Thursday, November 13, 2008

History - The Funeral Controversy

Jewish History No One Knows (But Should Know)
From articles written for the Yated Neeman (USA)

by Avraham Broide
(Jerusalem based translator and journalist.
phone: 02-5856133; email:

When is a corpse not a corpse? When it's still alive of course!

Determining the moment of death is a subject that has many doctors and rabbis at loggerheads. Doctors are anxious to push forward the moment of death in order to save lives with transplants, while rabbis argue that there is no point killing Peter in order to save Paul.

There was once a time when the rabbis fought a very different battle. During the 18th Century, many people thought it barbaric to bury a person too soon, as who knows, perhaps he was still alive. They preferred to wait for only certain determinant of death, physical decomposition, which generally begins after three days.

Rabbis, on the other hand, wanted to bury people before nightfall, due to the Torah's command regarding a criminal whose body was hanged up as a warning (Devarim 21:23), "Do not leave his body overnight on the gallows, for you shall certainly bury him on that day." As the Shulchan Aruch" (Yoreh Dei'ah 357:1) rules, "It is forbidden to leave the dead [unburied] overnight unless it was for his honor, to bring him a coffin and shrouds."

During 5532/1772 things came to a head when the Mecklenburg Province of Germany outlawed prompt burial and legislated that three days must pass beforehand. When German rabbis raised a protest, Moses Mendelssohn was called on to intercede and he promptly found sources that seemed to support the government measure.

For example, a mishnah in Masseches Semachos relates how someone recovered from a death like coma and lived for another 25 years. Because of this, the mishnah says, people buried their dead in catacombs, instead of burying them underground, so that they could visit them for several days afterwards and ascertain their death status. If the corpse yelled or tapped on the walls of his stone coffin, there was still a chance to yank him out. Practically speaking, Mendelssohn had a point, as it is not unheard of for people to suddenly wake up and find themselves in a morgue.

One example of such pseudo-death may be Alexander's passing in 3439/323 BCE, when his body reportedly remained fresh several days afterwards. Some medical men theorize that he may have been suffering from a paralyzing disease.

The Yaavetz rejected Mendelssohn's proofs. Regarding the fear that Jews who determine death as the moment a person ceases breathing might determine someone as dead when he is really alive, the Yaavetz insisted that Moshe Rabeinu received this criteria of death at Sinai or that it is revealed in the verse, Kol asher ruach chayim be'apo (Whatever has the breath of life in its nose), from where the rabbis derive that before digging someone out of a ruin on Shabbos, we check whether he is breathing or not.

As for Mendelssohn's proof from masseches Semachos, the Yaavetz writes that such things happen so rarely that we need not be concerned about them on a practical basis. It is as rare, he says, as the case of Choni Ha'eme'agel who slept for seventy years!

This controversy led to one of the first formal move of Jews away from Jewish custom and law.

When the Berlin Chevra Kaddisha refused to succumb to the Maskilim's demands, some Maskilim, including Mendolssohn's son, Josef, opened up their own burial organization called the "Gesellschaft der Freunde" ("Society of Friends") in Berlin, with branches in Breslau and Konigsberg, which delayed burying the dead and eventually adopted many other non-Jewish funeral customs as well.


  1. you cite the Shulchan Aruch that if it is for the honor of the deceased - it is permitted to delay burial. But isn't making sure that the person is dead an expression with the honor of the person?

  2. As the Yaavetz explains, the chance of a "dead" person being alive is minuscule. Therefore, it is a greater honor to bury a person promptly than to leave him unburied out of concern that he may be alive. Avraham Broide.


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