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Jewish Burials

The body was laid in a shallow pit or on a shelf for the first year, during which the flesh decayed, while the soul underwent the purifying process. The relatives laid tree branches on the corpse, and it was also customary to leave perfume tools in the tomb or pour perfume directly on the corpse. A year after the burial, the relatives returned to the tomb, collected the bones and put them in stone boxes: ossuaries. It was a celebration: the relatives were assured that the deceased finally arrived at his proper place, under the Seat of Honor and eternal, pure life. Now they collected the bones to the ossuary, and put the ossuary in a niche, carved into the tomb wall.

By Eldad Keynan
Bar Ilan University
October 2010

Private vs. Public burials: differences and time span.

Private burials were common among Judean Jews during the Second Temple Era (STE). 1 A pre-condition for a private burial was land ownership. Thus, only the well-to-do could afford for private burials, while the others were buried in public cemeteries, in regular trench graves. Land ownership was just one facet of the financial problem: carving a proper space into a rock or building a Mausoleum, were expensive. Researchers usually find tombs since nature and time take their toll on trench graves. Thus, when we discover a tomb, we assume that its interments were mid-upper class or simply rich. The number of rock-cut tombs we find is larger than stone-built tombs; the reasons may be that 1.) Time and nature affect rock-cut tombs less than stone-built tombs and 2.) People preferred rock-cut tombs over stone-built tombs since the latter were expensive compared to the former and harder to control.2 Tombs are scattered throughout other areas in the former, larger province of Judea. Rabbinic Literature (RL) testifies for tombs as a burial practice in the second half of the 3rd century CE in Galilee.3

Structure: "lobby," standing pit, niches, shallow pits, shelves

Tombs' structures basically resemble each other. A narrow, usually square opening leads to a "lobby," mainly square as well. Niches (RL: [plural] Kukhim [single] Kukh) were carved into three of the tomb walls; those were the final place of the ossuaries and their contents. This is the basic structure; however, tombs differ in details. The number of niches in each wall was not a common feature; some tombs have three niches in each wall, while some others have three niches in two walls, and two in the third, or the opposite. Since the height of the tombs was limited, we find standing pits around the lobby, to allow the relatives or workers better activity conditions inside the tombs. Standing pits seem to be important, yet actually not all the tombs present them.

Shallow pits (RL: mahamorot 4, biqa'5 ) were the place for corpses during the first year. In some tombs, we find four shallow pits for adults and one smaller, for children or babies.

Hillel the Elder's tomb, Upper Galilee

The number of shallow pits prevented problems that could arise when a family member died during the first year of a previous death in the family. Another first-year place was a rock-cut shelf, on which the body spent the first year.

A tomb in Meroth, East Upper Galilee

It seems that rock shelves represent an earlier type of tomb, but it has no effect on the practice and concept: shallow pits and stone shelves served the same purpose.

Preliminary burial, secondary burial – connection to the after life

STE Judaism developed a new perception of afterlife. Earlier, the afterlife concept stressed that the deceased is moving to an underground world, both with body and soul.6 However, the new concept stressed that at death the soul departs from the body; while the body goes back to earth, the soul goes to Gehinom (freely translated: hell). During the first year after the burial, the soul has a trial and is purified in the heavenly court, and when it is over, it moves to heaven and is to stay there until the Messiah brings all the dead back to life. The RL states that two processes start with the burial: while the soul is purified of its sins, the bones are purified of the flesh;7 reasonably it also stated that bones are not as defiled as the flesh.8

Changes in burial practices and the afterlife concept were best implemented in tombs. The body is not laid and covered with dust for eternity, like the trench graves practices. Instead, it was laid in a shallow pit or on a shelf for the first year, during which the flesh decayed, while the soul underwent the purifying process. The relatives laid tree branches on the corpse, and it was also customary to leave perfume tools in the tomb or pour perfume directly on the corpse.9 A year after the burial, the relatives returned to the tomb, collected the bones and put them in stone boxes: ossuaries (RL: Gluskema). It was a celebration: the relatives were assured that the deceased finally arrived at his proper place, under the Seat of Honor and eternal, pure life. Now they moved the bones to the ossuary, and put the ossuary in a niche, carved into the tomb wall.10

Interments: who's allowed in?

This question looks redundant: obviously, family members. However, it's not that simple. Suppose a Jew has just started a new family. He had to be rich enough to buy land and clever enough to order a tomb immediately. This act was probably the first thing Jews did when they bought land – you can never know when this need will surprise you. Now our Jew knows that he's got a burial place for him and his wife. He also knows that his sons will be buried here, and so will their sons and a long offspring's line after them. After all – a single niche contains many ossuaries, and a tomb has some niches. Thus many familial generations can dwell in a single-family tomb.

