Burial caves raise controversy

knesset burial 298.88 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
knesset burial 298.88 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
First, Jews of the priestly class were instructed to veer left after a cave housing centuries-old ancient graves was uncovered underneath the city's main north-south road. Next, work on Jerusalem's Museum of Tolerance was abruptly stopped after an ancient Muslim cemetery was found on the site, and Islamic leaders petitioned the High Court of Justice against the construction. Now, the discovery of Second Temple period graves during a three-year expansion project at the Knesset has set off a ruckus among religious cohenimMKs concerned with violating ancient Jewish law. Dating back to traditions formed nearly three thousand years ago, when the Jewish Temples in the Holy Land were standing, priests who served in the Temple are forbidden to have any contact with the dead. Three millennium later, Jewish law stipulates that their descendants - commonly identified with the last name Cohen - are still enjoined from entering, or even passing over, a cemetery. So when Israeli building contractors who were working on the construction project at the Israeli parliament discovered a cave housing centuries-old ancient graves something had to be done. After consulting with religious authorities, it was decided to build the new NIS 200 million complex around the burial cave and not on top of it in order not to desecrate the site. But then Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen - one of at least six parliamentarians who are cohenim - pointed out that the windows of the new building complex looked out on the burial cave, which, he averred, would contaminate the building every time someone opened a window due to the wind. Moreover, since the new complex of the Knesset is connected to the rest of the building, the whole parliament would be contaminated, Cohen said, making the whole Knesset off-limits to parliamentarians who are descendants of cohenim. Israel's Antiquities Authority said Wednesday that it is not clear whose graves are located at the site since archeological excavations were never carried out at the site in keeping with religious prohibitions against grave desecrations. In an effort to solve the dispute, a covering over the burial cave is now being built in order to allow cohenim to work in the parliament without concern of running afoul of Jewish law, officials said Wednesday. In the meantime, the Knesset windows in the newly- built wing will be sealed to prevent any exposure to the impure winds from the adjacent burial cave.