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When our Lord mentioned visitation of the sick among the evidences of that religion which would stand the test of the judgment day (Matt 25:36), He appealed to a principle universally acknowledged among the Jews. The great Jewish doctor Maimonides holds that this duty takes precedence of all other good works, and the Talmud goes even so far as to assert, that whoever visits the sick shall deliver his soul from Gehenna (Ned. 40- a). Accordingly, a Rabbi, discussing the meaning of the expression, "Ye shall walk after the Lord your God" (Deu 13:4), arrives at the conclusion, that it refers to the imitation of what we read in Scripture of His doings. Thus God clothed the naked (Gen 3:21), and so should we; He visited the sick (Gen 18:1); He comforted the mourners, (Gen 25:11); and He buried the dead (Deu 35:6); leaving us in all this an ensample that we should follow in His footsteps (Sota 14 a). It was possibly to encourage to this duty, or else in reference to the good effects of sympathy upon the sick, that we are told, that whoever visits the sick takes away a sixtieth part of his sufferings (Ned. 39 b). Nor was the service of love to stop here; for, as we have seen, the burial of the dead was quite as urgent a duty as the visitation of the sick. As the funeral procession passed, every one was expected, if possible, to join the convoy. The Rabbis applied to the observance of this direction Proverbs 14:32, and 19:17; and to its neglect Proverbs 17:5 (Ber. 18 a). Similarly, all reverence was shown towards the remains of the dead, and burying-places were kept free from every kind of profanation, and even from light conversation.
Burial followed generally as soon as possible after death (Matt 9:23; Acts 5:6,10, 8:2), no doubt partly on sanitary grounds. For special reasons, however (Acts 9:37,39), or in the case of parents, there might be a delay even of days. The preparations for the burial of our Lord, mentioned in the gospels--the ointment against His burial (Matt 26:12), the spices and ointments (Luke 23:56), the mixture of myrrh and aloes--find their literal confirmation in what the Rabbis tell us of the customs of the period (Ber. 53 a). At one time the wasteful expenditure connected with funerals was so great as to involve in serious difficulties the poor, who would not be outdone by their neighbors. The folly extended not only to the funeral rites, the burning of spices at the grave, and the depositing of money and valuables in the tomb, but even to luxury in the wrappings of the dead body. At last a much-needed reform was introduced by Rabbi Gamaliel, who left directions that he was to be buried in simple linen garments. In recognition of this a cup is to this day emptied to his memory at funeral meals. His grandson limited even the number of graveclothes to one dress. The burial- dress is made of the most inexpensive linen, and bears the name of (Tachrichin) "wrappings," or else the "travelling-dress." At present it is always white, but formerly any other color might be chosen, of which we have some curious instances. Thus one Rabbi would not be buried in white, lest he might seem like one glad, nor yet in black, so as not to appear to sorrow, but in red; while another ordered a white dress, to show that he was not ashamed of his works; and yet a third directed that he should have his shoes and stockings, and a stick, to be ready for the resurrection! As we know from the gospel, the body was wrapped in "linen clothes," and the face bound about with a napkin (John 11:44, 20:5,7).