Still, our Jew's daughters were not supposed to be buried in their original family tomb since they were supposed to be buried in their husbands' families' tombs. This makes clear that our Jew's daughters-in-law had a complete right to be buried with their husbands, our Jew's sons. Of course, if this Jew lost a daughter while she was still unmarried, she would be buried in her father's tomb. In sum: Jewish tombs were strictly familial, no doubts.

Inherited burial rights: mothers, grandchildren

As said above, the sons' right to be buried with their father in his tomb was explicit, and so was the wives’ right. But wives had an additional right, one that solved problems stemming from reality. What if a woman died, and her husband and her father are fighting over her burial? Her father wants her in his tomb, just like her husband. This problem is solved as follows: if she has sons from her husband, she is to be buried in her husband's, but if she doesn't have them, she is to be buried in her father's.11

Suppose our Jew's son is now an adult, and he moved to another town, where he bought land and built a new family. Naturally, if he bought land, he ordered a tomb. Where should his mother be buried when her time comes? In her husband's\his father's tomb, or in her son's tomb? The RL puts it this way: she may order to be buried in her son's tomb – unconditionally; only her demand determines the location.12

But a Jewess has another right: if she inherited a tomb, then she can order that every offspring she had, that she saw when she was alive, is allowed to be buried with her.13

Now the interment "span" is wider: not only the original family members, their mother, wives and male offspring are allowed. The last law allows a Jewess who inherited a tomb to have, in fact, every offspring she had and met while she was alive, with her in her tomb! That includes females and grandchildren. The RL is somewhat obscured here regarding gender issues. It doesn't state clearly that the female offspring are allowed, but it doesn't prohibit it clearly either. Perhaps the male grandchildren she met while alive are undoubtedly allowed.

The RL debates the inheritance rights of women: may a Jewess inherit her son, as she may her father and husband? The debates on the issue suggest that Jewesses may inherit and bequeath.14 This source is somewhat obscure indeed, yet we can have no doubts that when it comes to burials, Jewish women could order to be buried in their sons' tombs, and that any offspring they saw while they were alive will be buried with them. Formally, this law has nothing to do with inheritance; practically, it is clear that Jewish women could bequeath their burial rights to their relatives of second, even third degree.

Regular dead practice, executed felons practice, moving bodies prohibition

So far, it seems that we have discussed the rich burials exclusively. One might ask: what about the spiritual rights of the poor, the dwellers of the trench graves? What about their afterlife and the earthly burial practices connected thereto? The RL gives no answer, but we can suggest a simple one: the poor did not lose anything. Jewish burial custom assumed naturally that while the bodies in trench graves were decaying, their former owners, the poor souls, underwent the same process the rich souls did: trial and purification in heavenly court. The relatives would visit the trench grave of the deceased a year after the burial and celebrate his eternal freedom. The technical gap compared to the rich burials meant nothing regarding the spiritual rights.

All these were applied to every Jew in the STE, and actually ever since. Jews are buried, until today, according to burial practices and concepts created in the STE. Still one small group had to be treated differently: Jewish felons, sentenced to death by Jewish courts. The "manual" of Jewish courts practice did not neglect the spiritual rights every such felon was entitled to. Since the court issued a death penalty, and was responsible for the execution, it was also responsible for the felon's burial and spiritual rights. For that duty, the Jewish court had two tombs under its authority. In those tombs, burial practices were strictly implemented, but only for preliminary burial. That is, executed felons' bodies were kept in the court tombs for a year, and then the felons' relatives came to the court and collected the bones, to rebury them (quote) "in their proper place,"15 The only meaning of "their proper place" is – the felons' ancestral burial site. By definition, court tombs did not have niches for ossuaries since those were meant for secondary, eternal burials. Jewish courts had a sort of local authority: if a Jew committed a crime in a place other than his own town\village, those courts now have the authority to bring him to trial. This could cause a severe problem in terms of Jewish laws: the proper place for the felon's bones is another place, geographically. The problem is that Jewish law strictly prohibits moving bodies and\or remains from one place to another in the Land of Israel. For most – bodies and bones might be "on the road" from sunrise to sunset, and then they must be buried for good. The problem seems unsolved, in cases when a felon's family lived in a place more than one day's distance from the court. Actually, although the Mishna testifies for the court tombs in Jerusalem, we know that Jews were not allowed to execute condemned felons under Roman rule, and the Romans conquered the Land in 63 BCE.16 Practically – Jewish courts could issue death sentences, but they could not and did not execute anyone, unless the judges had a death wish. We may suggest that the problem was solved by the non-existence of the practice. It should be stated here that there no evidence of actual execution by a Jewish court in RL.

