American Reform Responsa
100. Cremation from the Jewish Standpoint
(Vol. II, 1891, pp. 33-40)
The CCAR discussion of “Cremation from the Jewish Standpoint” begins in the CCAR Yearbook, vol. II, 1891, pp. 33-40), with a paper prepared by Dr. M. Schlessinger at the direction of the Executive Committee. This paper was referred to a special committee of five “to report at the next Conference whether or not cremation is in accord with the spirit of Judaism.”
The discussion continues in the following CCAR Yearbook(vol. III, 1893, pp. 40-41, 53-58) with a paper written by Dr. B. Felsenthal, challenging the interpretations marshaled in favor of cremation by Dr. Schlessinger. The arguments are of limited interest, but the textual references and conclusions are summarized below.
We turn to the phrase “Ve-anochi afar va-efer,” “I am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27), of which it has been said that it too points to the fact that in a previous age burning of the dead must have been customary. In answer to this we have to say that the phrase “Ve-anochi afar ve-efer” is a semi-poetical one, and that the author used therein a paronomastic play of words. But is it right to press such a poetic figure of speech in order to find a meaning which the author certainly did not think of when he wrote down those words? Furthermore, efer does not always mean “ashes.” In Mal. 3:21 it stands as a synonym for afar, and means “dust,” dust upon the roads.
In Gen. 38:24 it is said, “Take her away and she shall be burned.” Judah, who spoke thus, intended to have a capital punishment executed. Is it possible to find in these words a hint that in those times cremation of dead human bodies was a prevailing custom?
Similar it is with the laws in Lev. 20:14 and 21:9. Burning is prescribed there as a punitive measure against persons who had been sentenced for having committed certain crimes.
In Josh. 7:25 it is said, “And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them in the fire, after they had stoned them with stones.” This verse speaks of the execution of Achan and his sons and daughters, who had become guilty of a great crime. After they had been stoned, the punishment was further aggravated by burning their corpses.
In I Samuel 31:12-13, the inhabitants of Yabesh Gilead, after they had learned that the Philistines had hung the bodies of Saul and his sons to the wall of Beth-Shan, went forth “and walked all the night, and took the body of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth-Shan, and they came to Yabesh and burned them there; and they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk-tree at Yabesh, etc.” Compare hereto the parallel passage in I Chron. 10:12; also II Sam. 2:4. In these latter passages, in which the burial of Saul and his sons is made mention of, nothing is said of the burning of the corpses at all, and therefore certain Bible critics have proposed to emend the text in I Sam. 31:12 so as to harmonize the differing passages and to read “vayikberu” instead of “vayisrefu.” But such an emendation is not necessary. We accept as correct the reading in I Samuel as it stands in the Masoretic text, and take it as a fact that the corpses (i.e., the fleshy parts thereof) were burned, and the bones were interred. As the corpses had been exposed to the air and sun for several days, perhaps for several weeks, before the men of Yabesh came to rescue them, putrefaction had certainly set in, and burning of the decaying fleshy portions of the corpses had, in this exceptional instance, become a necessity. Rabbi David Qimhi, in his commentary ad locum, is evidently correct, and every unbiased Bible student must agree with him when he says: “Yitachen lefaresh ki habasar sarefu, shehe-ela rima, velo ratsu lekovram im hatola-im ki lo haya derech kavod, vayisrefu habasar vayikberu ha-atsamot.”
In II Chron. 16:14 the burial of King Asa is spoken of in these words: “And they buried him in his own sepulchre, which he had dug for himself in the city of David, and they laid him in the couch, which was filled with sweet odors and diverse kinds of spices mixed by the apothecary’s art; and they made for him a burning uncommonly great.” Mark well, the text says, “Vayisrefu lo,” “They burned for him a burning,” and it does not say “Vayisrefu oto,” “They burned him.” There is a difference between for him and him. The meaning of the quoted passage is: The people paid particularly great honors to the departed king by burning perfumes and spices when they brought the corpse to the sepulchre, and by arranging a funeral of unusual cost and magnificence. That the corpse itself was burned, is an interpretation of the verse (which, indeed, the language of the same will not admit at all). In the same way we have to understand II Chron. 21:19, where the death and burial of King Jehoram is spoken of, and where the remark is made “Velo asu lo amo serefa,” “His people made no burning for him [mark: for him] like the burning of his fathers”; that is, King Jehoram had no such funeral honors as kings before him had.
