CURR 132-138


The graves in the cemetery are aligned in the same direction. Is this a requirement of Jewish law? Suppose the shape of a new, unused parcel of land makes it convenient to align the graves in another direction; would this be permitted? (From Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)

THE alignment of graves in any predetermined direction, such as North to South or East to West, etc., is not a requirement of Jewish law. In Yore Deah 362, where a discussion of grave-alignment would properly belong, the commentary Pische Teshuva discusses the matter, but the Shulchan Aruch itself has not the slightest mention of it.

This is a negative proof, but there is also a more positive one which is cited by the great Hungarian authority, Moses Sofer, in a discussion of the matter in his responsa (Yore Deah 332). He calls attention to the geometrical discussion of the burial cave in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 101 ff.). The question at issue in the Talmud was: How many graves could be dug in that cave? By the debate (and the illustrations) it was evident that they dug the graves into the walls of the cave in all directions. Thus, for example, if the cave ran from East to West, the grave dug into the back wall ran from East to West (continuing the axis of the cave). Those graves which were dug in the long side walls ran from North to South (and South to North); and those which were dug in the corners, ran diagonally Northwest to Southeast, etc. Thus it is clear (as Moses Sofer correctly argues) that the Talmud has no restrictions at all as to the directions of graves.

Yet, while it is evident that the Talmud has no requirement of grave alignment, nevertheless the custom in Europe (at least) in the Middle Ages developed into a definite preference for aligning the graves in each cemetery in one direction. This can be seen from the large responsum of David Oppenheimer (1664-1733), the famous Rabbi of Prague, in his responsum which is published at the end of the responsa volume of Yair Chaim Bachrach (Chavos Yair). The problem discussed in this responsum is as follows: An excavation was going on for some building. During the digging for the foundations, human bones were discovered and the question was whether these were bones of Jewish dead. If they were the bones of Jewish dead, then a Cohen could not enter the completed building. David Oppenheimer gives the inquirer the following test to use: If the graves are helterskelter, they cannot be graves of the Jewish dead because the graves of Jews are always aligned in orderly fashion. The same rule of alignment is revealed in the question asked of Yekuthiel Enzil of Przmyzl; it is in his Responsa 37. Again, a house was being built and bones were discovered, and the question was were they bones of Jewish dead or not. The questioner was sure they were Jewish dead because they were aligned in orderly fashion.

Thus in ancient Palestine, they buried in any direction, depending on the layout of the burial caves; but in the Diaspora (at least in Europe where they did not bury in caves) they laid out the graves in orderly fashion. Just why the custom rose to align the graves in orderly fashion in Europe seems fairly clear: First, as we have mentioned, because they no longer buried in caves where they would use the walls and the corners. Secondly, because, as indicated in a number of the relevant responsa, they were buried as we pray, towards Jerusalem. A further reason gradually developed, that the direction of the body should in itself express the faith in the resurrection of the dead; namely, that when the Messiah comes and the dead will rise, they will be facing in the right direction for the journey, without delay, to the Holy Land.

While the faith in resurrection was clearly a determining factor, nevertheless it did not dictate precisely the direction in which the body must lie. After all, the body was laid on its back, facing upward. What, then would be the direction toward Jerusalem? For that reason, perhaps many customs of varying alignment arose. Another complication which led to a confusion of customs was the belief that only in Palestine would the dead rise from their graves and walk. But outside of Palestine there would be tunnels (m’chillos) along which they would roll to the Holy Land. One can see the differing customs by considering the question and response in the various responsa that discuss the matter. The questioner will mention that the burial custom in his city is North to South, and the respondent will say that in his city the custom is from East to West, or vice versa. Sometimes the custom had nothing to do with the cardinal points of the compass, but the dead were laid in the cemetery with their feet pointing to the cemetery gate, (i.e., to be ready to march when the Messiah gives the signal). Therefore Moses Sofer, in his well known responsum on the matter, when he permits a congregation to change direction of grave alignment for practical reasons (the shape of the land, etc.) suggests that another gateway might be opened in another wall so that the feet of the people buried in the new direction be pointed to the exit gate.

