CORR 165-169



A long grave-diggers’ strike has caused the accumulation of about one hundred and fifty bodies in the Sinai Memorial Chapel. This strike is at last over. The question now arises whether Jewish tradition prescribes a certain sequence according to which bodies must be buried. (Asked by Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)


IN THE PAST they did not have the present-day experience of a grave-diggers’ strike. Therefore there is no precise statement in the law as to the order in which a large number of bodies must now be buried whose burial had been delayed till now because of the strike. Nevertheless, they knew of certain other types of delay. A body was sometimes kept over for a time in order that relatives may come from distant places, or to provide proper shrouds, etc. (Cf. Shulchan Aruch Yore Deah 357.) These delays gave rise to certain decisions which have some relevance to the question raised here.

The first clear source on this question is the Gaonic booklet Evel Rabbosi (Semochos) , Chapter II. In that passage there is a discussion as to who would be buried first when there is more than one body awaiting burial. At the outset the rule given is that the one that dies first is buried first; but the rule continues, that if the first body is to be delayed (for some good reason) then we may not delay the burial of the second because of the delay in burying the one that died first. Then follows a sequence of the relative importance of the people whose bodies are awaiting burial. This sequence of relative importance is carried over also in the relevant passage in the Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 354, namely, if one was an ignorant man and the other learned, you bury the learned man first; if one was a man and the other was a woman, you bury the woman first (because they believed that a woman’s body decays sooner). It is questionable, however, whether the distinction of relative importance of the deceased people can be considered applicable today. It is, for example, a generally accepted rule in the law that we do not hold nowadays to the special status and privileges of a Talmud Chochem.

However, of all these regulations, one at least does concern us in relation to our present question. The law is that normally we would bury first the one that died first. Nevertheless if the one that died first is being delayed for some good reason, then we bury the other one first, although he had not died first. The chief responsa discussion of this is by Abraham Z’vi of Pietrikow, in his responsa B’ris Abraham {Orah Hayyim # 14) . (This responsum is cited also in the Pith-che Teshuva.) This scholar made an analogy between the burial of one of two bodies and another problem which actually was the question put before him. Two children were to be circumcised. In the case of one child it was a delayed circumcision because of the child’s health (i.e., this child was now, let us say, twenty days old). The other child was in the eighth day, the regular date of circumcision. The Mohelim wanted to circumcise the older child first because it was born first, but the rabbi said they were mistaken. There is no requirement in the law that an older child should be circumcised first. What matters here is that the command to circumcise on the eighth day applies now to the younger child and that command cannot be delayed, it must be fulfilled first. He then makes the analogy between this case and the case of two bodies that are waiting for burial. If one body was delayed (of the man who died first), the other body (of the man who died second) must be buried at once (i.e., not to wait for the first death to be buried first) because the duty to bury is immediate.

However, even this distinction is not to be taken too strictly, as can be seen from the earlier discussion of this matter of the two circumcisions by Elijah ben Samuel of Lublin {Yad Eliahu, # 41) . He makes the same decision (as did Abraham Z’vi of Pietrikow later) namely, that the child who is now in his eighth day should be circumcised first. However, he adds that if the older child is brought to the synagogue first (where the circumcisions took place) then we are not in duty bound to wait for the younger child. In other words (if the analogy is sound between the number of circumcisions and the number of burials) then it is clear that the law is not too strict in either case.

Greenwald in his Kol Bo, page 176, also discusses this matter. He cites the opinion of Solomon Kluger of Brody, which is to the same effect as the other opinions, namely, that that body which is now due for burial must be buried even though there are older bodies waiting. (Please note that Greenwald’s reference is incorrect. He says Tuv Ta’am V’da’as, Vol. I, 287; it should be Vol. I, 285.)

As a general guidance from the past laws cited, we may conclude that the following is the preferred procedure:

1. Whoever has just died (and now that the strike is over it is possible to bury him or her at once) he or she is the first to be buried. Their burial must not be delayed (except, of course, for legitimate reasons such as waiting for relatives, etc.). Certainly their burial must not be delayed until the stored-up bodies are buried.

2. As for the stored-up bodies, the Shulchan Aruch, based on “Semochos” would seem to say that those who died first should be buried first, but it is evident from the Shulchan Aruch itself that that rule applies only when the burial can be immediate. When, however, there is delay, then the order of precedence by time of death no longer holds and there is no required order of burial.

This can be seen also by analogy with the statement of Pith-che Teshuva to this rule in the Shulchan Aruch. The Pith-che Teshuva says that if the two bodies here discussed had both died on the Sabbath when burial was impossible, then there was no longer any precedent at all between them. Thus here, too, since burial was impossible for all these bodies at the time of their death, there is now no precedence among them.

3. In the law it was required that women must be buried before men. That was because they believed that women’s bodies decayed earlier than men’s bodies (see heading to the next section in the Shulchan Aruch and the statement of the case in the Tur, ibid. ). This might indicate a line for our guidance. If any of the stored-up bodies are in bad condition, they should be buried first.