The First Jewish Burial

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, relates the details of the first Jewish burial, that of our Matriarch, Sarah. I felt that it would be appropriate to address the subject of burial and the treatment of the body in this week’s essay.

The human body is the vehicle that God has given the soul in order to fulfill its task of perfection in the physical world. The body and the soul are partners in this task and therefore the body is considered to be holy and sanctified. Just like a worn out Torah scroll is still treated with respect due its prior status as a container for holiness (the text of the Torah), so too a dead body must be treated with respect because it once was a container for holiness – the soul. The burial itself returns the body to its origin as the verse states in Genesis, “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground, from which you were taken – For you are dust, and to dust shall you return.”

Paradoxically the once holy body, when it loses its life force, the soul, becomes the ultimate source of impurity, tumah. A dead body imparts a spiritual impurity through contact, and even through being under the same roof. The Torah is telling us that the material world, when it is totally devoid of spirituality is dangerous and polluting, hence the empty vessel of the body, now without the soul, is impure.

The impurity is also related to the confusion and illusion surrounding death. The Sages relate the word tumah (impurity) to the word timtum (confusion). A spiritually sensitive person experiences confusion and a feeling of impurity when he or she comes into contact with, or even proximity to a dead body. We know that the human is essentially a free-willed being, spiritual in nature and with the power to master the physical world. When we see a corpse, we see the physical overpowering the spiritual, we see only the material side of the human and we become confused and depressed. That which we thought was lofty and eternal seems to be merely decaying flesh. In truth, the essence of that person lives on, but the impression of our senses is so overwhelming that we forget that idea, and we only focus on death as the end of everything, as the final victory of earth over heaven. It is this confusion that lies at the heart of the concept of impurity, tumah.

Cohanim (singular, Cohen), who were dedicated for service in the Temple are commanded in particular to stay away from tumah. There is, still in force today, a Biblical prohibition for a male Cohen to become impure through contact with the dead or by being under the same roof as a corpse. This means that a Cohen generally should not enter a cemetery, funeral parlor or any building in which there is a dead body. The Cohen must however, attend and participate in the funerals and burial of those relatives for whom he is obligated to mourn (with some exceptions) even though he will become impure.

The Cohen represents both the Jewish people and also represents the connection to a higher, spiritual reality. The Cohen represents the eternal Jewish people, and therefore he must stay away from death as much as possible, because the Jewish people, as a people, never die. In addition, the Cohen is God’s representative on earth and therefore he must stay away from death, because God is eternal and the source of life. The Torah does not expect the Cohen to be superhuman and suppress all his natural emotions, and therefore he is allowed, even obligated, to bury, mourn for and otherwise take care of the needs of his closest relatives.

There are two Biblical commandments pertaining to a dead body. After talking about a criminal who has been sentenced to death, the Torah states that:

You shall not leave his body overnight on the gallows, rather you shall surely bury him on that day, for a hanging person is a curse of God, and you shall not contaminate your land, which God, your God, gives you as an inheritance.

The commentaries explain that since the human is created in the “image of God” and is the only being that has similarity to God, then treating his corpse with disrespect is a disgrace to God. The verse above obligates us to bury the body (“you shall surely bury him”) promptly (“you shall not leave him overnight”) and to treat the body with the utmost respect (“for a hanging person is a curse of God”).

The Talmud, based on this verse, rules that one may only delay the burial of the deceased for the honor of the deceased. If the delay was in order to obtain the necessities for the burial, or for relatives to be able to attend the funeral, for example, then it is permissible. In addition, there is a prohibition against desecrating the body, and a prohibition against deriving any benefit from the deceased. The body must be kept intact for burial, and the entire body must be buried; cremation, embalming and autopsies are all forbidden by Jewish law. (If a life may be saved by performing an autopsy, for instance, in the case of a suspected contagious disease, or to obtain an organ for a dying patient who is before us, then it is permitted, in accordance with the principal that the saving of life overrides almost all the commandments. Obviously, in all cases a competent Rabbi should be consulted.)

The body is washed in a very specific way, known as tahara, purity, and it is never left alone from the time of death until the burial (shmirah – guarding). The body is then wrapped in plain, white cloth shrouds (tachrichin) or in a tallis (a prayer shawl that has been rendered unsuitable for fulfillment of a mitzvah, as an indication that the deceased is no longer obligated in the mitzvot.).

Jewish tradition requires that the body be buried in a way that it can decompose and “return to the earth” as quickly as possible. Therefore, a plain wooden coffin is used, mausoleums are not allowed, and anything made of metal, concrete or impervious materials is prohibited. In Israel it is customary to bury the deceased without any coffin at all, and outside of Israel there is a very widespread custom to place some soil from the Land of Israel inside the coffin. The deceased should be buried in ground that is consecrated for the sake of burial, in a place where his or her fellow Jews are also buried. It is also customary that people attending the funeral take turns putting soil in the grave to personally honor the deceased by fulfilling the mitzvah of burial.

Psalms and Kaddish are recited at the burial and the famous and beautiful “El maleh rachamim” prayer is also said.

O God, full of mercy, Who dwells on high, grant proper rest on the wings of the Divine Presence – in the lofty levels of the holy and pure ones, who shine like the glow of the firmament – for the soul of (name of the deceased) son or daughter of (name of the deceased’s father). May his/her resting place be in the Garden of Eden – therefore may the Master of mercy shelter him/her in the shelter of His wings for eternity; and may He bind his/her soul in the Bond of Life. God is his/her heritage; and may he/she repose in peace on his/her resting place. Now let us respond: Amen.

It is appropriate for a Rabbi or a relative to eulogize the deceased before the burial. The primary reason for the eulogy (hesped) is to honor the deceased by expressing the depth of the loss, our admiration and love for the deceased and by extolling the virtues of the deceased. The eulogy is also meant to move people to tears and to mourn for the deceased. Since the main reason for the eulogy is the honor of the deceased, if he or she requested not to eulogize them then there should be no eulogy. There is in addition, a component of honor for the survivors, as well as an opportunity to inspire people to emulate the good actions of the deceased. The Code of Jewish Law writes:

It is a great mitzvah to appropriately eulogize the deceased. It is correct to raise one’s voice, say things that will break people’s hearts in order to increase the weeping and to speak in praise of the deceased. One should not, however, exaggerate the praise excessively; rather, one should mention the positive characteristics of the deceased and embellish them slightly.

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