RRT 163-166



A man died on the Sabbath. The physician demanded that the body be removed at once (from the hospital?). The Jewish undertakers came and took the body to their establishment. Then an objection was raised that it is forbidden to do so on the Sabbath. What is the law on the matter?


THERE IS CONSIDERABLE law on the matter of moving the dead on the Sabbath. The law is complicated in many ways. First, the question of removal involves the various premises—”private premises,” “public premises,” and neutral premises (karmelis). The strictest prohibition against moving objects on the Sabbath is from private to public premises. Then there are differences as to methods of removal: (1) by sliding the body from bed to bed—a sort of unintended moving (min ha-tsad); or (2) by putting a loaf of bread or a child with the body—a sort of incidental moving; or (3) by asking Gentiles to move the body. Then there is a variety of possible reasons for moving the body on the Sabbath: (1) if it is in the sun and is decomposing; or (2) if it is in a fire and may be burned; or (3) if it is in a shameful place; or (4) if it is in a place where it hinders worship.

All these complications preclude a simple answer to the question of whether it is permitted to move a body on the Sabbath. Nevertheless, a study of the development of the law shows an increasing tendency, on the part of the authorities, to be permissive in this matter.

The source of the law is in the Talmud (b. Sabbath 43b), where the method is given as to how to slip the body (from bed to bed) out of the sun into the shade. Then follows a discussion of what to do in case a body is caught in a fire. Rashi, commenting, concludes that in case of fire the body may be moved completely, i.e., from private to public premises. Asher ben Jehiel agrees with Rashi (cf. his statement ad loc. and Piskey Horosh). Asher’s son, Jacob ben Asher, quotes his father’s opinion in the Tur (Orah Hayyim 3 11 ) . Zedekiah Ha-Rofeh (13th cent., Italy), in his famous legal work, Shibboley Ha-Leket (end of sec. # 118 ) , says that if the deceased is lying in indignity in public or in a place of ruins, he may be removed by a Gentile. If he is not in public, but in a semi-public place (karmelis), he may be removed even by Jews, because of the respect due to human beings (mipne k’vod ha-berios). The fifteenth-century Germano-Italian authority Jacob Landau (“Agur,” Laws of Removal on Sabbath, p. 38a) adds an element of permission and says: If the body is clothed, then no loaf or child is needed as accompaniment to the removal. Then he gives an actual case in which Eliezer of Metz (12th cent.) permitted the body of a Jew to be removed by Gentiles from jail (where he had died) to the house of his relatives.

From here on the law seems to grow steadily more permissive. Jacob Moellin of Mainz (14th century, responsum # 6 5 ) , after discussing the various restrictions, concludes, in general, that even for the needs of the living (i.e., not only for the honor or protection of the dead) the body may be moved; and that this is the prevailing custom. Moses Isserles to Shulchan Aruch {Orah Hayyim 311), where the laws are gathered, says, on the basis of earlier authorities, that you may tell a Gentile to remove the body. Eliakim Getz (rabbi in Hildesheim in the 17th cent., Even Hashoham # 31) says that if (on a Sabbath) a man falls from a house and the body is covered with blood, he may be moved (with a loaf of bread). Solomon Kluger (cited by Greenwald, Kol Bo, pp. 61 ff.) permitted a body to be removed from the bathhouse on the Sabbath so that the women could take their ritual baths. His contemporaries agreed with his decision. Eliezar Spiro, the famous rabbi of Muncacz, in his notes to Orah Hayyim 311, permitted the body of a Jew to be removed from a hospital on the Sabbath, for fear that the doctors would perform an autopsy. He declared this decision to be the law for future procedure (halacha l’maaseh).

Greenwald himself (cf. Kol Bo, p. 61 note) wrote a responsum on this matter to the rabbi of Oklahoma City. He was asked about moving a body on the Sabbath in the summer (when the body might decompose). He permitted it to be moved. Also, if it is in the hos pital, where the authorities insist that the body be removed, he permitted it to be moved. Then he added a strange, cautionary restriction-—when moved, it should not be taken to the Jewish undertaking parlor, lest Jewish undertakers do the embalming on the Sabbath. Of course, we need not be concerned with the latter caution, since the undertakers can be prohibited from embalming on the Sabbath. The body can be put on ice by Gentiles.

In general the law has developed in the way that Greenwald himself describes at the beginning of his discussion: “The later authorities have frequently permitted the removal of the body on the Sabbath if there is a serious need for it.” We conclude as follows:

1. The body should preferably not be moved if there is no need to do so or no authoritative demand for it.

2. The body may be moved if there is need, such as the summer heat, or if it was badly hurt in an accident, or if it is where it is disgraceful for it to remain, or if the medical authorities demand it.

3. Jews may move it, but in general it is preferable that Gentiles move it.

4. When the body is taken to the undertaking parlor, no postponable work be done on it on the Sabbath.