Judaism: Interesting Halakhic Questions and Answers
Rabbi Dr Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
CREMATION FOR NON-JEWS?
Q. I know Judaism is against cremation for Jews, but what about non-Jews?
A. While I cannot say for certain that cremation is wrong for non-Jews, the general attitude of Jewish ethics is that because every human being is made in the image of God, cremation destroys the dignity of a person regardless of their religion. In ancient times, body-burning was a pagan, barbaric act, and despite the refinements in crematoria procedures it remains pagan and barbaric even if it is accompanied by clergy and ceremony.
I can never forget a conversation I once had with a Jewish patient in hospital, an engineer whose professional specialty was designing bone-crushing machinery for cremations. I said to myself, “Isn’t the Jewish concept of burial far more dignified? A body is prepared after death as an act of tender respect and reverently laid to rest in the earth – ‘Dust to dust, earth to earth’ (Gen. 3:19). No human has violently crushed, burnt and destroyed the body. Whatever happens from then on is God’s department (Kohelet 12:7).” Further, the body was in life the receptacle for the soul, and burning the physical remains is an act of irresponsible desecration.
Judaism set its face against cremation from the earliest period of history, and body-burning should send shudders down the spine of every decent person at the thought of the frightening acts of horror perpetrated on millions of human beings who were set to the gas ovens within our own living memory.
Cremation is crude and cruel whether the body is that of a Jew or a non-Jew.
MAGDIL VS MIGDOL
Q. Why does the verse Migdol yeshu'ot malko ("God is a tower of strength to His king") end the Shabbat Grace After Meals, whereas the weekday version ends Magdil (“He gives great salvation to His king”)?
A. Migdol is from II Samuel 22; Magdil is from Psalm 18. There is a theory that the two versions in the bensching are the fault of the printers who wrote Magdil but put in the margin "BSB Migdol", which meant "In II Samuel – Migdol", though people misread this as "B'Shabbat – on Sabbath – Migdol".
The theory is wrong because before printing was invented, David Abudarham in the 14th century said his teachers already knew of the two versions being allocated to different occasions.
It may be that the Psalm version was chosen for more frequent use – on weekdays – since this version is probably more grammatical, and the alternative was chosen for less frequent occasions, i.e. Shabbat.
A better explanation is that Migdol ("a tower") has messianic connotations, appropriate for Shabbat since the Talmud says that if all Jews keep two Sabbaths one after the other, the Messiah will immediately come.