Only a short note here: archaeologists noted that the tomb beneath the Holy Sepulcher has no niches but only a shelf, and it is smaller compared to regular family tombs. I believe that the tomb beneath the Holy Sepulcher was the Jerusalem court tomb, as described by the Mishna, thus meant only for preliminary burial, which had no niches and only a shelf.17

Burials as land ownership designators; tombs for sale and rent; not recommended but existing practice

The Hebrew Bible testifies clearly that burials designated land ownership; it does so by the expressions: Nakhalat Avot (ancestors' property); Vayishkav i'm Avotav (he is laid with his ancestors). The RL went further; not only that it stressed the importance of familial burials, it also stressed that a Jew who carved a tomb for his father, and then buried his father elsewhere, will lose his right to be buried in the tomb he carved.18 This rule's meaning is much more than merely religious; it exemplifies the concept of announcing family estate ownership through burials. No private object lasts longer than a tomb; keeping a family property under its control was extremely important in ancient Judaism. Reliance upon well-saved documents required reliance upon the quality of materials. On the other hand, when the relatives of a deceased inscribed on his ossuary X son of Y, they could well be sure that in the visible future, none will question his (nor theirs) identity and ownership of the tomb and the land it is on. As we have seen above, tombs were familial assets explicitly; a piece of family real estate that proves the family ownership and designates it. Accordingly, we would not expect to find any ancient law that deals with tombs ownership transfer. One might even claim, logically, that there is no such law, since the sheer possibility did not exist. As much as this sounds logical and practical, the RL testifies, again, for living reality against pure theory. It discusses the practical (yet negative) implications of a tomb sale!19

Obviously, this legal treatment meant to warn Jews: keep your tombs’ ownership strictly and tightly. The natural conclusion is that Jewish burial customs did not recommend the practice of selling niches in tombs or the entire tombs. But no Jewish law ever prohibited, directly or indirectly, explicitly or obscurely, the transfer of tomb ownership.


1 J. Magness, "What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?" The Burial of Jesus, Eds. K. E. Miller et al. (2007) 1-8, p. 4. A. Kloner, "Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?" The Burial of Jesus. Eds. K. E. Miller et al. (2007): 9-13, generally discusses the gaps between simple burials and the wealthy Jews' tombs; Magness "Tomb", p. 2;

J. Magness, "The Burial of Jesus in Light of Archaeology and the Gospels," ErIsr, Vol. 28 (2007): 1-7, p. 1, agrees with Kloner.

2 Henceforth the term "tomb" will designate rock-cut tombs.

3 Gen. Raba, (Eds. Theodor-Albeck, p. 1087), Mikets 89. J. Talmud, Av. Zar. 1:9, 40a, testifies for tomb burials even as late as mid-4th century CE (see below).

4 J. Talmud, Mo. Kat. 1; 5, 80c, J. Talmud, Sanh. 6:10, 23d.

5 Mas. Qet. Semakhot, 12:9.

6 Sheol: Ezekiel 32:27, Hoshea' 13:14, Psalms 30:4: Shakhat: Ezekiel 28:8, Psalms 55:24, Dumah: Psalms 115:17.

7 B. Talmud, Shabat, 152a. See also Kloner, "Stone" p. 9; Magness, Tomb, p. 2 - the familial nature of tombs in STE. For the decaying flesh process: Kloner, "Stone," p. 10.

8 Mishna Eduyot, 6:3.

9 Mas. Qet. Semakhot, 12:9.

10 J. Talmud, Mo. Kat. 1:5, 80d; J. Talmud, Sanh. 6:10, 23d.

11 Mas. Qet. Semakhot, 14:6.

12 Mas. Qet. Semakhot, 14:6.

13 Mas. Qet, Semakhot, 3:16.

14 B. Talmud, Ba. Bat. 114b.

15 m. sanh. 6; 5-6; parallels: y. sanh. 6; 9, 23b. b. sanh. 46a.

16 I. L. Levine, "The Face of the Era: Erets Israel as a Part of the Roman Empire and the Great Revolt,” the History of Erets Israel. (Hebrew) Vol. 4. Ed. M. Stern. Jerusalem (1990): 11-280, p. 95. See also John 18:3; when Pilate told the Jews to judge Jesus by the Torah, they replied: "we have no authority to execute any person".

17 Kloner, "Stone", p. 12.

18 Mas. Qet, Semakhot, 5:14.

19 J. Talmud, B. Bat. 3; 4,13d; in J. Talmud, Av. Zar. 1:9, 40a, a mid 4th century sage, R. Yosey son of R. Bon, instructs not even to rent a tomb to gentiles. This prohibition testifies for actual practice and excludes tomb rent to Jews. It is a part of a discussion of the ways to keep the Land of Israel under Jewish ownership and control. It does stress the role tombs played as land ownership designators.