The body having been properly prepared, the funeral rites proceeded, as described in the gospels. From the account of the funeral procession at Nain, which the Lord of life arrested (Luke 7:11-15), many interesting details may be learned. First, burying- places were always outside cities (Matt 8:28, 27:7,52,53; John 11:30,31). Neither watercourses nor public roads were allowed to pass through them, nor sheep to graze there. We read of public and private burying-places--the latter chiefly in gardens and caves. It was the practice to visit the graves (John 11:31) partly to mourn and partly to pray. It was unlawful to eat or drink, to read, or even to walk irreverently among them. Cremation was denounced as a purely heathen practice, contrary to the whole spirit of Old Testament teaching. Secondly, we know that, as at Nain, the body was generally carried open on a bier, or else in an open coffin, the bearers frequently changing to give an opportunity to many to take part in a work deemed so meritorious. Graves in fields or in the open were often marked by memorial columns. Children less than a month old were carried to the burying by their mothers; those under twelve months were borne on a bed or stretcher. Lastly, the order in which the procession seems to have wound out of Nain exactly accords with what we know of the customs of the time and place. It was outside the city gate that the Lord with His disciples met the sad array. Had it been in Judaea the hired mourners and musicians would have preceded the bier; in Galilee they followed. First came the women, for, as an ancient Jewish commentary explains--woman, who brought death into our world, ought to lead the way in the funeral procession. Among them our Lord readily recognised the widowed mother, whose only treasure was to be hidden from her for ever. Behind the bier followed, obedient to Jewish law and custom, "much people of the city." The sight of her sorrow touched the compassion of the Son of Man; the presence of death called forth the power of the Son of God. To her only He spoke, what in the form of a question He said to the woman who mourned at His own grave, ignorant that death had been swallowed up in victory, and what He still speaks to us from heaven, "Weep not!" He bade not the procession halt, but, as He touched the bier, they that bore on it the dead body stood still. It was a marvellous sight outside the gate of Nain. The Rabbi and His disciples should reverently have joined the procession; they arrested it. One word of power burst inwards the sluices of Hades, and out flowed once again the tide of life. "He that was dead sat up on his bier, and began to speak"--what words of wonderment we are not told. It must have been like the sudden wakening, which leaves not on the consciousness the faintest trace of the dream. Not of that world but of this would his speech be, though he knew he had been over there, and its dazzling light made earth's sunshine so dim, that ever afterwards life must have seemed to him like the sitting up on his bier, and its faces and voices like those of the crowd which followed him to his burying.
At the grave, on the road to which the procession repeatedly halted, when short addresses were occasionally delivered, there was a funeral oration. If the grave were in a public cemetery, at least a foot and a half must intervene between each sleeper. The caves, or rock-hewn sepulchres, consisted of an ante-chamber in which the bier was deposited, and an inner or rather lower cave in which the bodies were deposited, in a recumbent position, in niches. According to the Talmud these abodes of the dead were usually six feet long, nine feet wide, and ten feet high. Here there were niches for eight bodies: three on each side of the entrance, and two opposite. Larger sepulchres held thirteen bodies. The entrance to the sepulchres was guarded by a large stone or by a door (Matt 27:66; Mark 15:46; John 11:38,39). This structure of the tombs will explain some of the particulars connected with the burial of our Lord, how the women coming early to the grave had been astonished in finding the "very great stone"rolled away from the door of the sepulchre," and then, when they entered the outer cave, were affrighted to see what seemed "a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment" (Mark 16:4,5). Similarly, it explains the events as they are successively recorded in John 20:1-12, how Mary Magdalene, "when it was yet dark," had come to the sepulchre, in every sense waiting for the light, but even groping had felt that the stone was rolled away, and fled to tell the disciples they had, as she thought, taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre. If she knew of the sealing of that stone and of the Roman guard, she must have felt as if the hatred of man would not deprive their love even of the sacred body of their Lord. And yet, through it all, the hearts of the disciples must have treasured hopes, which they scarce dared confess to themselves. For those other two disciples, witnesses of all His deeds on earth, companions of His shame in Caiaphas' palace, were also waiting for the daybreak--only at home, not like her at the grave. And now "they both ran together." But on that morning, so near the night of betrayal, "the other disciple did outrun Peter." Grey light of early spring had broken the heavy curtain of cloud and mist, and red and golden sunlight lay on the edge of the horizon. The garden was still, and the morning air stirred the trees which in the dark night had seemed to keep watch over the dead, as through the unguarded entrance, by which lay "the very great stone" rolled away, John passed, and "stooping down" into the inner cave "saw the linen clothes lying."Then cometh Simon Peter," not to wait in the outer cave, but to go into the sepulchre, presently to be followed thither by John. For that empty sepulchre was not a place to look into, but to go into and believe. That morn had witnessed many wonders--wonders which made the Magdalene long for yet greater--for the wonder of wonders, the Lord Himself. Nor was she disappointed. He Who alone could answer her questions fully, and dry her tears, spake first to her who loved so much.
