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Of Burials, Body Bags and Rabbis

Rabbis and Rabbinical Seminaries
Responsa by David Golinkin

Two stories appeared in the Israeli press last week, which, if not for the Intifada, would have attracted much attention.

The first appeared in Yediot Aharonot (24/10/01). Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the foremost halakhic authorities in the world and spiritual leader of the Shas party, related in his weekly sermon to Reform women who pray while wearing a tallit. He talked about Michal, daughter of King Saul who put on tefillin every day (Eruvin 96a) even though women are exempt from wearing tefillin. He explained that the Sages did not excommunicate her because they knew that she did so “for the sake of Heaven”. “Not like these wicked women, the Reform, who do everything in order to bash Judaism … they should be wrapped in a tallit and buried”.

This provocative statement is surprising for four reasons:

“Avtalyon said: Oh Sages, be careful about what you say” lest your students misunderstand your words (Avot 1:11).

Secondly, we can assume that Rabbi Yosef has never met or talked to women who wear tallitot. To call them wicked and to impugn their motives is to transgress the prohibition of being hoshed biksheirim (suspecting worthy people of sinning – Yoma 19b).

Thirdly, whether he intended to or not, Rabbi Yosef was inciting Jews to commit violence against or even murder other Jews during the very week when we commemorate the sixth anniversary of the Rabin assassination which taught us what can happen when Jewish leaders incite violence. Murder is obviously forbidden by Jewish law, but Resh Lakish says that even a “person who raises his hand against his friend, even if he does not strike him, is called wicked” (Sanhedrin 58b).

Finally, it is absolutely permissible for Jewish women to wear a tallit. Many of the early Sages thought that women are required to wear tzitzit (Menahot 43a). Rabbi Shimon (ibid.) and others ruled that women are exempt from tzitzit and the medieval authorities followed his opinion. Nevertheless, many medieval authorities ruled that women may wrap themselves in a tallit and recite the blessing, while others ruled that women may wear a tallit without a blessing. Indeed we know of many women who wore tzitzit in the past including the wives of Rav Yehudah (Menahot 43a) and Rav Amram Hassida (Sukkah 11a), Bruna in 15th century Mainz and a whole slew of wives and daughters of Chassidic Rebbes.

Most opposition to women wearing a tallit stems from the R. Jacob Moellin (d.1427) who says that it appears like “haughtiness”, but there is no Talmudic basis for this statement. Thus it is perfectly permissible for women to wear a tallit and this custom is growing more and more common among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform women.


The second story appeared in Ma’ariv (26/10/01). Rabbis Elyashiv, Fisher and Wozner, three leading Haredi authorities, ruled that a family of 25 Cohanim (priests) may not fly over the cemetery in Holon because the plane itself and the airspace between the cemetery and the plane do not separate the Cohanim from the impurity emanating from the cemetery. They ruled that the Cohanim in question should wrap their entire bodies in hermetically sealed plastic bags.

The Cohanim in question obtained black body bags from an organization which deals with the bodies of those killed by terrorists. El Al agreed to the passengers wearing the body bags and “the stewardesses will explain to them how to wrap themselves in the bags”.

Once again, this brand new stringency is totally unnecessary since many rabbis have ruled that it is permissible for Cohanim to fly and, in any case, since the advent of airplanes a century ago no rabbi has come up with such a strange suggestion.

Unfortunately, the two rulings mentioned above exhibit some of the typical characteristics of Haredi rabbinic rulings in Israel: a disdain or even hatred of Conservative or Reform or secular Jews; a constant move towards greater and greater stringency which our ancestors could never have imagined; and a tendency to make statements and rulings which are a hillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name) which cause non-observant Jews to scoff at Judaism and Jewish law.

These types of rulings stem from the fact that these rabbis are ruling for their own constituencies without regard for the entire Jewish people. They also stem from the fact that they have spent many years studying rabbinic texts, but never studied secular studies (most did not graduate from high school), nor served in the army nor do they have daily contact with non-observant Jews.

The solution is to train rabbis who study Talmud and Jewish law, as well as a wide range of Jewish and secular studies and who view their primary role as drawing all Jews closer to Judaism. That is the goal of rabbinic education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies of the Masorti/Conservative Movement. Unfortunately, there is no modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Israel which requires its students to earn academic degrees and to work out in the field with the Israeli public at large.

In 1933, a serious attempt was made to transfer the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary from Berlin to Jerusalem, but the plan was thwarted by Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the leading Haredi rabbi in Vilna. The result was that Israel has many rabbis who think that we should “bury Reform women who wear a tallit” or fly in body bags. Israel desperately needs a modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary which combines Jewish and secular studies with a commitment to Zionism and serving the entire Jewish people.


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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