Why are Jews traditionally buried in a Tallis? By Isaac Pollak
[Ed. Note: The tallis, also pronounced tallit, is the name for the Jewish prayer shawl. Its purpose is to help remind the wearer of the commandments that are to be followed. It comes in two basic forms; the tallit gadol, often worn as an overgarment or wrap, and the tallit katan, usually worn as an undergarment, beneath the coat or shirt. The purpose of both is similar: they serve as the base on which the attachment of the fringes, the tzitzit or tzitzis – pl. tzitziot, is accomplished. These are the fringes mentioned in the Torah, Bamidbar/Numbers 15:37-41. The fringes are strings that are wound and tied to create knots and windings in specific patterns that are intended to represent the totality of the mitzvoth or commandments, and thereby serve as a visual reminder. — JB]
Why are Jews traditionally buried in a Tallis?
This question is touched on in two places in the Talmud. Our first indication that men are buried in a Tallis is from Talmud Bavli in Tractate Bava Batra 74:A which reads as follows:
Rabba bar Bar Chana related that an Arab merchant showed him the burial spot of the Israelites who had died during their 40 year trek in the desert. Rabba said he dug up one of the bodies and removed a corner of the fringed garment (Tzitzis) to take back home to determine the proper method of producing a Tallis and its fringes. However, he was divinely prevented from taking it with him.
Here is our first indication that one is buried in a Tallis. (See also Tractate Samechot, Chapter 10.)
Tosofos [also spelled Tosafot] (early Medieval commentaries on the Talmud) remark that this is not necessarily proof, because the Midrash says that the people in the desert (Midbar) knowing they were fated to die, would lie down in their graves annually (on the ninth of Av) wearing their Taleisim [Ashkenaz; plural of Tallis] and await their death. Tosofos concludes that this doesn’t necessarily prove that a deceased person should be wrapped in a Tallis before burial, as this annual event was a unique occurrence.
Tallis with Tzitzis
Tosofos, however, also infers from another Tractate, Talmud Bavli Menachos 41:A, that the dead should be buried in a Tallis with Tzitzis. This is the second source in the Talmud.
The relevant discussion in Tractate Menachos asks whether a four cornered garment needs fringes on its own even if it’s not worn; in other words, is the obligation on the wearer or is the obligation on the four cornered garment?
Rabbi Tove bar Kisna says in the name of Shmuel that fringes are obligatory on each four-cornered garment whether it’s worn or not, as long as the garment remains ready to be potentially worn; articles of clothing left in a drawer are still subject to the requirement of having fringes. The proof text is from Deuteronomy 12:12, “You shall make yourself braided fringes of the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.”
אשר תכסה בה
The stipulation is that as long as it would be potentially possible to cover yourself with it, or it has the potential to be used as a garment, it needs fringes. A garment made for a living person to wear at some time in the future, whether used for that purpose or not, must have Tzitzis.
Garment Made NOT for the Living?
Shmuel, the Talmud continues, concedes, regarding an elderly person who made a four-cornered garment for his personal shroud, that it is exempt from Tzitzis. Even though the Tallis/Shroud may upon occasion be worn by a living person (to be fitted, for example), it’s still exempt because it’s made for a purpose other than being worn by a living person. It is not defined as a garment with which you cover yourself, rather it is by definition a shroud; it was produced with the intention of being worn by a deceased person.
Burial in a Tallis!
This is the basis that to this day Jewish men are buried in a Tallis!
Tzitzis on a Shroud?
Now the question arises whether the Tallis/Shroud needs Tzitzit?The Talmud continues that when a person dies we most certainly affix fringes to the four-cornered burial shroud because of the verse in Proverbs 17:5 “one who mocks a pauper insults his maker”. לעג לרש וחרף
The Talmud continues that when a person dies we most certainly affix fringes to the four-cornered burial shroud because of the verse in Proverbs 17:5 “one who mocks a pauper insults his maker”. לעג לרש וחרף
This is as if to say that clothing a deceased in a four cornered garment that has no Tzitzis appears to be a form of mockery of the deceased, because it draws attention to the fact that the deceased is no longer obligated to follow God’s commandments, and it seems to be mocking him by saying ‘we can continue to observe the commandments, but you, the deceased, can’t continue and are unable to follow God’s commandments’.
Why invalidate the Tzitzis?
Tosofos (in TB Bava Batra 74:A and TB Brachos 18:A) questions why there is a prevailing custom (in medieval Ashkenaz – France and Germany) to remove, cut off, or invalidate the fringes in some form?
Rabbeinu Tam (Rashi’s grandson) responds that wrapping a dead person in fringes not only signifies that he fulfilled the commandments of Tzitzis, but that he was faithful to all 613 positive commandments, because the numerical value of the word Tzitzis is 600 combined with the eight strands of the Tzitzit and the five knots that are attached to the Tallis, which added together equal six hundred and thirteen.
