In many societies, burial grounds delineate cultural affinities, including familial, tribal, socioeconomic, and national ties. Because of urbanization, the modern era brought a shift from catacombs and local graveyards to larger cemeteries, including the formation of burial societies in which people bought plots to be buried.
Within Jewish communities, a hevra kadisha (“holy society”) ensures that all corpses receive appropriate cleaning (tahara) and burial, while exclusively reserving its graves for its members. Frequently centered around synagogues, organizations or guilds, membership is reserved exclusively for Jews.
This sentiment originated already in the Bible, as Ruth notes her
conversion will warrant burial with her new nation (Targum Ruth 1:17).
This exclusivity should not be mistaken for apathy toward non-Jewish
corpses. Within a list of kindnesses performed toward gentiles for the
sake of peace, the Talmud states, “We must bury non-Jewish dead along
with Jewish dead” (Gittin 61a). Nahmanides (Deuteronomy 21:22), noting
that Joshua insisted on burying defeated Canaanite kings (Joshua 10:27),
further implied that the abandonment of any corpse violates a Biblical
prohibition (Minhat Hinuch 537:3).
This talmudic imperative was historically understood to require the
burial of non-Jews, even if no Jew had died with them, but not in the
same cemetery (Rashba). Some commentators suggested that this separation
stems from a legal sentiment that ordained burial separations between
different Jews (Ran).
The Talmud asserts that one should not bury someone evil next to a
righteous person (Sanhedrin 46a). Subsequent halachic literature deduced
that people should be buried next to those of similar religious
stature, with the very pious separated from the less pious (YD 362:5).
The Talmud even states that separate cemeteries were established for
death penalty criminals, depending on the severity of the method used
for their punishment.
While Rabbis Moshe Sofer (Hatam Sofer YD 341) and Abraham Kook (Da’at
Kohen 201) believed this law had biblical status, some earlier sources
deemed the principle as a more general custom with mystical connotations
(Maharil Smachot 10), and Maimonides entirely omits it.
In any case, the implementation of the principle was not always observed
(Minhat Elazar 2:41), perhaps because it remains difficult to determine
the relative righteousness of each person. Those whose religious
infidelities warranted social sanctions were sometimes buried in a
separate area, but any Jew who has not become an apostate retains the
right to burial within the cemetery walls (Tzitz Eliezer 10:41:2).
In modern times, the separate burial of Jews has become complicated by
greater social intermingling and “hyphenated identities” with competing
cultural affiliations. Since the rabbinate controls funeral rites,
Israel has faced this challenge with regard to the burial of non-Jewish
soldiers and citizens, such as Amos Yarkoni (Yabia Omer YD 7:36).
With some controversy, subtle special separations are sometimes created,
with the non- Jewish graves on cemetery outskirts or separated from
their neighbors by decorative bushes.
Rabbi Yehuda Shaviv (Tehumin 14), citing a potential talmudic precedent
(Bava Batra 10a), has suggested that this practice might not be
necessary in military cemeteries built to bury comrades-in-arms without
He further noted a 17th-century opinion that allows Jews and non-Jews
who died together to be buried in the same courtyard (Bach YD 151).
WHILE THE REFORM movement allowed for interfaith interment in the early
20th century, the American Conservative movement has just recently
authorized the establishment of separate sections within Jewish
cemeteries for interfaith couples, reflecting the growing sociological
pressure of intermarriage within that denomination.
Orthodoxy, with its unwavering opposition to intermarriage, has
maintained that intermarried Jews should be buried separately in
sections with Jews of similar religious character (Kolbo Al Avelut
1:194). Non-Jewish spouses or offspring are not permitted burial within
the Jewish cemetery (Melamed Le-Ho’il YD 127).
Therefore, following pressure from Russian immigrant political parties,
former Israeli chief rabbis Yisrael Meir Lau and Eliahu Bakshi- Doron
allowed Jewish spouses, upon request, to be interred in non-Jewish
cemeteries (Tehumin 17).
When a cemetery was controlled by those who allowed for interfaith
interments, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein demanded that a separate section,
cordoned by a short wall, be granted for those who wished to follow
classical burial rules (Igrot Moshe YD 3:147).
As documented by Rabbi Moshe Yeres (Tradition 23:3), a more complex case
involves non-Jews who died before completing their conversion, with
most decisors accepting their burial within a Jewish cemetery, at least
after the fact.
More controversial, however, are cases involving converts not accepted
under Orthodox standards. While Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg insisted that such
“unacceptable” converts be buried in a separate section, despite the
potential political tinderbox (Seridei Esh 2:99), Rabbi Feinstein
contended that one should not engage in a divisive fight over the
matter, and should merely ensure that more traditionalist Jews be buried
elsewhere (Igrot Moshe YD 1:160).
These rulings highlight the complex sociological dynamic of cemeteries,
symbolically marking how Jews remain both united and divided, even in
The writer, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.