RRT 167-169



We are in the process of erecting a temple building in Hollywood, and a question has arisen regarding the placing of an urn containing the ashes of a former member of our congregation in the cornerstone of the sanctuary or the religious school building. Is this permissible? (Asked by Rabbi Samuel Z. Jaffe, Hollywood, Florida.)


THIS QUESTION has come up in different form in the law. In fact, it was the theme of a bitter discussion more than thirty years ago in England. An old church building was bought and converted to a synagogue. Later it was discovered that in its basement vault, in past centuries, there were some Christian tombs. Could this building be used as a synagogue?

The answer is based upon the question of the ritual uncleanness of the dead (tumah). Jewish dead are unclean in two ways: (1) if touched (nagah), and (2) by being in the same enclosure (ohel). Thus, for example, a Kohen to whom these laws apply nowadays not only may not touch the corpse of a Jew, but may not be in the same room or building with it. A Gentile body is considered unclean by touch, and therefore, for example, Kohen could not be an active pallbearer for a Gentile friend. But a Gentile body does not make unclean by enclosure; that is to say, a Kohen could be in the same room or building with the Gentile dead. Rabbi Daiches of Leeds (the grandfather of the present literary critic) gave permission to use the building as a synagogue, but only on the ground that the bodies of non-Jews are not considered as defiling with the defilement of the dead. If it had been a vault in which Jews had long ago been buried, there would have been no question. The building would have been unusable as a synagogue because the remnants of Jewish bodies make unclean even by being in the same enclosure (m’tam’in b’ohel). In other words, if Jews had ever been buried in that place, it would be utterly unusable as a synagogue.

There is, in fact, an older responsum than this one, which deals with the subject which you raise. The famous rabbi in Prague, David Oppenheim, wrote a responsum which is published at the back of the responsa collection of Jair Bachrach, rabbi of Worms two centuries ago. The question was this: They were excavating for a synagogue and they found bones. If these had been bones of Jewish dead, the land would have been unusable.

While it is doubtful whether the ashes as such bring ritual uncleanliness to a Kohen as a dead body would (cf. Melamed L’ho-il, Yore Deah 114), nevertheless, in a building in which the ashes of a Jew are perma nently entombed, a Kohen might well hesitate to enter, because the building would seem to him to be like a cemetery. Therefore there is no doubt at all that deliberately to put the residue of a Jewish body in the cornerstone of a synagogue would be repugnant to the spirit of Jewish law. It should not be permitted.