I know there is a tremendous emphasis in the unveiling. Nowhere in the code of Jewish law does it state that an unveiling is to be made. It is mostly an American Jewish custom probably adopted sometime in the 1920's.
There is a point to making sure that a head stone be erected. The stone should be erected as soon as possible - even before the conclusion of shiva, if possible and for sure before the first aniversary of the passing. The writing on the stone is looked upon as being a "final report card" for the deceased. One should be careful with an descriptions of the deceased.
So, whereas the ceremony is not important - the stone is.
Is an "unveiling ceremony" (of a headstone in a cemetery) required by Jewish law - rather than by Jewish custom?
Historically what Jewish law and practice have required is the actual placement of a headstone at the grave of their relative (Hakamat Hamatzeivah).Jewish graves are not allowed to be unmarked.However, there is no actual legal requirement to hold a ceremony (which we now call “the unveiling” or “dedication”) to mark the placement of the stone.However, participation in such a ceremony has become standard practice, or custom, amongst most Jews of all streams, at least in the United States.Custom as to when such a ceremony should occur varies.According to some, this can (and should) be done immediately after shivah (the seven day mourning period).Others wait until after shloshim (the thirty day period) and others wait a full year.
Is an unveiling ceremony (of a headstone in a cemetery) required by Jewish law – rather than by Jewish custom?
Tombstones are mentioned in the Bible. Jacob marked Rachel’s tomb (Gn. 35:20), and the graves of kings seemed to be marked (II Kings 23.17; l Mac 13.27). The Talmud talks about the purpose of tombstones being to honor the dead and to warn priests of the presence of a grave, so that they did not accidentally come into contact with dead bodies. (M. Mo’ed Katan 1.2; Tos Ohalot 17.4). The responsa of the Middle Ages indicated that tombstones were customarily placed on every tomb and that tradition was followed by Joseph Caro (Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 89.1; Yoreh Deah 348.2). In a CCAR responsum on unmarked graves, this history was discussed, and it was noted that “In the later tradition tombstones became mandatory (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 348.2; Even Haezer 89.1; Greenwald Kol Bo al Avelut 370 ff). By the nineteenth century this minhag had become universal and was considered an essential part of each funeral (Abraham Benjamin Sofer Ketav Sofer Yoreh Deah 178).” In other words, tombstones themselves, much less unveiling ceremonies for tombstones, are a matter of custom, not halakhah. However, they have become so universally observed as to have the force of law, if not the actual legal requirement.
Answered by: Rabbi Bonnie Margulis (Emerita)
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