WALKING ON THE GRAVES
An Orthodox rabbi told the congregation that it is forbidden to walk on the graves in the cemetery. Is this prohibition based upon law? (Asked by Mrs. Florence Freehof, San Francisco, California.)
The prohibition to walk on the graves in the cemetery is not a definite prohibition, but there is reason enough in the law and the custom for pious people to avoid doing so. The basis for the prohibition is as follows:
There is a general rule that the living may not take any material advantage of the body of the dead or of the grave in which it is buried. Of course this does not refer to the property of the deceased which he can give away by gift or by will. The prohibition refers to his body, to the coffin and to the grave in which he lies. For example, there is a responsum by David ben Zimri in Egypt (Vol. 3, #548) that concerned an Egyptian custom of using fragments of old mummies as a sort of medicine, and the question was as to whether it is permitted. Furthermore, there was another question as to the habit of certain people to take a handful of earth from the grave of an honored, saintly rabbi (Ray), the earth to be used as a sort of amulet or remedy (Sanhedrin 47b). These actions are, of course, forbidden on the ground of the prohibition of using the body or the grave of the dead for the benefit of the living, although some authorities permit this use of earth on the ground that it is karka olom, earth in general and not specifically belonging to the grave.
Of course this prohibition, to the extent that it holds, now becomes an especially important one in the new surgical practice of removing organs from the dead and using them in the bodies of the living. However, if a patient is dangerously ill, such ritual prohibitions do not apply. Any remedy is permitted if life can be saved by it.
The general prohibition against using the body of the dead or the grave for the benefit of the living is given in Yoreh Deah 364:1, to which Isserles comments that there are some scholars who prohibit people even from sitting upon the tombstone (and getting the minor benefit of the momentary rest). But, he adds, some other scholars disagree and permit it. The classic commentator Taz repeats the prohibition of sitting on the tombstone and says that from that basis, it is forbidden to tread on the grave. But, he says, quoting some authorities (Samuel b. Meir to B.B. 101a) that walking on the grave is not prohibited if it is just a temporary or a necessary errand. For example, if the body is being carried for burial and the grave cannot be reached except by walking over other graves, then of course that is permitted and, in general, the Taz indicates that even a chance walking over the graves is not prohibited.
A balanced opinion is arrived at by Naphtali Z’vi Berlin of Volozhin (Mashiv Davar Vol. 2, last paragraph). He also goes into the general question as to whether the earth on the grave may not be used for the benefit of the living, and then says that it is disrespectful to the dead to walk on the graves but that chance or incidental walking is permitted.
Solomon Ganzfried in his Kitzur Shulhan Arukh (199:14) declares outright that it is forbidden to tread upon graves but immediately weakens the firmness of the prohibition by explaining it as follows: “It is because somesay that it is forbidden to have any benefit from the grave.” But then he adds that if it is necessary to walk on graves to get to the grave that is needed, then the walking is permitted.
So, too, Greenwald in his Kol Bo (p. 179 bottom) says definitely that there is no actual prohibition against walking on the graves except that since it would be disrespectful to the dead, it should be avoided.
But it is noteworthy that Jehiel Epstein in Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Yoreh Deah 346:11, says plainly: “I am astonished at those who prohibit a ‘benefit’.”
From all this tentative prohibition, we may draw the following conclusion: Walking on the graves is permitted if it is for a worthwhile errand or even if it is a temporary, chance crossing of the grave. What would be prohibited (according to the spirit of the law) would be regularly using the cemetery as a shortcut and walking across the graves simply to save ourselves a little walking distance.