Similar it is with the words of encouragement and consolation by the prophet Jeremiah to King Zedekiah (Jer. 34:5), ‘In peace thou shalt die, and as burnings were made for thy fathers…so they shall burn for thee, etc.” (for thee, not thee; lecha, not otecha). The prophet desired to say: Thou, O Zedekiah, wilt see great national calamities, the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem, etc.; yet thy life will be spared and thou shalt have such an honorable and distinguished funeral as thy fathers had. Pompous and costly funerals of this kind, arranged in honor of great men, took place in later times, too (for instance, when they buried Rabban Gamliel the Elder, Avoda Zara 11a).
One other passage of the Bible we have yet to consider and make its real meaning clear. It is in Amos 6:10. We shall translate it here in its connection with the two preceding verses, and will try to elucidate it by explanatory words in brackets. Thus said the prophet (Amos 6:8-10): “The Lord Eternal has sworn by His own existence, says the Lord, the God of Hosts, I abhor the pride of Jacob and his palaces do I hate; therefore will I surrender up [to the enemy] the city with all that filleth it. And it shall come to pass that if there remain ten men in one house [as, for instance, a father and his nine sons who happened to have not been killed by the sword of the enemy], they shall die [they too shall die–by the plague which will become prevailing in the city]. And should a man’s friend or relative come to carry him away [some friend of him who thus has died and who attends now to the said duty of removing the body, because no one of the family, or in the house, or of the neighbors, has been left to perform this pious act of burying the dead], and he will bring out the bones from the house and shall say unto him that is in the innermost parts of the house [perhaps some servant or other person who has been spared from sword and from pestilence, but who is afraid of coming near]:’Is there yet any one with thee?’ He will say: ‘There is no one left.’ Then he will say: ‘Be silent, for we will not make mention of the name of the Lord.”‘ Thus far the prophet.
In the entire passage, as we have it here before us, cremation is not in the least hinted at. However, we have to state here that there are translations differing from that here given. In King James’ Bible the words in the original, “Unesa-o dodo umesarefo,” are rendered thus: “And a man’s uncle shall take him up, and he that burneth him.” Those who prefer this latter translation will now ask: Is not here the word mesarefo (he that burneth him) proof enough that once cremation was in use among the Israelites?
Let us first consider whether this translation is correct. The word mesaref (with a Samech) in the original text is a so-called hapax legomenon, that is, it occurs only once in the Hebrew Bible. Now it is true that already the Targumist and others in ancient times took the word mesaref with a Samech as equivalent to mesaref with a Sin, and that many after them, following their translation of the word, rendered also mesarefo (with a Samech) as “his combustor,” or “he that burneth him.” Not all translators and commentators agree herein. R. David Qimhi, for instance, who does not omit stating that some explain mesaref (with a Samech) as though it were spelled with a Sin, begins his commentary on the phrase by saying that, according to others, dod means a father’s brother, and mesaref (with a Samech)–a mother’s brother. He does not say who his “Yesh mefareshim” are. The name of one of them, however, we learn from Ibn Ezra. In his commentary, ad locum, Ibn Ezra says that Judah Ibn Qoreish explained dod as meaning a father’s brother, and mesaref (with a Samech) as meaning a mother’s brother. May this Ibn Qoreish not have been correct? He was an excellent Hebrew philologist, though he lived almost a thousand years ago, and he pursued good comparative methods in his grammatical writings. He was the first Hebrew grammarian who insisted upon the necessity of comparing the Hebrew with Aramaic, Arabic, and the other Semitic dialects, if one really desires to understand the Hebrew thoroughly and correctly. He himself spoke and wrote Arabic fluently, which was his mother’s tongue, and he, in all likelihood, found in a kindred Arabic word the key for the explanation of the strange Hebrew mesaref (with a Samech). It is he that we followed in our translation given above. Suppose, however, that, as others say, mesaref with a Samech is the same as mesaref with a Sin, and that it means “he who burneth him”–would we then be justified if we drew the conclusion from the words of Amos that cremation was customary, and that there was a standing class of men called “Mesarefim” among the ancient Israelites whose regular business it was to cremate the bodies of those who had died? Is it not clear that the prophet speaks of an exceptional case of a terrible visitation on the nation; that he speaks of times when people will die by the hundreds, and no on will be near who will decently bury them?