Thus also did our blessed Lord Himself fulfil most truly that on which the law and Jewish tradition laid so great stress: to comfort the mourners in their affliction (comp. James 1:27). Indeed, tradition has it, that there was in the Temple a special gate by which mourners entered, that all who met them might discharge this duty of love. There was a custom, which deserves general imitation, that mourners were not to be tormented by talk, but that all should observe silence till addressed by them. Afterwards, to obviate foolish remarks, a formula was fixed, according to which, in the synagogue the leader of the devotions, and in the house some one, began by asking, "Inquire for the ground of mourning"; upon which one of those present--if possible, a Rabbi--answered, "God is a just Judge," which meant, that He had removed a near relative. Then, in the synagogue, a regular fixed formula of comfort was spoken, while in the house kind expressions of comfort followed.
The Rabbis distinguish between the Onen and the Avel--the sorrowing or suffering one, and the bowed down, fading one, or mourner; the former expression applying only to the day of the funeral, the latter to the period which followed. It was held, that the law of God only prescribed mourning for the first day, which was that of death and burial (Lev 22:4,6), while the other and longer period of mourning that followed was enjoined by the elders. So long as the dead body was actually in the house, it was forbidden to eat meat or drink wine, to put on the phylacteries, or to engage in study. All necessary food had to be prepared outside the house, and as, if possible, not to be eaten in presence of the dead. The first duty was to rend the clothes, which might be done in one or more of the inner garments, but not in the outer dress. The rent is made standing, and in front; it is generally about a hand-breadth in length. In the case of parents it is never closed up again; but in that of others it is mended after the thirtieth day. Immediately after the body is carried out of the house all chairs and couches are reversed, and the mourners sit (except on the Sabbath, and on the Friday only for one hour) on the ground or on a low stool. A three-fold distinction was here made. Deep mourning was to last for seven days, of which the first three were those of "weeping." During these seven days it was, among other things, forbidden to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on shoes, to study, or to engage in any business. After that followed a lighter mourning of thirty days. Children were to mourn for their parents a whole year; and during eleven months (so as not to imply that they required to remain a full year in purgatory) to say the "prayer for the dead." The latter, however, does not contain any intercession for the departed. The anniversary of the day of death was also to be observed. An apostate from the Jewish faith was not to be mourned; on the contrary, white dress was to be worn on the occasion of his decease, and other demonstrations of joy to be made. It is well known under what exceptional circumstances priests and the high-priest were allowed to mourn for the dead (Lev 21:10,11). In the case of the high-priest it was customary to say to him, "May we be thy expiation!" ("Let us suffer what ought to have befallen thee";) to which he replied, "Be ye blessed of Heaven" (Sanh. ii. 1). It is noted that this mode of address to the high-priest was intended to indicate the greatness of their affection; and the learned Otho suggests (Lexic. Rabb, p. 343), that this may have been in the mind of the apostle when he would have wished himself Anathema for the sake of his brethren (Rom 9:3). On the return from the burial, friends, or neighbors prepared a meal for the mourners, consisting of bread, hard-boiled eggs, and lentils--round and coarse fare; round like life, which is rolling on unto death. This was brought in and served up in earthenware. On the other hand, the mourners' friends partook of a funeral meal, at which no more than ten cups were to be emptied-- two before the meal, five at it, and three afterwards (Jer. Ber. iii. 1). In modern times the religious duty of attending to the dying, the dead, and mourners, is performed by a special "holy brotherhood," as it is called, which many of the most religious Jews join for the sake of the pious work in which it engages them.