Adds the Ri (Tosofos) that in the days of the wise, all men in the community observed the commandment of Tzitzis and therefore they were buried with a Tallis and all its fringes, but in this current time (13th-15th century) many people are not scrupulous about wearing Tzitzis during their lifetime, and it was considered deceitful to wrap such people in Tzitzis only after their death; therefore one of the fringes is cut off.
In short – it’s a compromise. Everyone is buried in a Tallis, however, because many were not careful in the observance of the Mitzvoth in their lifetime, the Tallis remains in place, but in an invalid state. (See Talmud Bavli Nidah 61:B Tosofot Avel for a detailed treatment of the issue of removing or invalidating the Tallis by cutting off or removing one of the Tzitzit .)
Eventually, it became customary to bury ALL people in a Tallis with invalid Tzitzis in order not to openly distinguish between those who wore Tzitzis during their life time and those who did not.
This is codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreah Deah, Siman 351:2 (see the long Ba’ch on the Yoreah Deah which offers a detailed explanation of the custom as it evolved) and is done so by the vast majority of Chevrei Kaddisha worldwide.
How do we invalidate the Tzitzis?
Various traditions have arisen, and the most popular involve:
- Cutting off one of the 4 fringes (which seems to be the most popular) but leaving the removed Tzitzis in the casket.
- Opening the sides of the Tallis pocket where the Tzitzis are attached and rolling the Tzitzis into the pocket thus temporarily invalidating the Tallis.
- Making additional knots besides the five knots on the fringes, therefore invalidating the Tallis, but still easy to unknot and re-validate.
- Hanging the Tzitzit outside the coffin so they are physically separate.
- Making 2 fringes out of the four by knotting two and two together.
- In some Chassidic communities it’s customary to lay the body in the ground wrapped in a Tallis, and once it’s in the ground to then remove the Tallis, or put a Tallis on the deceased, lay him in the coffin and put the coffin in the earth and then to remove coffin lid and remove the complete Tallis.
- Some prominent Medieval and later Rabbis instructed their students to bury them with Tzitzis in their hands (and not invalidate them in any way) as if they were saying the prayers on Tzitzis.
Another dimension is raised, leading to some questions that are not fully resolved.
If a person had a weekday Tallis and a Shabbos (Sabbath) Tallis, which one should they be wrapped in for burial?
Here again there is a difference of opinion. Some say (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) the Shabbos Tallis has a higher level of showing one’s faithfulness in keeping the commandments; whereas others claim that the one used more frequently – the weekday Tallis – has a higher level of holiness.
What of Women?
There is a tradition among some Sephardic communities and some of the Naturei Karta groups of Jerusalem that a woman is also buried with a Tallis Katan without Tzitzis (small Tallis; not full size). This may be based on Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim, Siman 17, that a woman who wore a Tallis Katan in her lifetime should be buried in one, and the same principle as above; in order not to make a distinction between women who wore them and women who didn’t, these communities decided that all would be buried with a Tallis Katan, but without Tzitzis.
Are we causing a Potential Problem by removing the Tzitzis?
Another question arises whether there will be an obligation of Tzitzis (or any other commandments) when we achieve Techias Ha’Maisim (resurrection of the dead) after the arrival of the Messiah.
If there will be an obligation to follow the commandments, then all those who rise from the dead will have non-kosher Taleisim (with invalidated fringes). [What a business bonanza for Tallis manufacturers when we all arise from the dead!]
For a related concern, see TB Niddah 61:B and the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreah Deah 301:7 for a fascinating discussion of Shatnez – the forbidden combination of wool and linen – which is allowed in Shrouds, which to some degree is based on the issue here of whether there will be an obligation to fulfill Mitzvot after the Resurrection of the Dead – techiat hameitim.
On the other hand, if there is no obligation to observe Mitzvoth once one is deceased, and there will not be an obligation when we all arise from the dead, then why invalidate the Tallis?
The concept of Lo’ag Larash (mocking a disadvantaged person or ridiculing the helpless) is no longer valid as the deceased has no obligation to observe any commandments now or in the future. However, the concept of Lo’ag Larash may be that we are feeling sorry for them now that they no longer can, and no longer have any obligation to perform any Mitzvoth.
What about the Mitzvah Against Wasting/Destroying?
Removing the Tzitzis leads to another question, that of Ba’al Tashchis (a Torah prohibition against wasting, taking a perfectly good item that can be used for holy purposes or other purposes as well, and making it totally unusable –unfit for holy use or other uses). Invalidating the tzitzis seems to be a clear violation of this principle. How can we justify it?
No answers were found to resolve these additional questions. It seems we will need to await the Messiah’s coming for answers to these and others.
Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC and has been doing Taharot for almost 4 decades. He is fascinated by and a student of customs and history concerning the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish burial and mourning ritual. He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student and participant in Gamliel Institute courses.
[Ed Note: Isaac Pollak has agreed to serve as a ‘researcher’ for the Expired and Inspired blog, providing us with information that is pertinent and interesting. If you have a question, please submit it to the editor. — JB]
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