MRR 260-268



Is it an established rule in the legal tradition that men and women may not be buried in adjoining graves? If this is a legal rule, upon what is it based? If it is merely a custom, how widespread is it? What is its origin? (Asked by Rabbi Fred C. Pomerantz.)


THE OBJECTION to burying men and women in adjoining graves has no basis in Jewish law. Not one of the codes mentions this as a prohibition. This fact, that none of the codes mention it, is not due to any inadvertence or the failure to record something that may be so widely observed that it need not be mentioned. Actually, the codes carefully discuss the whole question of who may and who may not be buried side by side. See, for example, the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 362. There it is expressly stated that we may not bury a wicked person next to a righteous person, nor even a partially righteous person next to a perfectly righteous person; also that enemies may not be buried side by side. Thus, there are definite rules as to who may not be buried side by side. Yet none of the codes discussing this matter of who may not be buried beside whom, give it as a rule that a woman may not be buried in a grave adjoining a man.

In the same section of the Shulchan Aruch there is a further discussion as to who may be buried with whom, and it is this discussion which may perhaps have led to a notion that women may not be interred in graves adjoining men. In 362:3, the Shulchan Aruch speaks of children being buried in the same grave with parents, and it states as a general rule that those “who sleep together in lifetime may be buried together in death.” This general rule could possibly have been misunderstood to mean that only husband and wife may be buried in adjoining graves, but not a man in a grave adjoining a grave of a woman who is not his wife. But this would be a complete misunderstanding. The Shulchan Aruch speaks here only of children in parent’s or grandparent’s grave and also refers, not to adjoining graves, but to the same grave. To avoid such a possible misunderstanding as has just been mentioned, Eliezer Deutsch makes the meaning quite clear in his “Peri Hasadeh,” III, 121. But so far as burial in separate graves is concerned, there is no rule given except the restriction of righteous next to wicked and enemies next to each other.

However, even though there is no actual law against burial of men and women side by side, there is considerable evidence of the fact that the custom exists in various communities. To give one example and a fairly modern one, Menachem Rizikov, in his responsa, Shaare Shamayim, #33, New York, 1937, speaks of the established custom in a certain cemetery of having a separate row for the burial of men and another row for the burial of women. Similarly, Rabbi Elazar Margoshes, in a letter to Joseph Schwartz, published by Schwartz in his Hadrat Kodesh discusses the matter. (By the way, Greenwald in his Kol Bo, who deals with the same subject on page 179 ff., has a mistaken reference. He says that it is in Hadrat Kodesh on page 12. It should be page 32.) Margoshes says that in most of the old communities, as for example the historic community of Lemberg (also in Cracow, cf. Greenwald, page 179) they buried men and women side by side. But when Margoshes came to Bukovina, he found that the congregation had the custom of not burying women beside men. Furthermore, he was told that this prohibition was observed all through the Bukovina. (The Bukovina is a district at the eastern end of the Austro-Hun-garian Empire and once was part of Rumania.)

Margoshes says that the origin of this surprising prohibition should be sought out. But that is precisely the difficulty. Customs such as these which have no real basis in Jewish law are almost impossible to trace. They originate, as it were, anonymously among the people. They may arise from some superstition or they may be based upon some false analogy, but once they have arisen, they become established since scholars are always reluctant to abolish a custom (unless, of course, it is manifestly superstitious or foolish). Once the custom has become fairly widespread, it attains a sort of quasilegal status, at least locally. Since, therefore, it is virtually impossible to trace the custom, we can do no better than to guess at either the superstitions or the mistaken analogies which led to such a prohibition in those communities where it is maintained.

There is, first of all, the general puritanical mood of separation from women on religious occasions. The Talmud says (Berachot 24a) that the sound of a woman’s voice or the sight of her hair will lead to such thoughts as would disturb the prayerful mood. Hence the custom mentioned in the Talmud (Sukah 51b) that during the hilarity of the Water Festival in the Temple, they kept the women up in the balcony. It is from this single occasion mentioned in the Talmud that the strict separation of men and women in Orthodox synagogues is derived. So perhaps from this separation during worship a false analogy was made that, just as men and women are kept separate in the sacred precincts of the synagogue, so they are to be kept separate in the cemetery which is also considered a sacred place and in which prayers are, of course, uttered.

But perhaps there is more specific ground for this prohibition. There have come down certain restrictions with regard to the presence of women during funerals and in the cemetery. The Talmud says (in Sanhedrin 20a) that it is a matter of local custom whether or not women may walk in the procession to the cemetery, either in front of the bier or after the bier. This statement found its way into the actual law. The Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 359, repeats the Talmudic question as to deciding by custom the place of women in the funeral procession, and then adds that women should be restrained from going to the cemetery following the coffin. In fact it is generally the custom among the more observant Orthodox that the women do not go to the cemetery. The Talmud also says (Berachot 51a) that one should be very careful about joining the women or mingling with them on the way home from the cemetery because the Angel of Death dances among them and has the right to kill. So from all these various dubieties about the rights of women to go to the cemetery and perhaps basically from the general puritanical separation of women in the synagogue, the notion arose among some people in some districts that women should not be buried in the same row of graves as men. In fact there is even a further restriction among the women themselves. Malchiel b. Jonah of Lomze (Divre Malchiel, Vol. II, 94) says that there is a custom in his community of burying young women who died in childbirth in a different row from that of other women. He strives to find some explanation or justification for this local custom.