Out of all these difficulties various customs arose. Most of the important references to these customs are cited by Greenwald in his Kol Bo, p. 177-8. Perhaps the most frequent one is that the lines of the rows were North to South Therefore each grave in these lines was East to West, and in that grave the body was laid with its feet to the East and its head to the West (so that when he rose on his feet in Messiah’s time, he would be facing East). Another custom, almost as prevalent (judging by the questions asked) was that the rows were East and West and therefore the bodies lay North and South. In fact, one scholar, Elazar Lev of Ungvar, in his Pekudoth Elazar 123, makes a novel suggestion: that all the graves on one side of the cemetery gate be arranged in one direction, and those on the other side of the gate be arranged in the opposite direction; all this, in order to fulfill (when Messiah comes) the Talmudic dictum that all our “turnings should be to the right.”

The very multiplicity of customs (East-West or North-South or towards the gate) would itself be an indication that we are not dealing here with a matter of law. If it were a matter of law, the scholars would have finally arrived at a definite decision after all these centuries. It is only local custom which is permitted to remain so vague and varied, since it is generally accepted that local customs, if they are not absurd in themselves, should always be tolerated and even respected. Further evidence that this is merely a matter of custom is the fact cited by Greenwald, of two great rabbis, Maharil and Abraham of Prostitz, who specifically asked that they be buried in a different direction from the other people in the cemetery. If the grave alignment were really a matter of law, they certainly would not have violated it for personal reasons. However, Abraham Isaac Glick (in Yad Yitzchok, Vol. III, 83) warns against breaking the alignment (whichever the local alignment may be) when burying the body of an average person. If a famous person is buried in irregular alignment, it is assumed that he had a valid reason for it; but if an average person is so buried, people may later imagine that he or she was purposely buried in irregular alignment because of some sin which he or she committed. This would constitute an injustice to the dead. Therefore Abraham Glick suggests, in the case of a woman who was buried from South to North instead of from North to South as the rest of the bodies were buried, that her tombstone be placed in conformity with the other tombstones so that people visiting the cemetery may not misjudge her in the future.

While it might seem desirable to shift the tombstone on an individual grave to adjust the alignment, the need for alignment is not so serious as to justify disturbing the body. Chaim Yeruchem in his Birchas Chaim, II:3, says that since the alignment is based upon varying customs, we may not disinter a body which was buried out of alignment in order to rebury it in accordance with the direction of the other bodies in the cemetery.

All these variations indicate that we are dealing here with customs which vary from locality to locality; yet whatever the local custom is, it should, generally be conformed with and the dead buried in alignment, unless some highly honored man requests a variation for himself.

The final question which we must ask is this: If, for example, the local custom is to bury North to South and the cemetery has a long, narrow, unused piece of land in which it is only possible to arrange the new graves East to West, may the community vary its own local custom and bury, now, in a new direction? This is precisely the question which came before the great Hungarian authority, Moses Sofer (cited above). He mentions the variations in custom which we have recorded and says in general that the custom is not so firmly grounded that if there is a good reason for changing, a change may not be permitted. In fact, he says (rather playfully) that one can go to the Holy Land either directly South to the Mediterranean and then turn East; or go directly East to Constantinople. So in general the alignment directions are not important and they may be changed. More directly than this, Abraham Isaac Glick, in the responsum cited above, says forthrightly there is no source in the Talmud or the authorities (Poskim) determining the direction of the alignment of graves.

To sum up: In Mishnah and Talmud, they clearly buried in all directions, since they speak of graves dug in the walls of caves. In Europe the custom of alignment arose; but because of the various difficulties mentioned above (the body lying on its back, etc.) local customs vary as to what should be the proper alignment, some North to South, some East to West, and some merely with the feet pointing to the exit gate. The authorities are clear that no firm law is involved here and, therefore, alignment may be varied for any substantial reason.