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Burial rites

Tevet 5783 | January 2023


Burial (kevura) has been all over the news recently. In the State of Israel there are currently a number of burial methods used. With kevurat sadeh, ground burial, people are buried in the ground, side by side, under the open sky. There is also an option to be buried as a couple or with family members; in this case a deep hole is dug in the ground for the first person to be buried, and is covered with burial stones and dirt, so another may be buried above. Couples often share a headstone. Kevura rama, raised burial, works using a similar principle, but utilizes multiple levels of cement flooring covered with large amounts of dirt. Finally, in what is known is kevurat Sanhedrin, burial chambers are dug into the wall; after the body is interred it is covered with dirt and closed with a slab similar to a headstone.[1]

Even though all these burial methods are based on historic sources and practices, many people prefer the more costly and increasingly limited ground burial. This raises the question: what constitutes a halakhic burial? Why is it important to be buried? Or is it even important to be buried? And is there meaning in the type of burial?

The value of kevura

Throughout the book of Bereishit, kevura has been an ongoing theme. The first piece of land Avraham Avinu bought was a burial plot for Sarah, which he, his children, and their wives also used.[2] Both Yaakov and Yosef extracted vows to ensure that they would be buried specifically in the Land of Israel.[3] After 40 days of embalming, Yaakov’s sons fulfill his request and take him up to be buried in his ancestral plot, Ma’arat HaMakhpela. Yet the aftermath of the deaths of Yaakov and Yosef challenges our preconceived notions of kevura, as both of them are embalmed, and Yosef is merely placed in a coffin for generations.

Burial is mentioned in a legal section of the Torah, but surprisingly only in an extreme situation, when a man is executed by teliya (impalement):

“If a man is guilty of a capital crime and he is executed and impaled on a stake, you may not leave his corpse on the stake overnight, you must bury it that day, for the curse of God is impaled, and you shall not defile your land that the Lord, your God, is giving you as a portion.”[4]

Do these verses teach us that there is a specific mitzvah to bury someone who is executed and impaled, or that every person must be buried? What is the relationship between the Torah’s legal mention of burial, which is limited to an impaled body, and the many narratives that speak of the importance of burial in general? Is it possible the Torah assumes that there is a mitzvah of burial and these verses teach the chiddush (novel idea) that even someone who is executed must be buried? Or perhaps its purposeful focus on the executed is meant for us to extrapolate to other situations?

The value of kevura is reflected in a number of contexts throughout Chazal – for example, a husband is obligated to bury his wife, and when the impurity resulting from burying a body will interfere with other Torah obligations, such as the Pesach offering, burial is often prioritized.[5] But what about the mitzvah of kevura and the laws that regulate its fulfillment?

The mitzvah of kevura

The mishna in Sanhedrin mentions the prohibition of leaving a corpse overnight (halanat ha-met) specifically regarding someone who is executed by impalement – because “the curse of God is impaled.” [6] It also mentions that this prohibition applies to everyone, which indicates, but does not conclusively prove, that there is an obligation to bury the deceased.

The gemara in Sanhedrin attempts to prove the prohibition halanat ha-met and the obligation of kevura from the verses quoted above, using the repetition of the root k.v.r. in the verse “ki kavur ti’kberenu” (you shall surely bury him) to teach that every Israelite must be buried, not just those who are executed.[7] Nevertheless, the gemara acknowledges that the verse may not obligate burial in the strict sense; it may be sufficient to entomb the deceased in a coffin. Similarly, the gemara determines that even though the Torah speaks of burial, that may be a minhag (custom) and not an obligation. Yet with time this custom has become a privilege, as reflected in the prophetic consequence denying this privilege to the particularly evil.[8] Still, we have not found an explicit obligation of kevura.

The significance of kevura

The gemara continues to question the significance of kevura itself, raising two seemingly contradictory possibilities. The first is that burial is “due to disgrace,” meaning that lack of burial is degrading to the deceased and their family as well (so it is unclear if the deceased may forgo the privilege, as they are not the only beneficiary). This explanation indicates that burial honors the deceased and their relatives.

The second is that kevura is “due to atonement,” meaning it is part of an atonement process, as Rashi explains, “when he is lowered and humiliated in the depths.” From here it seems that, even though burial is meant to benefit the deceased by atoning for their sins, it’s also somewhat humiliating. The Sages dispute if the atonement begins when the deceased is first buried, or only once the flesh starts to decay (in the ground or in a chamber).[9] In any event, it seems that burial honors the deceased and their relatives, while the process the body undergoes also serves as part of the individual’s atonement.

Ran points out that while it is sufficient to cover the body, for example in a coffin, the verse “for dust you are and to dust you shall return” teaches us there is significance in a ground burial (even if it is not mandatory). Similarly, the Talmud Yerushalmi relates that Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi (Rabbi Chizkiya in another version) requested that holes be punched in his coffin before it was buried in the ground;  some explain that this was done to ensure the body directly touched the ground.[10]

Rav Kapach maintained that Rambam also held that the Torah only obligates the burial of people executed by the courts; for all others the Torah mandates general entombment – depositing the body in a closed place such as a casket. Nevertheless, there is a rabbinic requirement to place the deceased in dirt.[11] In any event, each type of kevura the Chief Rabbinate of Israel currently practices ensures that both these conditions are met – the body is covered and placed in dirt.

Alongside the question of the significance of kevura – whether it is to prevent humiliation or achieve atonement – various sources associate kevura with connecting to previous generations. Avraham purchases a burial plot to serve his family for generations. The phrase “gathered to his people” used throughout the Tanakh indicates that the deceased “connects” to previous generations, perhaps spiritually, but also physically. The idea is that kevura is a privilege. And more.[12]

Consequently, it’s understandable that some people attribute importance to the type of burial they’re most familiar with, for example, ground burial. Since kevura is largely a matter of customs and traditions, people want to maintain the traditions they are familiar with. Nevertheless, it’s possible to return to older traditions, like burial chambers. Such solutions satisfy the halakhic criteria, preserve ancient traditions, and leave room in this world for the living.[13]


[2] Bereishit 23:1-15

[3] Bereishit 47:29-30, 50:1-6, 24-26

[4] Devarim 21:22-23

[5] Mishna Ketubot 4:4, TB Sukka 25a-b, see Rashi

[6] 6:4-5. One of the explanations is that when people see a sinner impaled, it may cause them to blaspheme, either because it is an affront to the Tzelem Elokim, image of God, or because it reminds them of the sin.

[7] 46b

[8] For example, Yirmiyahu 16:1-4 (as opposed to Melachim I 14:13)

[9] ibid, 47b

[10] TY Kilayim 9:3

[11] Compare Rambam Sefer HaMitzvot 231, Hilchot Evel 12:1, 14:1, and Rav Kapach’s commentary. Other commentaries have slightly different explanations. Shulchan Aruch (YD 362:1) ruled that covering the body in a coffin in the ground is enough not to override the prohibition of halanat ha-met, but the preferable way to perform the mitzvah is to bury the body in dirt.

[12] Meaning his family. Bereishit 25:8, 17, 35:29, 49:33, Bamidbar 20:24, Devarim 32:50, Sanhedrin 46a

[13] Early sources relate that after burial the bones would be gathered to a smaller storage place. This was referred to as gathering the bones (Mishna Sanhedrin 6:6, Moed Katan 1:5). Even at that time they were careful not to fill the land with more and more graves.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.