From what has been said thus far, it is clear and evident that the Bible does not record one single fact of cremation except the one of Saul and his sons, whose bodies, however, had already commenced to be in a state of decomposition and decay when the men of Yabesh came and arranged for them a decent and becoming burial.
The Bible proves beyond any doubt that since the day on which Abraham bought the Cave at Machpela for a family sepulchre, burying was the one and exclusive manner of disposing of corpses.
The Bible proves further that the idea of being left unburied was an abhorrent one to the Israelites.
In dealing with post-Biblical times, we can be more brief; for it is admitted on all sides, and no one gainsays it, that during all these long centuries, burying the dead was de facto the ruling custom and de jurethe binding statute among the Jewish people. To bury the dead the Jew was obliged; he was commanded to do so.
Commanded? Yes. Emphatically so. Rabbi Simon ben Yochai (second century) said that to bury the dead was a duty prescribed by the Torah, and he found this command indicated in the words of Deut. 21:23, “Kavor tikberenu,” “Bury, yes, bury shalt thou him,” shalt thou every Israelite who has died, and not only him who has been executed in accordance with a judicial sentence (comp. Rashi ad locum: “Meribui derish kol hametim”). The Rabbis in those days had still other ways for basing the law upon Biblical grounds. Thus, immediately after the record of the saying of R. Simon ben Yochai (Sanhedrin 46b), we find it reported that the Persian king Shabur once asked R. Chama: “Have you any indication in your Torah that corpses must be interred?” R. Chama was perplexed for a moment and did not know what to answer. When R. Acha bar Jacob heard of that, he grew quite angry, and in his anger exclaimed: “Is then the word given over into the hands of ignorant fools? Chama should have reminded the king of the word ‘kavor’ in Deut. 21:23.”–“But then the king might have said that from this word it may merely be deduced that a coffin has to be provided for one who has died, but not a grave.”–“Well, the word tikberenu is added, and this word…”–“Hold on! The heathen king might not have admitted that such a deduction (meribui) was correct.”–“Then it might have been said to him: ‘See, the Patriarchs already were buried.”‘–“Ah, that was a mere custom.”–“Consider, then, the Lord Himself buried Moses.”–“The Lord would not alter a previously existing custom.”–“Remember then, that it is written (I Kings 14:13): ‘And all Israel shall mourn for Abuyah and bury him.'”–“This was all because an ancient custom should not be altered.”–“Then think of the words of Jeremiah (16:13): ‘They shall not be lamented for, nor shall they be buried, like dung upon the face of the earth they shall be.’ These words, having reference to wicked people, have been said by a divinely inspired prophet. In regard to them what you call ‘a mere old custom’ was not to be adhered to. Therefore it follows that God Himself approved of kevura as the lawful thing” (Rashi, ad locum).
On the same page of the Talmud (Sanh. 46b) the Halacha is laid down that if anyone should order before his demise that his body should not be buried, this order must be disregarded. And this halacha is iterated and reiterated by all the later halachic authorities. (Comp. Maimonides , Hil. Evel 12.1; Hil. Zechiya Umatana 11.24; Tur and Sh.A.,Yoreh De-a 348; and others.)
Let us quote another Talmudic passage, which will also show that the teachers of the Talmudical age considered kevura as a law, or–if you prefer it–as a religious custom which was hallowed by the most eminent authority, by God Himself. It is to be found in Sota 14a. Rav Chama bar Chanina said, “What does that verse in the Scriptures mean, ‘After the Lord your God you shall walk’ (Deut. 13:5)? Can mortal man walk after the Divine Being? It means–so the Agadist continued–that we shall follow the ethical attributes of the Holy One, blessed be His Name. As He, the Holy One, clothed the naked (cf. Gen. 3:21), as He visited the sick (Gen. 18:1), as He consoled the mourners (Gen. 25:11)–so must you do likewise. And as He buried the dead (Deut. 34:6), so must you also bury the dead.”
