by R. Daniel Mann
Question: It is difficult for me (a part-time working woman with school-age children) to know when to attend a levaya (lit., accompanying the deceased) of people I know but am not close with. Can you give me guidelines?
Answer: It is more feasible to provide background and perspective than exact guidelines.
The basic sources seem clear. The gemara (Ketubot 17a) discusses the deceased’s spiritual prominence’s impact on how many people should stop their activities, including Torah study, to escort him. Another gemara (Moed Katan 27b) says that when there is a deceased in the city, the townspeople are forbidden to work unless there is a chevra kaddisha to prepare for the funeral. Tosafot (Ketubot ibid.), accepted by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 361:2) says that at the time of the levaya, all are forbidden to work, implying that all should take part.
However, many Acharonim encountered a more lenient common practice. In some cases, one could distinguish between Talmudic and later times. Perhaps Talmudic Jewish communities were smaller than some later ones. (See Minchat Elazar IV:2, referring to L’vov, exclaiming that if one went to every funeral in a big city, he would not be able to learn.) However, it is difficult to claim that differing situations account for the whole difference between sources and practice.
The Netziv’s opinion (Ha’amek She’ala 14:2) serves as a limud z’chut. The gemara (Berachot 18a) harshly criticizes one who sees the deceased and is not melaveh him, and the Netziv posits that the obligation is only upon seeing him; if one knows about the levaya without seeing it, he need not go. While the Netziv and others identify important poskim who disagree (including Beit Shmuel 65:3 and Shach, YD 361:5), this may suffice to justify the established practice.
The Pitchei Teshuva (YD 361:2) accepts the opinion that the requirement of levaya extends all the way to the cemetery. But others (Netziv, above; see more opinions in Even Yaakov (Waldenberg) 19) limit it to 4 amot, and according to them, we can explain the lenient practice as follows. Perhaps it was common for the funeral procession to pass through town, and each person would pause his activities and escort the deceased a short distance, showing respect by giving a few minutes of his time. Nowadays, when attending a funeral involves an hour and often much more, the average person is not expected to do so.
Divrei Nechemia (YD 25) fascinatingly explains that the lenient practice is “self-fulfilling.” One can, during his life, waive his posthumous honor, e.g., he can instruct not to eulogize him, (see Sanhedrin 46b). Thus, one who lives in a society in which people go only to the funerals of people with whom they had a significant connection, he accepts having this be true for his funeral. The gemara (Ketubot 72a) indeed views death-related chesed as reciprocal. A man’s broad forbidding of his wife to be menachem avel is grounds for divorce because “one who eulogizes will be eulogized, one who buries others will be buried by others, …”
Let us put things in perspective. The Rambam (Avel 14:1) lists halvayat hameit among the Rabbinic obligations that fulfill the general mitzva of “V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha,” along with bikur cholim, hachnasat orchim, etc. It is almost impossible for a person to find the time/energy to excel in all of these, thus leaving room for people to specialize in some areas, while doing the minimum (perhaps even with leniencies) in others. Sometimes life dictates one’s abilities regarding such mitzvot, e.g., some people would get fired for going to funerals too often; for others, doing so would contradict familial responsibilities – see Kiddushin 30b). One should internalize the Rabbinic perspective on the great reward for levayat hameit (see Berachot 18a) and the belief that a well-attended funeral is impactful for the deceased (multiple gemarot). Then she can try to determine when this is appropriate for her, factoring in the level of connection, “deservedness” of the deceased, and her availability at that time.