In Hebrew a cemetery is variously termed as bet kevarot ("place of the sepulchers"; Neh. 2:3, Sanh. 6:5); bet olam ("house of eternity"; see Eccles. 12:5) or its Aramaic form bet almin (Eccles. R. 10:9, Targ. Isa. 40:11, TJ, MK 80b); bet mo'ed le-khol ḥai ("the house appointed for all living"; Job 30:23); or euphemistically bet ḥayyim ("house of the living").
The institution of a cemetery as a common burial ground is post-biblical; the general custom until talmudic times was burial in family sepulchers. However, II Kings 23:6 mentions "the graves of the common people" at the brook of Kidron in Jerusalem. In mishnaic times special cemeteries are mentioned for persons executed by court order (Sanh. 6:5), otherwise the general custom was burial in family plots on a person's own property, either in caves (Palestinian custom), or in the earth (Babylonian custom). A family grave site was marked by a whitewashed stone (ẓiyyun le-nefesh) to warn passers-by against defilement (Shek. 1:1). Tombstones, mausoleums, and special grave monuments on these sepulchers are often mentioned in biblical and talmudic literature. Cemeteries are not "hallowed ground" in any religious sense.
The establishment of communal cemeteries arose out of practical considerations among which were the traditional purity laws which forbid Kohanim to touch a corpse or come within four cubits of a grave. In talmudic times the cemetery was the object of fear and superstition as it was regarded as the dwelling place of evil spirits and demons. Thus it was considered dangerous to remain there overnight (Ḥag. 3b; Nid. 17a). The cemetery, perhaps for these reasons, was to be located far from a town, at least 50 cubits distant from the nearest house (BB 2:9). It was guarded by watchmen against grave robbers or animals (BB 58a). This is the origin for the custom of fencing off the cemetery.
The care bestowed upon the cemetery in talmudic times is reflected in the saying: "The Jewish tombstones are fairer than royal palaces" (Sanh. 96b; cf. Matt. 23:29). A plot designated for a cemetery may not be used for any other purpose. Any occupation showing disrespect of the dead such as eating, drinking, or using the cemetery as a shortcut, is forbidden. Animals are not permitted to graze there and grave vaults may not be used as storage rooms (Meg. 29a; Sh. Ar., YD 364:1; 368). Based upon Proverbs 17:5 tallit or tefillin should not be worn in a cemetery, nor should a Torah scroll be read there so as not to "shame" the dead who are no longer able to perform these mitzvot (Sh. Ar., YD 367:2–4). Kohanim are forbidden to enter a cemetery except for the burial of a close relative – parent, child, wife, brother, or unmarried sister (Lev. 21:2–4); it has therefore become the custom to bury kohanim in a special row close to the cemetery wall to enable their relatives to visit the graves without entering the cemetery proper. In the Middle Ages cemeteries were situated at the extreme end of the ghetto with a special building for the ablution of the dead (tohorah) where the burial prayers were also recited. The limited area of the Jewish cemetery in the ghetto often made it necessary to inter bodies above those previously buried there. Thus the rule became general to have a space of six handbreadths between each layer of graves (Tur, YD 362:4; also Siftei Kohen ad loc.). This is also the minimum space to be left between adjoining graves.
Visiting cemeteries on public fast days to offer prayers at the graves of the departed "in order that they may intercede in behalf of the living" (Ta'an. 16a, 23b, Sot. 34b, Maim., Yad, Ta'anit 4:18) was a widespread custom and remained such throughout the ages (Sh. Ar., OḤ 579:3), especially on the
Ninth of Av and in the month of Elul (Isserles to OḤ 559:10; 581–4). In times of danger of pestilence or epidemics as well as at a difficult childbirth, it was customary to have a procession around the cemetery (hakkafot), during which psalms and penitential prayers were recited to avert the danger. Ashkenazi women customarily measured the circumference of the cemetery walls with cotton thread and used the rewound twine as wicks for white wax candles that would be long enough to burn twenty-four hours; these were then donated to the synagogue for use on Yom Kippur. Prayers and supplications recited over every wick asked dead relatives, particularly pious women, to intercede for the living.
Owing to the lack of space the dead were buried in a row in the chronological succession of their burial. It was, however, accepted custom to reserve a special area for the rabbis and other prominent and pious members of the community. In many communities men and women were buried in separate rows. Apostates, especially baptized Jews, persons of evil repute, and suicides, were buried in a separate corner of the cemetery (Sh. Ar., YD 345). This rule was later mitigated by most halakhic authorities in the case of suicides as they could not be certain that the act of suicide was deliberate and premeditated, and also out of consideration for the feelings and the good reputation of the family (Ḥatam Sofer, Resp., YD, no. 326). In this spirit the general custom in Reform and Conservative Judaism is to bury suicides in their family plots (see
). The burial of "sinful people" (apostates, etc.) in their family plots is also permitted by many communities on the principle that death in itself is an atonement for sin (cf. Sif. Num. 112). Two enemies should not be buried side by side, neither should the wicked be interred next to the righteous (Sh. Ar., YD 362:5–6).
The custom of decorating graves with flowers was strongly opposed by Orthodox rabbis on the basis of the talmudic rule that "whatever belongs to the dead and his grave may not be used for the benefit of the living" (ibid., 364:1), and because they regarded this custom as an imitation of gentile customs (ḥukkat ha-goi). Reform and Conservative Judaism do not object to the planting of flowers and shrubs in the cemetery since it is done in reverence of the dead (cf. Beẓah 6a, also Loew, Flora, 4 (1934), 340). Many cemeteries in Israel permit such decoration and, particularly in military funerals, it has become the custom to put wreaths of flowers on the grave.
During the last century many cities in Europe established communal cemeteries in which separate sections were provided for the different faiths. Leading rabbinical authorities held that if the Jewish section is given to the Jewish community as a permanent possession, this section may be used as a Jewish burial ground but it must be fenced-off with a space of four cubits between the Jewish and the general section (M. Deutsch, Duda'ei ha-Sadeh (1929), no. 66). Upon visiting a cemetery after the lapse of 30 days a prayer is recited which closes with the second benediction of the Amidah (Ber. 58b; Tosef., Ber. 5:6; Sh. Ar., OḤ 225:12). The most widespread book of special prayers to be recited when visiting a cemetery was Ma'avar Yabbok compiled by the 17th-century Italian kabbalist
*Aaron Berechiah of Modena
. In modern times prayer books of all trends in Judaism contain special prayers, in Hebrew or in the vernacular, to be recited at the visit of gravesides.