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Parshas Vayeira (5775)

Unveiling the "Unveiling"

Have you ever been invited to attend an “unveiling” ceremony for a recently departed close friend or relative? Whether your answer is yes or no, there are some important ideas surrounding this Jewish ceremony that I would like to “unveil” for you.

Typically, the “unveiling” ceremony is performed during the first year after the death of a loved one, and consists of the recitation of Psalms, a very brief eulogy encapsulating the most salient characteristics of the deceased, the removing of the sheet or veil covering the tombstone, the E-l Malei Rachamim (“G-d, full of compassion”) prayer, and the Mourner’s Kaddish (a prayer in praise of G-d recited by mourners). Traditionally, Kaddish is not recited if no minyan (quorum of 10 men) is present. [quoted in part from http://www.myjewishlearning.com/]

What they never taught you in Hebrew School, however, is that the placing of a sheet on the monument to be “unveiled” during the ceremony is a relatively new rabbinical tradition – maybe 100 years old, if that – and has no real source in Halachah (Jewish Law).

The Jewish tradition does refer to a Hakamas Matzeivah, the erecting of a monument, to honor the memory of the deceased. This time-honored practice has been in effect since Biblical times. One of the most famous and most-visited monuments of all time is the one that our forefather Jacob erected upon the occasion of the passing of his wife, our Matriarch Rachel, as the verse states: “And Jacob set up a ‘matzeivah’ on her grave; this is the ‘matzeivah’ of Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb), known until this day” (Genesis 35:20).

There are various customs regarding the dedication of the memorial monument. Some erect the matzeivah immediately after shivah (the seven-day mourning period after the burial), and this is the common custom today for many Jews living in the Land of Israel. Others wait until the end of the first year.

The matzeivah should (minimally) contain the name of the deceased and the name of the deceased’s Halachic father, the Hebrew date of death, and the Hebrew abbreviation T’N’Z’B’H’. The monument should not contain a proliferation of praise. Rather, it should be short and modest.

This much, however, is clear. The main mitzvah the family is obligated to do in honor of the deceased is to erect the memorial monument. The timing of any gathering - led by an “officiating” rabbi or done without one – in order to recite prayers and Kaddish at the site, is not as pressing an issue. It is also important to remember that this gathering is not an “unveiling” – which has no real basis in Jewish tradition - but rather is a Hakamas Matzeivah.

The Rabbis teach us that the matzeivah serves two general purposes: One is for the benefit of the departed and one is for the living. The fact that people remember the departed – which is achieved when they encounter the tombstone – is a benefit to the deceased even from his place in the next world. The matzeivah also benefits the living by serving as a marker so that people can know where their departed relative is buried and go visit him. [This applies especially to very righteous people, for it is considered a great merit to pray at the graves of the righteous.]

Rabbi Tzvi Hebel, in his amazing work The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah: What You Can Do in Memory of a Departed Loved One, writes that a lot more can be learned and understood about the matzeivah by examining its very name.

In the Torah and in the Talmud, the monument is referred to by three different names, each referring to another one of its characteristics. The Prophet Ezekiel (in Ezekiel 39:15) calls it a tziyun, or marker, referring to its practical function of notifying people know where the deceased is buried so that they can visit him, and of warning the Kohanim (priests) not to come close to this area or else they will become spiritually unclean.

The Mishnah in Shekalim (2:5) refers to the tombstone as a nefesh, which is the Hebrew word for “soul”. The Jewish mystics teach that although the neshamah (the highest part of the soul) departs from the deceased upon his death and ascends to the next world, the lowest part of the soul, the nefesh, remains at the gravesite and hovers over the interred body, never fully disengaging itself. The tombstone thus serves as the “seat” upon which the nefesh of the deceased rests; for this reason, the tombstone itself acquires the name nefesh.

We can now appreciate the idea of “visiting” dear departed relatives in the cemetery. We are not just talking to a skull and bones; we are actually conversing with the nefesh/soul of the deceased!

Matzeivah is the name that the Torah itself uses for a monument – and the name itself is quite revealing. The root of the word matzeivah is nitzav (standing), which implies permanence. This talks to the Jewish tradition that not only does the nefesh of a person live forever, but even his physical body will one day be resurrected to live on together with the soul for all eternity. This is referred to as the doctrine of Techiyas HaMeisim, the Resurrection of the Dead.

The Sages tell us that even after the physical body has begun to rot and decompose, there is a part of the body that remains intact. This body part is known as the nas’chui. And it is from this limb that the body will ultimately regenerate itself at the time of the Resurrection. The term matzeivah – which implies permanence – refers to this phenomenon, that there is a physical component in this grave that will always remain.

This knowledge that even the deceased’s physical body – not to mention his soul – is not lost to us forever, should serve as a message of hope for a future era.

All these powerful lessons can be derived from the time-honored Jewish custom of Hakamas Matzeivah. Who knew?

[Sources: The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah: What You Can Do in Memory of a Departed Loved One by Rabbi Tzvi Hebel, Judaica Press, pages 107-111]

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