In different places in Israel there are various customs whose purpose is to separate men and women at funerals or to prevent the participation of women in the burial service. One custom uses a physical mehitzah to separate men and women during the eulogy. Another separates the participants into distinct men's and women's groups in proceeding to the burial place. In a third, the Hevra Kadishah keeps even women who are members of the immediate family away from the grave, so that they may not participate in the burial ceremony. In a fourth instance, women are totally excluded from the funeral as well as the burial. These patterns - especially the latter - often generate bitterness on the part of the mourner and real anguish to the female relatives of the deceased. What is the source of these customs? Are they mandatory? May one rule otherwise?
Only the second custom is mentioned in Talmudic sources. A b'raita states that "where it is customary for women to march before the bier they do so; after the bier they do so." It seems to assume that men and women march separately, but all Talmudic sources assume that women participated fully at funerals and burials. The basis of most of these customs is a passage in the Zohar as interpreted by R. Yosef Karo in the Shulhan Arukh. The Zohar states that if men look at women when they return from the cemetery "it causes some men to die before their time". Therefore men should avoid looking at women on their way to and from the cemetery. On the basis of this passage, R. Yosef Karo decided that the best way to avoid this "danger" was to prevent women from participating in funerals entirely. This decision was accepted by most aharonim. In addition, one modern authority claimed that the real reason was to prevent "forbidden thoughts" during the eulogy and burial. Others stated that women may not enter a cemetery when they are in a state of "niddah". However, R. Yosef Karo's decision stands in direct contradiction to all of the sources that preceeded him. There is irrefutable evidence that from the biblical period until the time of R. Yosef Karo women participated fully in funerals and burials. Even the few rishonim who urged separation during the funeral procession assumed that women always went to the cemetery. Furthermore, even after the Shulhan Arukh some aharonim urged separation during the funeral procession because of the danger described in the Zohar but still assumed that women participate in all funerals and burials.
Furthermore, there are many other reasons to reject the decision of R. Yosef Karo: as stated above, it is not even justified by the Zohar itself. In addition, there is an established halakhic principle that when the Zohar contradicts the Babylonian Talmud, we follow the Talmud. R. Yosef Karo was a mystic who frequently favored the Zohar over the Talmud as he does here. But most poskim agree that in such a case an individual may at most follow the stringency of the Zohar but he may not force the public to follow this stringency. Furthermore most authorities agree that "the evil inclination is not found at the cemetery" so there is no fear of "forbidden thoughts". Similarly, there is no halakhic basis whatsoever for preventing women who are niddot from entering a cemetery.
On the other hand, many of these customs force women to violate three Talmudic principles: 1) lo'eg larash (="scoffing at the unfortunate") Anyone who sees a funeral and doesn't join the procession violates this principle. If strangers can violate this principle, what about female relatives of the deceased? 2) "The honor of God's creatures" supercedes a rabbinic or biblical commandment. If "kevod haberiyot" supercedes a rabbinic or biblical commandment, it goes without saying that is supercedes a late custom based on superstition and contradicted by all Talmudic sources. 3) According to the Talmud and poskim the eulogy is meant "to honor the dead". Without question most of those who die in our time want all of their relatives both male and female to participate fully in their funeral and burial. Preventing women from doing so not only insults the living but also disgraces the dead by contradicting their wishes.
In summation, there is no Talmudic or Halakhic source that requires separation of the sexes at the time of the eulogy. Since most authorities are not concerned about "forbidden thoughts" during mourning, there is no reason to continue such a custom where it now exists. On the other hand, denial of women's' participation in funeral and burial rests entirely on the interpretation of the words of the Zohar given by Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Arukh. It contradicts the Babylonian Talmud and all the Rishonim, is not even justified by the Zohar itself, and prefers the Zohar to the Babylonian Talmud. Furthermore, we have established that there need not be concern for "forbidden thoughts" or for ritual impurity in the cemetery.
On the other hand, such customs force the women to violate mitzvot connected with respect for the dead. Thus, it is halakhically forbidden for the Hevra Kadisha or any Rabbi to force the public to act in accordance with the Zohar as against all of the above. At most, an individual or family may choose to follow this stringent custom. However, it is surely preferable to act in accordance with the mainstream halakhah and encourage women to honor their dear ones by participating as equals in the eulogy, funeral and burial.
The only restrictive custom that can be justified is separation of men and women while escorting the body to the burial place. This does have Talmudic support - although it is possible that it is based on a Greek custom. In any event, even this is a custom, and not a mitzvah or a requirement. Therefore, if it is contrary to the local norm or to the wish of the family or of the deceased, this custom should be superceded in favor of the values of "honour of God's creatures" and "the honor of the dead".
Rabbi David Golinkin
Approved Unanimously 5747