Wednesday, December 7th | 13 Kislev 5783

November 17, 2022 11:32 am

The Meaning of Jewish Burials

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

This week’s reading of the Torah starts with a burial and ends with a burial, after the deaths of Sarah and then Abraham. It sounds morbid. But death is inevitable, and when it is not accompanied by pain, it can be positive. The rabbis talk about the “kiss of death” — something that takes us away from a world of sorrow and physical suffering, and into one of peace.

You would expect there to be a whole list of commands in the Torah about burial rituals. But there are not.

We know that in the ancient world, there were many names for gods of death. There was Mot — from which the Hebrew word Mavet derived. And the Torah talks about Sheol, the grave. But we also know that the word Geviyah refers to the body when it stops functioning, and then begins to decompose. The bones of important people were often gathered and placed in urns or ossuaries, often in caves with other members of the family.

The body ceases to function, and then is left to decompose, and only afterward, the bones are gathered up and placed in a cave or an ossuary. Later rabbis suggested that this gathering up of bones and placing them with their ancestors was a reference to the next world. Like being put in a pyramid on the way to the afterlife.

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Usually, when someone dies, the Torah says, Vayamot. When Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob die, the Torah uses Vayigvah, Vayamot, VaYyeasef El Amav. He expired and died, and was gathered to his people.

But the rabbis also say that these three words together are only used for the very righteous, in which case we have a problem — because these same words are used about Ishmael too. Was he righteous on the same level as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Rather I think the message is that anyone can reach spiritual heights, each in his or her own way. And Ishmael, despite his negative youth, ended up a better person. He reconciled with Isaac, and came with him to bury his father. We should not give up on people, even if they have a doubtful past.

The author is a rabbi and writer based in New York.

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