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Encyclopedia Judaica:
Cremation


Death & Bereavement: Table of Contents | Burial in Ancient Times | Embalming


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Disposal of the dead body by burning is not a Jewish custom and inhumation is considered by traditional Jews to be obligatory and a religious commandment. The passage in Deuteronomy (21:23) "his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt surely bury him the same day" has been advanced as a scriptural proof, as well as other biblical sayings such as "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19). Cremation, however, was not unknown to the early Hebrews, and "burning" was one of the four death penalties imposed by the biblical code for a number of offenses (Lev. 20:14; 21:9). The ancient rabbis, however, found the execution of this death sentence so abhorrent that they refused to interpret the injunction literally (Sanh. 7:2 and TJ, Sanh. 7:2, 24b). In biblical times, cremation was clearly considered to be a humiliation inflicted on criminals (Josh. 7:15, 25; Isa. 30:33) and the practice as such was reprobated, even when it involved the burning of the remains of an Edomite king (Amos 2:1). I Samuel (31:11–12) seems to refer to the cremation of the remains of King Saul and his sons by the men of Jabesh-Gilead; but this is an isolated incident and the literal reading of the verse has been challenged by Driver who reads sarap ("anointed with spices") for saraf ("burnt"; ZAW, 66 (1954), 314–15; also Koehler-Baumgartner, supplement, 175). I Chronicles (10:12) merely records that "the bodies were buried." According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Jews "bury rather than burn their dead" (Hist. 5:5). The Mishnah (Av. Zar. 1:3) considers the burning of a corpse to be an idolatrous practice, and the Talmud (Sanh. 46b) deduced that burial is a positive commandment prescribed in Deuteronomy (21:23). This is the ruling followed by Maimonides (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, 231, 536, positive command), and by the Shulḥan Arukh (YD 362). Tykoczinsky (Gesher ha-Ḥayyim, 2 (1947)) quotes the rabbinic idea that cremation is a denial of the belief in bodily resurrection and an affront to the dignity of the human body. On the other hand, some authorities permitted calcium to be spread over bodies already in the grave in order to stimulate decomposition (Responsa Rashba, pt. 1, no. 369; Isserles to Sh. Ar., YD 363:2). Others even suggested that interment was but a custom, supporting their statement with a passage from Midrash va-Yosha (Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 1 (19382), 37) in which Isaac begs his father at the sacrifice to be cremated completely. It was also suggested that as long as the body is brought into contact with the earth as soon as possible (in conformity with the injunction Teikhefle-mitah kevurah; "immediate burial after death"), it does not matter how the corpse is disposed of.

Modern European Orthodox authorities have insisted that burial is the proper method of disposal of a corpse, a view taken by the Italian chief rabbinate (see Vessillo Israelitico , 23 (1875), 12) and, in 1895, by the rabbi of Wuerttemberg (REJ, 32 (1896), 276). Chief Rabbi Marcus Nathan *Adler of Britain, though opposed to cremation, permitted the ashes of a person who had been cremated to be interred in a Jewish cemetery in 1887. The decision was sustained by his successor, Herman *Adler (1891), who quoted the authority of Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spector. It was also the attitude of Chief Rabbi Zadoc *Kahn of France. American Reform rabbis, in accordance with a decision made at the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1892, are permitted to officiate at cremation ceremonies. Reform rabbis of Europe also often officiate at cremations. A regulation of the United Synagogue of London Burial Society states that "if the ashes can be encoffined, then interment may take place at a cemetery of the United Synagogue, and the Burial Service shall be conducted there at the time of the interment." Ultra-Orthodox communities, however, do not permit the ashes of cremated persons to be buried in their cemeteries


Sources:JC (Oct. 2, 1891), 10; Schlesinger, in: CCARY, 2 (1891/92), 33–40; 3 (1892/93), 40–41; Felsenthal, ibid., 3 (1892/93), 53–68; M. Higger, Halakhot ve-Aggadot (1933), 161–83 (complete survey of halakhic literature); M. Lerner, Hayyei Olam (1905); JE, 4 (1902), 342–4; H. Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life (1964), 25–30.

[Harry Rabinowicz]

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