Tuesday, July 08, 2008


By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

As a newsaholic for Israeli news, the nonstop talk about the upcoming transfer of bodies between Israel and Hezbollah has gotten me thinking about the many halachic issues involved in the various aspects of such an arrangement (cf. the relocation of the dead of Gush Katif z"l). With that in mind here are my findings on the issue of exhumation and reinterment. Note: There is no political direction or opinion to this posting -- this introduction is merely to illustrate how I got thinking and writing on what is a more-morbid-than-usual posting.

Click here to read moreAs a general rule, it is forbidden to exhume the remains of a deceased for reinterment in another place.[1] This is true even if one's intention for doing so is in order to bestow honor to the deceased by the change of location. We are taught that the dead should never be disturbed because moving the remains of a deceased causes that person fear,[2] confusion, and reminds them of their judgment day.[3] In fact, it is forbidden to even open a coffin once it has been sealed and placed in the ground.[4] If, however, at the time the original burial took place it was done with the understanding that the current location would only be temporary, then it is permitted to exhume and reinter at a later date.[5]

There are a number of exceptions to this rule, however. One is permitted is exhume a body when the relocation is done in order for the deceased to be reinterred among his family members.[6] Such a move, we are told, brings the deceased desired honor and pleasure.[7] Related to this is the dispensation to move the remains of a person who, for whatever reason, was buried in a Gentile cemetery to a permanent resting place within a Jewish cemetery.[8] So too, in the event that the cemetery where the dead are currently buried will be used disgracefully[9] or there is a concern that Gentiles will irreverently move the bodies[10] then the dead may be relocated some place else.

A well known application in connection with relocating the dead is doing so in order to bring a person to a permanent resting place in Eretz Yisrael.[11] The reason burial in Eretz Yisrael overrides the prohibition of exhumation is because the earth of Eretz Yisrael has the power to atone for the sins of the deceased.[12] In fact, some authorities suggest that it is permitted to exhume a body to bury it in Eretz Yisrael even if doing so is contrary to the explicit wishes of the deceased,[13] though in such a situation the move must be initiated by the children of the deceased.[14] Whenever a decision is made to exhume a body one must ensure that it does not appear that the disinterment is being done because others buried in the area are unworthy to lie with the one now being removed.[15]

It is interesting to note that there once existed a custom, seemingly contrary to Biblical directive,[16] to lay the deceased in a cave or grotto in order for the body to first decompose.[17] After decomposition the bones would then be gathered and placed in a coffin for final burial. In fact, the remnants of this ancient process can be clearly seen today in places such as Beit She'arim and Beit Guvrin. There does not seem to have been any halachic problems with this practice,[18] likely because it fell under the clause mentioned above which permits bones to be moved at a later date if that was the intention when they were first buried.[19]

NEXT WEEK: "Middat Sedom / Zeh Nehene V'zeh Lo Chaser". Please send me your lesser-known and obscure sources as well as anecdotes for inclusion. rabbiari@hotmail.com


[1] Y.D. 363:1
[2] Beit Yosef Y.D. 363
[3] Shach Y.D. 363:1
[4] Y.D. 363:7
[5] Y.D. 363:1
[6] Y.D. 363:1
[7] Shach Y.D. 363:2, Bereishit 49:29
[8] Pitchei Teshuva Y.D. 363:1
[9] Pitchei Teshuva Y.D. 363:1
[10] Y.D. 363:1
[11] Y.D. 363:1
[12] Shach Y.D. 363:1
[13] Pitchei Teshuva 363:2
[14] Igrot Moshe Y.D. 3:153
[15] Shach Y.D. 363:4
[16] Bereishit 3:19
[17] Mo'ed Katan 8a
[18] Y.D. 363:4
[19] Y.D. 363:1

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