Bar-Ilan professor: No halachic ban on moving remains

According to Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, Halacha includes procedures for transporting human remains.

March 22, 2010 02:23
3 minute read.
Jeffrey Woolf.

jeffrey woolf 311. (photo credit: .)


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There is no halachic reason to change the site for the fortified emergency room at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center due to the presence of ancient bones there, even if they are Jewish, an expert on Jewish law at Bar-Ilan University told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

Earlier in the day, the cabinet decided that the bones would not be moved, and that the emergency room would be built at a different site.

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According to Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, a senior lecturer in the university’s Talmud department and director of the school’s institute for the study of post-Talmudic Jewish law, Halacha includes procedures for transporting human remains and does not contain an absolute prohibition on such transport.

“The Talmud does attribute a great deal of significance and dignity to the human body as the temple housing the soul. Therefore, after someone dies, you treat their remains with the utmost respect... That said, it’s also true that when there is a public need or some other overriding reason to move graves, there is no reason to avoid doing so as long as the move is done according to Halacha,” he said.

Woolf cited several examples of Jewish remains being reinterred in Israel after being buried abroad, as well as examples from within Israel, including the moving of Jewish remains from Gush Katif cemeteries during 2005’s Gaza disengagement and the reinterring of the defenders of Gush Etzion on Mount Herzl.

In Jewish law there is “very rarely an across-the-board law; there’s no theoretical Jewish law. It’s all applied Jewish law,” Woolf said.

In the case of the Barzilai Medical Center, the issue at hand involves the construction of a facility that would save Jewish lives, making the matter even simpler, he said.

Woolf also said there is great doubt that the remains in question are Jewish.

“In this case, there is an overwhelming probability is that the bones weren’t only not Jewish, but probably pagan. All across that area you had enemies of the Jews who lived in Ashkelon. This area was never conquered by the Hasmoneans.”

Woolf said he has spoken with experts on the period who told him the odds were astronomical that the remains were Jewish, citing the wide array of peoples who inhabited the land at one time or another, including Hellenistic pagans, Philistines and Canaanites.

Much of the hesitation to move Jewish remains or to build over them has to do with Jewish beliefs about what will happen when the messiah comes and wide-scale resurrection of the dead takes place.

Woolf cited the teachings of Maimonides to discount fears that construction or the moving of remains will hamper their resurrection, saying, “According to religious Jews, there will be a resurrection of the dead at the end of days, but there is no definitive data on who will be resurrected. Maimonides had the best answer for this, saying that all of these things will happen, but we have no idea how.”

Aren M. Maeir, a professor of biblical archeology at the institute for archeology at Bar-Ilan University, and a former chairmen of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology, also said that the graves in question are very likely not Jewish.

“During the Roman period, the area of Ashkelon was a Roman city and most of the people who lived there during that period were not Jewish. Now, there were some Jews, but it wasn’t like Judea or Galilee,” Maeir said.

“What is clear from my colleagues is that these are pagan graves and they don’t represent the way that Jews would bury themselves during the Roman years,” Maeir added.

Maeir said he sees the issue in large part as an example of one of the areas in life such as autopsies, or the funding of religious schools, where the secular and modern Orthodox communities clash with the Haredi community. Maier said that archeology is another wedge issue in which this clash surfaces, using as an example the extension of Highway 6, which was delayed for years after Jewish graves were found on the site, until a solution could be found.

“Because archeology isn’t seen as a very high-priority issue for politicians, when seculars and Haredis clash over archeology, the Haredis usually win,” Maier said.

MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) called on the government to “act according to the same principles” and cancel building programs planned for areas in Israel where Muslim graves have been found.

“Muslim graves are also graves and should be seen this way,” Tibi said.

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