Though some might have considered the burying of the dead merely as a minhag (a custom), not as a mitzvah (an explicit law), it is certain that this minhag was very deeply rooted and was consecrated in the consciousness of the people, and such a minhag, such an unwritten law, is–according to very ancient Jewish legal principles–superior to the written law, and even supersedes it (“Haminhag mevatel et hahalacha”). It is further certain that since the eighth century all authorities, without exception, agree that kevura is one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah. The first one who specified the six hundred thirteen commandments (which, according to a dictum of Rabbi Simlai, are prescribed in the Torah) was R. Simon of Kahira, and in his enumeration of the same he included also “likbor et hametim” (Halachot Gedolot,ed. Hildesheimer, p. 13).
Compare also Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot (mandatory laws), no. 231; Moses of Councy, Semag, no. 104; Aharon Halevi, Sefer Hachinnuch, no. 537; Ma-amar Haskel VI.8; and so forth. Compare further the various Rabbinical codices in the proper places–all maintain that kevura is a great Mitzvah, a divinely ordained law.
But what about cremation? Our committee is charged to report on the question whether or not cremation is in accord with the spirit of Judaism. What answer shall we give to that question? Shall religion have anything to say in regard to the final disposal of the bodies of our deceased friends? Shall we be perfectly callous and indifferent in regard to such disposals?
No! Religion has the right and the duty to demand that its voice be heard on this question. Religion in general, and the spirit of Judaism especially, has to step forward and claim emphatically that the dead bodies of our dear deceased ones must be treated with decency, with propriety, and with serious-mindedness; that in the last rites performed at the funerals of mortal men, rich and poor be considered alike; that all unnecessary pompousness and ostentatious display of riches be avoided on such occasion; that at cremations as well as at burials, words of faith and hope, words of consolation and encouragement, words of religious uplifting and of recalling to the duties of life be spoken. And no rabbi–I should think, even no rabbi who entertains conservative views–has a right to decline, if invited, to speak such words at the cremation of a deceased co-religionist.
We conclude now by saying that only the following motion, or one similar to it, may probably be in order in a rabbinical conference:
Be it resolved that, in case we should be invited to officiate as ministers of religion at the cremation of a departed co-religionist, we ought not to refuse on the plea that cremation is anti-Jewish or irreligious.
On motion, the resolution was adopted, and the views of the report in general endorsed.
It is nine decades since the first Executive Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis called for a scholarly discussion of “Cremation from a Jewish Standpoint.” A resolution was adopted two years later (1893) and remains unchallenged policy within our Conference. “Resolved: That in case we should be invited to officiate as ministers of religion at the cremation of a departed coreligionist, we ought not to refuse on the plea that cremation is anti-Jewish or irreligious.”
In this generation of the Holocaust we are sensitive to terrible images associated with the burning of a body. Rabbis may, therefore, choose to discourage the option of cremation. The practice remains permissible, however, for our families.
Ashes of a cremation should be treated with respect as human remains. They may be interred in our cemeteries, subject to the rules of the cemetery (see Freehof, Contemporary Reform Responsa, pp. 169ff). The ancient Jewish preference for burial within a person’s personal property (see Freehof, Modern Reform Responsa, p. 257) may be honored more easily in the case of ashes than in the case of a body, according to some State laws, but we still favor use of a Jewish communal cemetery or mausoleum. Because a building in which the ashes of a Jew are permanently entombed might well seem to a Cohen to be like a cemetery which he would hesitate to enter (see Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time,pp. 167ff), we oppose keeping ashes in a home.
Responsa Committee (1980)
S.B. Freehof, Talit for the Dead and Cremation,” Modern Reform Responsa, pp. 269ff; “Remains of Bodies Donated to Science,” Modern Reform Responsa, pp. 278ff; “Cremation Ashes Buried at Home ” Contemporary Reform Responsa, pp. 169ff; “Family Disagreement over Cremation,” Contemporary Reform Responsa, pp. 228ff; “Ashes of Cremation in a Temple Cornerstone,” Reform Responsa for Our Time, pp. 167ff; “Mother’s Ashes in Son’s Grave,” Current Reform Responsa, pp. 145ff; “Wife’s Ashes in Husband’s Coffin,’ Modern Reform Responsa, pp. 237ff.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.