AN UNFILLED GRAVE
A funeral took place late in the afternoon toward evening. The gravediggers’ union forbids its members to work after a certain hour. The coffin was put in the grave, and before the grave was filled, the gravediggers stopped work. This raised the following question: Does the period of mourning begin, even though the grave was not filled and the burial thus not completed? (Asked by Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)
UNTIL THE BURIAL is completed, the mourners are not yet technically avelim, who are in duty bound to begin their mourning of seven days, of thirty days, etc. Until the burial, they are still onaynim. An onayn may not participate in any mitzvos (even prayers) because the duty of burial for the onayn takes precedent over all other commandments. So the question in the law is: When is the burial considered to be completed so that the bereaved ceases to be an onayn and becomes an ovel, who must now fulfill the duty of mourning, shiva, shloshim, etc.? In other words, what constitutes the complete burial?
On this question there is a classic dispute between two great authorities, Rashi and his grandson, Rabbenu Tarn. The dispute is first described in the Tosfos to Kesuvos 4b and is discussed by the Tur (Yore Deah 375) and the Taz to the Shulchan Aruch (same reference). The dispute between the two authorities centers around the phrase used by Rabbi Joshua in Moed Katan 27a. He says that the mourning begins (i.e., the onayn becomes an ovel) when the gollel is closed. The basis of the disagreement is as to the meaning of the word gollel. It means something round that can be rolled. When they buried in caves, as they did in Palestine at the time of the Mishnah, after the body was put into the niche within the cave, they rolled a huge stone which closed the entrance to the cave. (By the way, this can be noted in the description of the grave in which Jesus was buried. The sentence used there is, “The angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone from the door [of the sepulcher]” [Matthew 28:2].)
But the problem of the meaning of gollel arose when the practice of burial in caves stopped and people were buried in graves in the earth. What meaning could now be given to the phrase of Rabbi Joshua that mourning begins when the gollel (the round stone) seals the cave or the grave?
Rashi’s opinion is that sealing the gollel now means that once the coffin is closed and is ready for burial, the man is an ovel and the mourning can begin. In this opinion, he is supported by Nachmanides. However, his grandson Rab-benu Tarn said that the sealing of the gollel means the complete filling up of the grave.
Most authorities agree with Rabbenu Tarn, and so the Tur quotes his father, the Rosh, to that effect, and so Joseph Caro, in the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 371), says that the mourning begins only when the grave is filled with earth. This is now the general practice, and mourning does not begin until the grave is filled.
However, the opinion of Rashi that the closing of the gollel means the sealing of the coffin, and that mourning can begin when the coffin is sealed, still has weight under special circumstances. So, for example, the law is clear (Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 375:2) that when the burial takes place in a different city, the mourners staying in the first city begin their mourning when they see the coffin leaving the city. So in a sense they are following Rashi’s opinion under these special circumstances. So, also, for example, in an emergency such as a gravediggers’ strike, when bodies cannot be buried perhaps for weeks, we rely on Rashi’s opinion and begin the mourning once the coffin is sealed and put away.
To sum up: By general law and custom, mourning should not begin until the grave is filled, but in emergencies such as this, when the union rules forbid the filling of the grave at this late hour, it can be considered an emergency and we rely on Rashi’s opinion and begin the mourning at once. Of course, it would be much more preferable if the funeral were held earlier because, anyhow, there is objection to burial at night (cf. Greenwald, Kol Bo, p. 188, par. 24).