Rabbi Yaakov Yosef funeral Jerusalem 370.
(photo credit: Courtesy United Hatzala Spokesperson's Office)
Recognizing the divine image found in all human beings, the Torah prohibits
leaving a body (or body part) unburied and even demands the interment of the
bodies of criminals who receive the death penalty (Deuteronomy 21:23). Several
ancillary laws derive from this verse, including the prohibitions of mutilating
the corpse, deriving benefit from it, or delaying its burial. The Torah further
demands that one take responsibility for a met mitzva, a corpse which does not
have a caretaker (Deut. 21:1), even if this entails financial expense or
requires a kohen (priest) to become impure. As such, even if a person desires
not to be buried, Jewish law mandates ignoring that request.
question, however, remains what action is mandated to fill these
The long-standing practice clearly requires some form of
burial, following the example given in the Bible of the interment of several
biblical characters. Following this theme, one midrash contends that a
grief-stricken Adam did not know what to do with the corpse of his son Abel,
until he saw birds inter a dead bird and followed their lead. On many occasions,
particular stress was placed on being buried within a family plot, as in the
case of Abraham’s family and the Cave of the Patriarchs.
however, also records the embalmment of Jacob and Joseph (Genesis 50), which was
necessitated both by their Egyptian environs and also their desire to ultimately
be buried in the Land of Israel. The normative consequence of this historical
embalmment remains disputed. Some scholars have argued that embalmment might be
permitted if it is done for the sake of the deceased’s honor, especially in
order to preserve the body until it is interred in a family plot. Others allow
for such preservation only if the method employed does not involved any
incisions, as in the case of injecting preservatives or aromas via orifices or
the bloodstream. Most contemporary scholars, however, generally assert that any
form of embalmment constitutes a forbidden tampering with a corpse unless
absolutely necessary to preserve its body for burial. This includes
freeze-storage of the body and aboveground burial crypts in which the body is
not buried within the earth itself.
A major debate regarding cremation in
Jewish law erupted in the late 19th century following the emergence of new
cremation methods. As David Malkiel has documented, a few Italian scholars
argued that cremation did not violate Jewish law as long as the ashes were
properly buried. (In fact, Rome chief rabbi Hayim Castiglioni was himself
cremated upon his request!) In addition to the embalmment of Jacob and Joseph,
these scholars cited several biblical stories in which kings were burned after
their deaths, including Saul (I Samuel 31:12) and Asa (II Chronicles 21:19).
They also cited a medieval responsum of Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Aderet, who permitted
lime seed to be placed on a corpse to speed up its decomposition so that the
bones may be transported to a faraway family plot.
A nearly unanimous
consensus of scholars, however, firmly banned this practice. They argued that
the body’s incineration was its ultimate desecration, citing a Talmudic story
that viewed the burning of King Jehoiakim’s remains as an ultimate punishment.
The medieval allowances to use lime seed represented an exception under extreme
circumstances, while the Biblical stories about kings were understood as cases
of aberrant punishment or alternatively interpreted as the ceremonial burning of
clothing and other objects in line with many rites in antiquity. Many noted that
the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts believed that even after death a person
feels pain associated with their corpse, making its incineration an utterly
frightening prospect. Some, moreover, argued that the anti-religious motivations
of many who chose cremation reflected their heretical denial of the Messianic
era or physical resurrection.
As Adam Ferziger has shown, opposition to
cremation was so intense that many scholars in Germany and elsewhere, led by
Rabbi Meyer Lerner of Altona, declared that cremated bodies were not entitled to
burial within Jewish cemeteries. They believed such a decision was the ultimate
rejection of Jewish beliefs and practice, and that, moreover, the refusal of
burying these ashes was a significant deterrent to such behavior.
scholars, however, argued that this sin is no worse than Shabbat desecration or
many other widespread transgressions and that burial should be allowed, albeit
in a separate section of the cemetery. (All agreed, however, that bodies
consumed by a fire receive full burial rights.) This issue reignited in 2005
when the first cremation society was formed in Israel. In addition to religious
opposition, many Israelis believed that such a practice was particularly
insensitive in light of the Holocaust. Indeed, this sentiment has largely
reduced its popularity within Israeli circles, even as the trend of cremation
continues to make alarming inroads within the global Jewish
community.The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah
Israel Seminars. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody