The 9/11 Memorial and Jewish Law

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by R. Gil Student

As a New York resident who worked in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, I will forever be haunted by the tragic day and its aftermath. However, visitors and future generations, including my own children, need more than personal memories. The 9/11 memorial and museum are intended to provide that. An article in First Things by Catesby Leigh, an architecture and art critic, excoriates the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. I am hardly an architecture or art critic. However, I would like to discuss the concepts involved and the light Jewish tradition can shed on them. [1]I am certain some people will expect a discussion here of whether kohanim may enter the memorial. I do not know and am not willing to rely on news reports.

I. Monuments

The Torah (Deut. 16:22) explicitly forbids erecting monuments. After the Holocaust, Jewish authorities grappled with the need to remember and the biblical prohibition forbidding monuments. Medieval authorities debate the nature of this prohibition. Rashi (ad loc.) states that the Torah forbids erecting (single stone) monuments for sacrifices to God similar to those used by idolators. We may only use altars (made of multiple stones) in our worship of God. Similarly, R. Moshe of Coucy (Semag, prohibition 41) lists two requirements to fall under the prohibition: the monument must be made of a single stone and used for sacrifices.

However, the Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, prohibition 11; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 6:6) defines a forbidden monument as one where people gather. In order to fall under the biblical prohibition, it need not be made of a single stone nor be used for sacrifice or any other form of worship. The Chinukh (403) explains that since monuments were used for idolatry, we may not use them for anything, even the service of God. While only a minority view, the Rambam’s position cannot be easily dismissed. The codes and responsa literature do not offer much guidance on this subject.

II. Gravestones

However, the Rambam himself (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avel 4:4) rules that we must erect gravestones for the deceased. Is this not a monument that should be biblically forbidden? The Rambam here follows the Mishnah (Shekalim 2:5) and its accompanying Talmud Yerushalmi which states that a Torah scholar does not need a gravestone because his Torah insights serve as a memorial. However, everyone else requires a gravestone, which the Mishnah calls a “nefesh,” a soul.

At the unveiling of R. Moshe Sofer’s (the Chasam Sofer) gravestone, his son and successor, R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, asked why we erect a monument for Torah scholars against the conclusion of the Yerushalmi and Rambam (Responsa Kesav Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 178). He explains that for most people, we write their names on their gravestones so their relatives and friends will pray for them. The gravestone is intended to benefit the deceased’s soul (nefesh). Righteous people do not need this help. Their gravestones are for the visitors to pray in the merit of the righteous, a service to others and not the deceased. [2]See also Minchas Elazar 3:37.

R. Yitzchak Ya’akov Weiss (Minchas Yitzchak 1:29) explains that a gravestone is not important in itself. It is secondary to the grave and therefore not comparable to an idolatrous monument. He was asked whether a community could erect a monument for Holocaust victims. He answered that this would be biblically forbidden according to the Rambam unless they include the remains of someone deceased, such as ashes or soap made from humans, which would render the monument a gravestone.

R. Weiss quotes two halakhic authorities who disagreed with him. R. Yehudah Leib Tzirilson (Ma’archei Lev, no. 42) and R. David Sperber (oral communication to R. Weiss) argue that since monuments for the dead are never used for idolatry, they are not subject to the prohibition even according to the Rambam. R. Weiss was not convinced by this argument.

III. Gravestone Substitutes

R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:57) implicitly disagrees with R. Weiss. He was asked whether someone who does not know where his parents are buried is still obligated to erect a gravestone, perhaps at an empty plot in a cemetery. After discussing and rejecting various prooftexts, R. Feinstein concludes that there is no basis to obligate a child to erect a gravestone in such a situation. His discussion assumes that erecting a gravestone without a buried body in the grave is permissible, implicitly ruling against the Rambam or interpreting his position differently.

R. Feinstein proceeds to deciding the most appropriate way to memorialize a deceased relative whose burial site is unknown, making a crucial distinction. A gravestone without a grave gives honor to no one. And if we cannot directly honor the deceased among the dead, we should honor him among the living. Therefore, R. Feinstein suggests, a child should erect in honor of the deceased a building–or donate partially to a building–that will be used for educational or charity purposes. Let his name be remembered as enhancing religious lives.

IV. Museums and Monuments

We see three methods for memorializing the dead, each appropriate in different circumstances:

  1. We place a monument, a gravestone, near the burial place for the sake of the deceased’s soul
  2. For the righteous, we place a gravestone at the burial place for the benefit of visitors
  3. Elsewhere, a monument is either forbidden (R. Weiss) or inappropriate (R. Feinstein). Instead, we build educational or charitable institutions.

A 9/11 monument, listing the names of the deceased, is appropriate for the site where some remains still rest. It is a burial site, a grave for individuals and for the nation that mourns them. Some of the buried may qualify as righteous, whether as victims of a vicious attack or would-be saviors, rushing to assist the injured. The monument commemorates the fallen and allows us to pray for them and for ourselves.

If a graveside monument is impossible, an educational institution–including a museum–is a proper additional commemoration. It should not be a place to merely revisit the tragedy. As an educational institution, this museum must teach the lessons of 9/11. To me, those lessons are about patriotism, bravery and selflessness. When I think of 9/11, I think of firefighters rushing to the scene to help. I see Abe Zelmanowitz, from my neighborhood, who stayed behind to help his quadriplegic colleague. And I think of the remarkable national unity that followed the tragedy. Teaching those lessons to a future generation would be a fitting commemoration of the martyrs of 9/11.

(reposted from Oct ’14)



1I am certain some people will expect a discussion here of whether kohanim may enter the memorial. I do not know and am not willing to rely on news reports.
2See also Minchas Elazar 3:37.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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