Ask the rabbi: Memorial wreaths and military funerals

According to Jewish law, may one place a memorial wreath at a military funeral?

Funeral 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Funeral 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The State of Israel has adopted many foreign rituals for state ceremonies, including moments of silence, laying a wreath on graves, and other commemorations. While these rituals may evoke strong emotions, they also raise important questions regarding the propriety of emulating non-Jewish rituals.
After condemning the unethical practices of ancient Egyptians and Canaanites, the Torah demands, “You shall not walk in their ways” (Leviticus 18:3). Instead, the people must loyally follow God’s commandments and become a holy nation (Exodus 23:23, Lev. 18:30, 20:23).
Commentators have interpreted this exhortation in various manners. Some suggest that the verse prohibits the sexual debauchery exhibited in those ancient societies (Sifra Aharei Mot 9:8), with one medieval authority even limiting the prohibition exclusively to their practices (Yereim 313). Others assert that these verses provide additional proscriptions against ancient practices of sorcery (Rashi, Shabbat 67a), thereby increasing the severity of actions already prohibited (Tur YD 178).
Yet an alternative strand of commentators contends that these verses proscribe imitating the behaviors of foreign cultures, including not only rituals, but also seemingly innocuous mannerisms like dress and hairstyle (Sifra 9:9). This prohibition would certainly apply regarding idolatrous cultures, with the underlying rationale that Jews should bear a unique external appearance to signify their distinct worldview (MT Hilchot Akum 11:1). Most applied it more broadly to all non-Jewish cultures, including those of monotheists (Tashbetz 3:133), with the intent of preventing acculturation and unwanted influences (Hinuch 262). Dispensations, however, were issued to “court Jews,” whose frequent interaction with government authorities required them to follow general etiquette and decorum (YD 178:2).
Scholars debated the scope of prohibited behaviors, especially in light of a talmudic passage that permitted the honorific burning of beds and artifacts of kings after their demise despite its similarity to idolatrous practices (Avoda Zara 11a). Following a different talmudic justification of this practice, which required a biblical precedent for honorific pyrrhic rites (Sanhedrin 52b), the Vilna Gaon asserted that all gentile customs remained prohibited unless they had Jewish origins or could have reasonably emerged without non-Jewish influence (Gra YD 178:7). Others more liberally asserted that only rituals with idolatrous associations, or rituals that were non-idolatrous but nonetheless foolish or haughty, were prohibited (Tosafot Avoda Zara).
Rabbi Moshe Isserles, however, established the normative position to proscribe only foreign rituals that are idolatrous in nature, or alternatively those with no apparent reason (YD 178:1). The latter customs are prohibited because we suspect (forgotten) idolatrous origins (Ran Avoda Zara), or that the otherwise senseless act is being adopted for the sake of acculturation or immodest desires (Maharik 88). Yet any reasonable, non-idolatrous custom, including honorific rites or professional uniforms like medical gowns, remains permissible when adopted for pragmatic benefits and not to mimic others (Bach YD 178).
By its nature, the contemporary application of this law remains difficult, since motivations are difficult to gauge and societal norms remain subjective to time and place (Minhat Hinuch 251:1). For example, both the Bible (Zephaniah 1:8) and Talmud (Sifri Devarim 81) speak of the value of Jews wearing distinctive clothing. While some asserted that this mandates wearing parochial garb, others asserted that Jews must merely avoid clothing worn by non-Jews for religious services (Prisha 178). Indeed, a number of texts indicate that Jews in talmudic times wore the same clothing as their neighbors (Maharik 78), a practice that continued in many places during the medieval (Otzar Hagaonim Nazir p. 200) and modern periods (Shiurei Birkei Yosef YD 178).
In a place where all Jews adopt distinct dress, it might be forbidden to depart from that norm (Hochmat Adam 89). Yet as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein has noted, in many contemporary societies, fashions are determined without distinction among religions, and therefore it remains permissible to dress in accordance with contemporary mores, provided that they conform with modesty standards (Igrot Moshe YD 1:81).
One unique artifact, of course, is the male kippa (head covering). In societies where men walk bareheaded, some asserted that removing one’s kippa violates this prohibition (Taz OC 8:3). Rabbi David Z. Hoffman (Germany, d. 1921), however, contended that it was permissible to remove it for financial or legal purposes when necessitated for contemporary decorum, such as oath-taking in a courtroom (Melamed Leho’il YD 56).
Based on this prohibition, Rabbis Ovadia Hedaya (Yaskil Avdi YD 4:25) and Bezalel Zolty (Noam 2) scorned the laying of memorial wreaths at funerals as unwanted emulation of non-Jewish rituals. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, however, defended this practice by citing other rites, including the use of horse-drawn caskets, that Jews adopted because they found them meaningful (Yabia Omer YD 3:24). Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin contends that one should stand for a moment of silence during a memorial ceremony (Tehumin 4). All scholars, however, urge Jews also to preserve more traditional mourning rituals, including the recitation of Psalms and the lighting of candles.
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.
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