The only biblical reference to a coffin is to the one in which the embalmed body of Joseph was kept (Gen. 50:26), which the Talmud described as being made of metal (Sot. 13a). However, in the Midrash, R. Levi interprets the biblical phrase that Adam and Eve hid themselves in the wood of the garden to mean that their descendants would be placed within coffins of wood (Gen. R. 19:8). The custom of using wooden coffins is recorded in the Talmud (Sanh. 98a–b; TJ, Kil. 9:3, 32b). The Mishnah quotes the rule that the coffins of those who
were placed under
by a bet din were stoned as a sign of disgrace (cf. Eduy. 5:6; Sh. Ar., YD 334:3). As the Persians regularly desecrated graves by feeding their horses from coffins, R.
*Yose b. Kisma
asked for his coffin to be buried deep in the ground (Sanh. 98a–b). Similarly, a law was passed expressly forbidding the use of objects taken from graves and even coffins no longer in use were to be destroyed (YD 363:5). General usage in talmudic times indicates that the body was borne to the cemetery on a mittah ("bier") and coffins were used only to transport corpses to distant places (MK 25a; Ket. 111a; TJ, Kil. 9:4, 32b). Dead babies aged up to 30 days were carried to the cemetery by hand, aged one month to one year in a sarcophagus (geloskamah), and those older than one year on a bier (cf. Sh. Ar., YD 353:5). Maimonides rules that bodies should be buried in a wooden coffin (Yad, 4:4). In the Middle Ages there was no general rule as to whether burial should be in a coffin. In Spain the coffin was not in vogue. Among French Jews, the coffin was made from the table that had witnessed the hospitality and generosity of the deceased. This was also the custom in Eastern Europe where rabbis were buried in coffins made from the desks at which they had studied. In the 16th century the kabbalistic notion prevailed that it was meritorious for the dead to be buried in direct contact with the earth in fulfillment of the biblical verse "for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19; cf. Naḥmanides, quoted by Joseph Caro, in Beit Yosef to Tur YD 362). Interment without a coffin thus became the rule strictly adhered to by Orthodox Jews. Where municipal law required the use of coffins, their bottoms were made either of loose boards, or holes were drilled into them to bring the body into contact with the earth, based in part upon
's will: "Let holes be drilled in my coffin" (TJ, Kil. 9:4, 32b). An exception was made for kohanim and firstborn sons who were buried in coffins without holes into which earth from the Holy Land was placed. Whereas Orthodox Jews of the West now comply with the laws of their country of residence by using coffins, they generally make them plain and cheap in order to comply with the edict of
(Ket. 8b). In U.S. cemeteries, however, many employ elaborate wooden or metal caskets, and sometimes a concrete casing (vault) is used to surround the casket in the grave. In Israel the body is carried to the grave on a litter and buried without a coffin, except in the case of soldiers who are buried in simple wooden coffins, which is also the custom in most of the kibbutzim.
S. Freehof, Reform Jewish Practice, 2 (1952), 98–101; H. Rabinowicz, Guide to Life (1964) 41–42, 49–50.
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