How widespread is the custom of separating the graves of men from that of women? Rabbi Margoshes, as mentioned, was surprised to find it at all, and mentions that the great communities have no such prohibition. So Greenwald in his Kol Bo (page 179) was very careful about these matters, and says that in the great communities, or in many of them, they do not observe this prohibition. The latest codifier, Yehiel Epstein, in Aruch Hashulchan (op.cit.) makes no mention of such prohibition at all. Nahar Mitsrayim, which gives the customs of Egypt, mentions on page 146b the well known prohibition against burying the wicked next to the righteous, but makes no mention whatever of the prohibition of burying women next to men. Hakuntres Hayechieli, which gives all the customs of Jerusalem and Palestine has, as far as I could see, no single mention of the prohibition. Tekuchinski, in his Gesher Hachayim who also gives the Palestinian and the local custom, makes no mention of it. It is clear then that the custom was not widespread at all. I would venture the guess that since Rabbi Margoshes found it widespread all over Bukovina, that it arose somewhere in the Balkans and that maybe, for example, Rumanian Jews have gotten into the habit of observing it. Moses Feinstein, in bis I grot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 241, speaks of the custom as widespread not to bury men and women side by side, but adds that the custom nevertheless permits wives to be buried next to husbands and husbands next to wives.

Such popular customs are generally ignored by the law. Sometimes, however, they come into conflict with it. It is then that we can learn how valid the custom is. The general respect that scholars have for a custom leads them to give it consideration, except when they are compelled to oppose it. For example, an analogous question came up before Moses Sofer of Pressburg (Chatam Sofer, 333). There was a notion in the community which asked the question of Moses Sofer that a man who was murdered should not be buried in the regular place in the cemetery. This notion was based upon the strange idea that the death penalties of the old Jewish courts in the Holy Land are still theoretically in force. And since a man slain by the order of the Jewish courts in those days was to be buried in the separate cemetery (see M. Sanhedrin, VI:5) therefore nowadays any man killed or executed should be buried in a separate place. Moses Sofer answers characteristically. He says, “I wish they had not asked me; had they not asked me, I would let them keep their local custom of burying a murdered man separately, but since they do ask, I must tell them that the law is not so and that he must be buried in the usual place.”

So, similarly, was the attitude of the scholars to the folk notion that we are discussing here, namely, that an unrelated woman should not be buried next to a man. The question arose in the historic community of Cracow which did not follow this custom. In 1848 the following was asked by the community of Cracow of Rabbi Meir Asch of Ungvar (Yoreh Deah 117). An honored citizen and scholar of the community died and was buried next to his mother. Then a respected woman, an inlaw of the deceased, died and she was buried next to the scholar. The sons of the scholar objected to their father being buried between two women and they asked permission of the community to put up a fence around their father’s grave. Meir Asch says that there is no law against the burial of women next to men. He forbids putting up a fence which would insult the body of the honored woman who had been buried in the next grave, since it would be obvious that the fence was meant to be a symbol of keeping her at a distance. He compromises by suggesting that the sons can put a double tombstone on their father’s grave, as it was often done with scholars. This would serve as a distinction for his grave.

A similar question was asked of Aryeh Lev Horwitz of Strij (Hare Besamim II, 121). The question came from Bukovina (as might be expected). There the custom was established that men were buried in one row and women buried in a second row. Now a widow wants to buy a grave next to her deceased husband (apparently it has been reserved). Horwitz says that there is no objection in the law to men and women being buried side by side. He refers to the cave of Machpelah where the patriarchal families were buried in pairs, and also that the Talmud frequently speaks of family graves. Then he adds: Since, however, the custom of separating the sexes has been established in the com munity, he hesitates to grant the woman’s petition, in violation of the local custom.

Isaac Glick, in Yad Yitschak II, 249, deals with the following case: Should a man’s body be disinterred to be moved to another city in order there to be buried beside his wife? He grants the right to disinter in this case and refers rather cleverly to the words uttered by Jacob in Egypt, when he speaks of where he wants to be buried. He said, “When I shall sleep with my fathers,” and yet by that sentence he actually referred not only to Abraham and Isaac, but also to Leah his wife, who was already buried in the cave of Machpelah. The same case must have been discussed by Eliezer Deutsch, Pri Hasadeh, II, 84:2. He hesitates to give permission and he says that the case of the patriarchs and the matri-archs should not be used as a precedent. Theirs was a case with mystic significance.

To sum up: There is no mention of any legal prohibition of burying women at the side of men in any of the codes. It is a custom that arose in certain districts. Wherever it was established as a custom, the rabbis respected it as such (as having local application) but none of the great communities hesitated to bury men and women side by side. There is no law against it.