“The Mitzvah of Burying the Dead”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As previously noted, this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, contains more mitzvot than any other parasha in the Torah–27 positive mitzvot and 47 negative mitzvot.

The Talmud, in Shabbat 127a, enumerates several mitzvot whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, yet whose principal remains intact for that person in the World to Come. Among the precepts whose principal remains intact in the World to come, are honoring father and mother, acts of loving-kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, extending hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride and escorting the dead. The rabbis explain that although those who perform these righteous acts are rewarded for their actions in this world, the reward that is due them in the World to Come will not be diminished.

Thus we see, that respectfully escorting and caring for the dead, providing the deceased with a proper funeral and burial, are among the most noble acts that a person may perform. Rashi, (Genesis 47:29), citing the Midrash, refers to the act of burial as, חֶסֶד שֶׁל אֱמֶת–kindness and truth, since the beneficiary is never able to repay the favor.

Although there are many references in the Torah to burial, the key source for the obligation to bury the dead is found in this week’s parasha, but only obliquely.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, states, וְכִי יִהְיֶה בְאִישׁ חֵטְא מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת וְהוּמָת,ִ  וְתָלִיתָ אֹתוֹ עַל עֵץ. לֹא תָלִין נִבְלָתוֹ עַל הָעֵץ כִּי קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, כִּי קִלְלַת אֱ־לֹקִים תָּלוּי, וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת אַדְמָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה, If a man shall have committed a sin whose judgment is death, he shall be put to death, and you shall hang him on the gallows. His body shall not remain for the night on the gallows, rather you shall surely bury him on that day, for a hanging person is a curse of G-d, and you shall not contaminate your land which the Lord your G-d gives you as an inheritance.

The first allusion to burial in the Torah is found in the punishment that is meted out to the first human beings for eating the forbidden fruit. There, G-d admonishes humankind, Genesis 3:19, עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה, כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ, כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה, וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב [You shall eat bread by the sweat of your brow], until you [Adam and Eve] return to the ground from which you had been taken, for you are dust, and to dust shall you return. When Sarah dies, Abraham buys a burial plot at Machpelah Cave (Genesis 23:16-18). Jacob, in Genesis 35:20, erects a monument on the burial place of Rachel. When Joseph dies (Genesis 50:26), he is embalmed and placed in a casket. The Torah reports, in Deuteronomy 34:6, that Moses was buried in the land of Moab, and that no one knows where G-d buried him.

The Midrash, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 21, says that Adam learned about burial from the birds of the heavens. When Abel was murdered by his brother Cain, Adam and Eve sat crying and mourning not knowing what should be done with the deceased, because no one had ever died before. A raven passed by carrying the lifeless body of a bird, and buried it in the earth. Adam said, “I will do like the raven.” He immediately took his son’s remains, dug a grave and buried him there.

From the specific words concerning the capital offender who is hanged and then buried, found in Deuteronomy 21:23, כִּי קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, you must bury him on that very day, we learn that burial must take place with alacrity. The rabbis (Talmud Sanhedrin 46a) explain that swift burial applies not only to capital offenders, but to all who die, and that postponing or delaying burial is a transgression of the negative mitzvah of לֹא תָלִין- you shall not allow the body to remain unburied. However, in certain instances, in order to show additional respect to the deceased, a burial may be delayed in order to provide the deceased with a proper casket, shrouds, to allow mourners and relatives to come and pay respect, or to allow word to get out to other localities (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 357).

So great is the importance of the mitzvah of burial, that even a High Priest who is preparing to perform the sacred service on Yom Kippur who encounters an unknown dead body in the field, must contaminate himself in order to bury the dead, thus disqualifying himself from the Yom Kippur service. Known as מֵת מִצְוָה, burying a person who would otherwise not be properly buried is considered to be one of the highest of all the mitzvot.

The late Rabbi Maurice Lamm 24, in his classic work, the Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, writes, “The religious concept underlying this law is that man, made in the image of G-d, should be accorded the deepest respect. It is considered a matter of great shame and discourtesy to leave the deceased unburied–his soul has returned to G-d, but his body is left to linger in the land of living.”

Rabbi Lamm suggests that an additional psychological benefit to burying the deceased as quickly as possible is to relieve the unbearable mental strain placed on the family, when the deceased is not buried for a long time.

The horror of not being properly buried is punctuated in the תּוֹכָחָה–Tochacha, G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people. In Deuteronomy 28:26, one of the curses with which Israel is threatened is, “Your carcases shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.”

That the sanctity of human life is so highly regarded in Judaism, is confirmed by the fact that even a lowly criminal, who has been hanged, must have his body removed and respectfully interred before sunset. Not to do so, is considered an affront to G-d, and a defilement of the Land of G-d.

Rashi, in Deuteronomy 21:23, cites the parable of identical twin brothers, one a nobleman, the other, a marauder who was captured and hanged. People who see the body hanging, think it is the nobleman. And so it is a disgrace to G-d, in Whose image the human being is created, not to bury the dead as quickly as possible.

Once again, we see how highly Judaism cherishes the concept of “the sanctity of human life.” It is now entirely understandable why the Talmud in Shabbat states, that caring for the dead is one of those very special precepts “whose fruits we eat in this world, but whose principle remains intact for us in the World to Come.”

May you be blessed.