jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Funeral Services - לוויה

Eulogy - הספד

Eulogy tradition. The eulogy is a very important part of the funeral service. In fact, it is so important that a funeral may be delayed in order to arrange for a proper eulogy, as is alluded to in the Book of Genesis 23:2, where the Torah describes how Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people, eulogized his wife Sarah.

It is written there: “and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and weep for her / ויבא אברהם לספד לשרה ולבכתה” rather than “Abraham came and eulogized Sarah”. This indicates that Sarah’s funeral was delayed and people waited for Abraham to come and deliver the eulogy.

Purpose of the eulogy. We can learn from this scriptural verse that the function of the eulogy is twofold. One aspect of the eulogy is Hesped / הספד — praising of the deceased, and, indeed, this Torah portion begins with Sarah’s praise (Genesis 23:2, Rashi / רש"י ad loc.). Another aspect of the eulogy is Bechi / בכי — weeping for the deceased. Abraham received the sad news of Sarah’s passing when he came home from the Akeidah / עקדה — the binding of his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. He had just passed his most difficult test and was so elated that it was not easy for him to switch into a mourning mood and cry. Therefore, he started to eulogize Sarah to bring himself to tears. We learn from this that a proper eulogy includes raising one’s voice in lamentation and speaking heart-rending words, which cause people to cry.

How to eulogize. The eulogy must be KaRaui / כראוי — balanced and not grossly exaggerated. It is always possible to find something good in every human being. It is forbidden, though, to praise the departed for qualities he did not possess — that is perceived as mocking the dead. A slight exaggeration of the virtues he did possess is permissible, however, and would not be considered lying, since it may be assumed that people simply do not know the full extent of his good traits.

A eulogy is usually delivered either in the funeral home, chapel or in the cemetery prior to burial. For outstanding scholars or community leaders, it may be delivered in the synagogue, Beit Midrash / בית מדרש or other places of communal gathering.

Request not to eulogize. If the deceased specifically requested not to be eulogized, then this request must be honored. Since the eulogy is Yekara DeShichva / יקרא דשיכבא — honoring the departed, a person may elect to forego this honor. If, however, the deceased requested not to observe mourning at all, that wish is not obeyed.

When to eulogize. A eulogy is not delivered if the funeral is on a Friday afternoon, or any other day when the Tachanun / תחנון — the supplication prayer, is omitted, such as Rosh Chodesh / ראש חודש, Jewish Holidays, etc. These days are the days of communal rejoicing for the entire community and public display of grief is inappropriate and conflicts with the joyous spirit of the day. The positive scriptural commandment in the Book of Deuteronomy 16:14“and you shall rejoice on your festival / ושמחת בחגך”, directed towards the entire Jewish people, supercedes the rabbinical commandment of mourning for individuals (Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 14b).

Even on these days it is permitted, however, to deliver a brief eulogy emphasizing only the praise of the departed without going into Bechi / בכי — crying. In this case, the extensive eulogy is postponed until after the holidays. These additional eulogies, especially for outstanding scholars or community leaders, may be delivered during Shivah / שבעה or Sheloshim / שלושים observance, or any time during the year of mourning.