmud: “The deceased knows and hears his praises as in a dream, and knows everything that is said about him until the grave is filled with earth and he returns to the dust”.

So we have to be extra careful about what we say when eulogizing a friend or relative, making sure not to say things that will embarrass the deceased or cause him pain.

It is likewise forbidden to exaggerate excessively in praising the deceased. However, one is permitted to exaggerate slightly, as long as one does not go too far. If one attributes good qualities to someone who did not possess them at all, or excessively exaggerates the good qualities he had, this causes harm to the speaker and to the deceased.

So it is never a good idea to lie about the deceased, especially since most people who knew him will know that what was said is not true anyway.

The grumpy old man had died. A wonderful funeral was in progress and the country preacher talked at length of the good traits of the deceased, what an honest man he was, and what a loving husband and kind father he was. Finally, the widow leaned over and whispered to one of her children, "Go up there and take a look in the coffin and see if that's your Pa."

At the first hesped in history, our forefather Abraham said the most beautiful things about his wife, our matriarch Sarah (including my favorite line: “Many daughters have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all” – see Proverbs 31:20).

What will you want people to say about you at your eulogy?

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