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For the week ending 9 September 2017 / 18 Elul 5777

Burial

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

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,

Your question involves two issues, burial and cremation. This week I'll discuss burial, and another time — G-d willing —cremation.

The requirement to bury the dead is from the verse, “If a man committed a sin worthy of death you shall surely bury him that day” (Deut. 21:23). The verse, “For you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19), teaches that ideally a buried body should be in contact with the ground. Upon death the soul cannot fully depart until the body has completely disintegrated. On the other hand, an abrupt departure would cause the soul great agony. Burial ensures the gradual, but eventual, decay of the body, needed to benefit the soul. Our Sages thus remarked: Burial is not for the sake of the living, but rather for the dead.

Burial actually preceded the giving of the Torah. The Midrash relates that G-d brought before Cain a bird burying another, in order to teach him to bury Hevel. Similarly, all of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were buried: “and his sons buried [Abraham]” (Gen. 25:9-10); “and [Isaac’s] sons buried him” (Gen. 35:29); “for his sons buried [Jacob]” (50:13); “Abraham buried Sarah” (Gen. 23:19); “there they buried Rebecca and Leah” (Gen. 49:31); and “[Jacob] buried [Rachel] in Beit Lechem” (Gen. 48:7).

Even Joseph, who died in Egypt, imposed an oath on the children of Israel saying, “G-d will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). Moses fulfilled the oath (Ex. 13:19) and eventually the bones of Joseph they buried in Shechem (Joshua 24:32). Further, the Talmud teaches that one of the ways a Jew imitates G-d in performing acts of righteousness is by burying the dead, as G-d did for Moses: “And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moav” (Deut. 34:6).

After the giving of the Torah burial became obligatory. Counted as one of the 613 commandments of the Torah, anyone who prevents himself or others from being buried uproots a positive Torah requirement to bury, and also transgresses a negative Torah prohibition of leaving a body unburied. In fact, the Talmud states that anyone who orders before his death that his body should not be buried, his order must be disregarded — and this is the halacha.

Sources:

  • R. Manashe ben Israel, Nishmat Chaim 2:26
  • Sanhedrin 47a
  • Tur, Yoreh De’ah 362; Beit Yosef in the name of Ramban, Torat HaAdam p. 117
  • Tanchuma, Ber. 10. See also Ber. Rabba 22:8 and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 21
  • Sotah 14a
  • Rambam, Sanhedrin 15:8; Evel 12:1; Sefer HaMitzvot, aseh 231
  • Halachot Gedolot; Semag 104; Sefer HaChinuch 537
  • Sanhedrin 46b; Rambam, Evel 12.1; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 348:2

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