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8 November 2003 / 13 Heshvan 5764

Cremation

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Shirley in Denver

Dear Rabbi,
The Torah says that man must return to dust. Does this necessarily mean burial, or could cremation also be acceptable?

Dear Shirley,

Last week I discussed the obligation of burial. This week Ill discuss the prohibition against cremation.

In Judaism, burning of the human body is considered a disgrace. Regarding the execution of the wicked Achan and his sons and daughters the verse states: "And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them in the fire.So G-d rescinded His anger" (Joshua 7:25). Similarly, the righteous King Yoshiyahu executed the priests of idol worship upon their altars and burned their bones upon them (2 Kings 23:20). The Talmud relates how after evil Yehoyakim suffered a donkeys burial, his skull was eventually found and degradingly burnt. Burning the human body is so disgraceful that G-d declared, I will not turn away [Moavs] punishment, because he burned the bones of the King of Edom into lime (Amos 2:1).

Not only is burning the body a disgrace, it is explicitly forbidden. The Talmud asserts, Anything that requires burial [Rashi: including a dead body] shall not be burned. Further, our Sages noted one who says burn me [after death] and give my field to a certain person, the field may not have to be given since it is forbidden to cremate him in the first place. Therefore, one who is intentionally cremated not only uproots a positive Torah requirement to bury, and transgresses a negative Torah prohibition of leaving a body unburied as we explained last week, but also transgresses a prohibition against cremation. In addition, just as the soul suffers great agony when its departure from the body is unnecessarily prolonged (as when the body is put in a Mausoleum), so too the soul suffers tremendously from the extremely abrupt process of cremation.

Furthermore, one who has his body cremated will not merit resurrection a fundamental belief of Judaism expressed in Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith: I believe with complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead, when the wish emanates from the Creator. One explanation is that cremation destroys even the extremely hard luz bone from which a buried body is reconstituted. This may be understood by an analogy: while a planted seed fully rots and even provides nutrient for the sprout, a burnt seed doesnt even sprout. In truth, cremation is less a physical impediment to resurrection than a spiritual one. G-d can do anything He chooses, and in fact all Jews who were burned against their will throughout history will certainly merit resurrection. Rather, one who willfully has his body cremated asserts his disbelief in the future reunification of body and soul. Regarding this our Sages warn, One who rejects the idea of resurrection will have no part in it.

There are two interesting exceptions. After the inhabitants of Yavesh Gilad learned that the Philistines hanged the bodies of King Saul and his sons to the wall of Beit Shaan, they walked all night, and took the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beit Shaan, and they came to Yavesh and burnt them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Yavesh" (I Samuel 31:12-13). Rabbi David Kimchi comments although some explain that Saul and his sons were not literally burnt, but rather fires or incense were lit in their honor, it is more likely that [by the time the bodies were found] the flesh had become infested and it would be a dishonor to bury them as such, so they burned the flesh and then buried the bones. Nevertheless, the hasty manner in which Saul was buried was later a cause of a three year famine (2 Samuel 21:1).

Another exception is in the prophecy of Amos, And it shall come to pass if there remain ten men in one house [who hid and were saved from the sword], they shall die [by plague]. And a mans uncle, umasarfo, shall take him up to bring the bones out of the house (Amos 6:10). Some explain umasarfo to mean his maternal uncle, while others explain that the uncle will take his remains from the fire of the enemy. However, Radak explains the phrase to mean he that burns him, meaning as a result of the plague, ones relative will have to come and burn the flesh of his kin before removing the bones from the house for burial in order to prevent an epidemic.

In conclusion, aside from extreme exceptions, cremation is absolutely forbidden, causes the soul great pain and bars it from reincarnation. And more, regarding one who chose cremation, his relatives do not sit shiva, do not say Kaddish, are not required to bury the remains, and even if the remains are buried, they are not buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Sources:

  • Sanhedrin 82a
  • Beit Yitzchak, Yoreh Deah 2, 155
  • Achiezer 3, 72:4
  • Temurah 34a; Rashi, dam nidah
  • Jerusalem Talmud, Ketuvot 11:2, Korban HaEida
  • Iggrot Moshe 3, 143
  • Bereishet Rabba 28; Tosafot, Bava Kama 16b; Kaf HaChaim 300
  • Gesher HaChaim 1:16, 2:13
  • Sanhedrin 90a
  • Radak, I Samuel 31:12
  • 2 Samuel 21:1, Rashi; Yevamot 78b
  • Amos 6:10; Rabbi Yehuda ibn Karesh in Ibn Ezra; Targum Yonatan and Rashi
  • Beit Yitzchak, Gesher HaChaim, Rabbi Pinchas Schienberg

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