Dvar Torah on Jewish Funeral & Burial

Jewish Funeral & Burial 2015 / 5775 - The Commandment to Bury

24.03.2015 by

One of the most important mitzvoth in the Torah is called the מת מצוה (met mitzvah) – a deceased person whom it is a commandment to bury. Although arranging the burial of our deceased loved ones is obviously a mitzvah, stemming from and, in fact,  part and parcel of our personal relationship with the deceased, this commandment refers to a body which no one has come forth to bury, a body with no relatives or loved ones to care for it, and with whom we have no special connection. In such a case, it devolves upon any person who can perform the burial to do so, as soon as possible, even if it means delaying the performance of another commandment. The burial of the body in these circumstances is seen as an imperative, an act which takes precedence over all others.

There are two basic lessons to be drawn from this. One is the respect we must show to human life, any human life, by treating the remains of a person with the utmost care. Human remains are not simply “biological waste”. They are all that is left of a life, of a person, created in God’s image, and, as such, must be respected and cared for, as a mark of our profound concern for each and every person’s humanity, whether we knew that person or not. The fact that doing this mitzvah takes precedence over performing other commandments indicates the preciousness of human life, its overriding value, in the hierarchy of Jewish ethical concerns. 

Secondly, this commandment is a lesson in our shared  humanity. It is not only the remains of my relatives or loved ones that I am responsible to bury. This responsibility is mine as a person, towards all people, even a total stranger. This teaches me that our humanity is shared; we are all brothers, and we are all responsible to each other for this elementary act of kindness and respect, along with others, during a person's lifetime. The law of the מת מצוה – the imperative to give a decent burial to anyone who needs it, stresses the common bond of life, humanity, and responsibility, which we all share, and places the value of a human life at the very top of the hierarchy of Jewish values.   

Jewish Funeral & Burial Overview

הלוויה וקבורה

Jewish funeral customs vary from community to community. Generally, an effort is made to bury the deceased as soon as possible, as a sign of respect. Every Jewish community has a Chevra Kadisha - a holy society - which handles the funeral and burial. It is customary to eulogise the deceased, recalling his or her life. A series of traditional readings and prayers are recited, along with the mourners' kaddish. 

Over the centuries, Jewish burial practices have varied. In Biblical and Talmudic times, there were sometimes two services - first the body was left in a cave to decompose, after which the bones were permanently placed in a niche in a family burial cave. Many of these caves are to be found all over Israel, along with the stone sarcophagi and ossuaries in which the bodies or bones were placed.  Bet Shearim, near Haifa, is perhaps the most extensive and impressive of these sites, and contains a series of extensive burial caves and beautifully decorated sarcophagi. Today, in most Jewish communities, the deceased is buried in the ground a plain wooden coffin. In some communties, especially in Israel, the deceased in wrapped in a shroud and buried directly in the ground, without a coffin.

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