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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.
[Eulogies are] funeral orations in which the praises of the departed are sung (in the older Jewish tradition, literally "sung," in a special mourning chant). [In Hebrew, a eulogy is called a] hesped. There are references to eulogies in the Bible; the two best known are Abraham’s lament over Sarah (Genesis 23:2) and David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (II Samuel 1:17-27).The Talmud (Moed Katan 21b) gives a list of eulogies over famous rabbis from which it appears that eulogies were in poetic form.
The Talmud has a lengthy discussion (Sanhedrin46b-47a) on whether the eulogy is in honor of the dead or of the living. The practical difference here is seen where the deceased left in his will that he was not to be eulogized. If the eulogy is out of respect for the living, the man’s instructions can be disregarded since the honor being paid is not to him but to his family. The conclusion is that the eulogy is to pay respect to the dead, so that if such an instruction is made it must be heeded. One hears, occasionally, of prominent scholars who, out of humility, left instruction that no eulogies were to be recited over them.
The Talmud contains advice for those who deliver the eulogy. Its aim should be to call attention to the achievements of the deceased. A little exaggeration was felt to be in order. In a eulogy, it is permitted to imply that the deceased was rather more generous and pious than he really was, but the kind of insincere praise which everyone present knows to be false must be avoided. One talmudic rabbi said to a man well known as a gifted eulogizer: "Give warm expression to your feelings when you eulogize me for I shall be present there." Nowadays the eulogy is delivered in the [synagogue or in the] hall of the [funeral home or] cemetery, or sometimes, at the graveside. In ultra-Orthodox circles it is not unusual for many eulogies to be given over a famous scholar.
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