Cemeteries – caves and above ground

In recent years, Israel has introduced  an old-new funeral mode, multi storied  catacombs. The last time Jews used  this interment method was in ancient  Rome, where the good people of the  city interred their deceased in a massive  network of subterranean tunnels and for  good reason – the soft volcanic rock of  the region can be excavated without undue  effort. 

The Roman Kehillah 
The Roman kehillah is the second  oldest continuously existing Jewish  community in the world, outdone only  by the Iraqi or Bavli kehillah that dates  back to Biblical times. Probably due  to space restraints, Jews arriving there  two centuries before the churban began  burying their dead in underground tunnels  following the ancient custom of  Eretz Yisroel that Avrohom started when  he interred Sarah in Me’aras Hamachpelah.  The Mishnah and Gemara (Bava  Basra 100b) also discuss burial caves  extensively and such caves are found  throughout the length and breadth of  Eretz Yisroel, often to the consternation  of builders and engineers when they  obstruct the construction of buildings  or roads. In contrast to the burial caves  of Eretz Yisroel that are generally quite  small, the Jewish catacombs of Rome  are gigantic, often extending over thousands  of square yards.

In ancient Rome, most of the catacombs  were excavated by Rome’s  Christian populace, which mimicked  the Jewish style of burial and dug out  about sixty large catacombs of their  own. So far, only six Jewish catacombs  have been discovered, one of them situated  in a public park surrounding the  Villa Torlonia in northeast Rome that  was used by the Nazi ally Benito Mussolini.  This catacomb was discovered  by workers in 1918 and although extensively  studied since then, public entry  is restricted due to the danger of rock  falls and the risk of damaging the frescoes  on the catacomb walls.

To utilize space to the maximum  extent, the catacombs not only honeycombed  extensively underground with  galleries of over 1,000 yards snaking  through an area of over 13,000 square  yards, but also had passages on two  floors that were lined with multiple levels  of niches, or kuchim as the Mishnah  (Bava Basra 100b) calls them, which  extend from the ceiling to the floor.

It is estimated that the oldest Jewish  catacombs date back to almost two centuries  before the Churban, more or less  the time Rome seized control of Yehuda  in 61 BCE and Jews began arriving  there as prisoners of war, diplomats, or  traders. The Jerusalem-Rome connection  had started a century earlier, in 161  BCE, when Yehuda Hamaccabi sent  envoys to Rome to forge an alliance  against the Greeks who were still battling  against the Jews twenty-one years  after the Chanukah miracle (Sefer Maccabim  13:17-18). Until today, the descendants  of the ancient Rome kehillah  are regarded as belonging to neither the  Sephardic or Ashkenazic branches of  Judaism, because these arose long after  their kehillah was established.

The Jewish catacombs of Rome  are by no means the only place where  graves are arranged in tiers. This trend  is found in ancient burial caves in Eretz  Yisroel, and, as mentioned in an earlier  article, in the old cemetery of Josefov,  the Jewish ghetto of Prague, eleven layers  of graves were built between 1439  and 1787. Similar modes of conserving  space were utilized by Jews in Vienna,  Paris, Tunis, Spain, and Portugal. 

Israel’s Dilemma 
Not long ago, Israel began building  a modern version of the ancient catacombs  for the simple reason that due  to the demands of builders, industrialists,  farmers, and environmentalists,  Israel is running out of space to inter  its deceased to the extent that dozens  of Israeli cemeteries can no longer  open their gates to new burials. Even  Yerushalayim’s three main cemeteries,  Sanhedria, Har Hazeisim, and Har  HaMenuchos are fast nearing their capacity.

Plans to build a new cemetery  near Maaleh Adumim on the way to  the Dead Sea were vetoed because of its  location over the Green Line and plans  to expand Har HaMenuchos are regarded  as insufficient to cope with long term  future demand.

One suggested solution was to excavate  huge, multistory tunnels where  thousands could be interred in dignity.  Digging such tunnels would be no more  complicated than the road tunnels that  have become an integral part of Yerushalayim  .s transport system. The millions  of tons of resulting debris could be used  for concrete and gravel and when existing  tunnels become full to capacity,  new tunnels could be dug underneath.

In practice, a less dramatic, cheaper  solution has been used since 2003. This  is the multi-level concept suggested  twenty years ago by two architects, Uri  Ponger and Tuvia Sagiv, who argued  that it was time to revert back to multilevel  graves similar to the multi-storied  catacombs of ancient Rome, although  above ground. The first such cemetery  was constructed in the Yarkon cemetery  in Tel Aviv and was soon followed by  another in Har HaMenuchos where motorists  passing on the Yerushalayim-Tel  Aviv highway can see multi-level burial  structures that look strikingly similar to  apartment buildings. The idea has also  been implemented in a number of other  locations including Chaifa, Herzlia,  Petach Tikvah, and K’far Saba.

To their consternation, people are  discovering that although Israeli Social  Insurance guarantees a free grave for  every deceased, this may only apply to  interment in a multi level plot but not  if the family insists on a regular grave.  There are four different types of  multi level graves in Israel. They include  Kevuras Machpela (double internment)  for spouses, Kevuras Sanhedrin  where graves are cut into the side  of a mountain or hill, Kevurah Ramah  where multi-levels covered with earth  are attached at one side to a hill or  mountain, and most innovative of all,  multi-leveled buildings not attached to  any hill or mountain. In the last catego which are attached to the ground beneath  the building by vertical columns  of earth.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate approved  the idea of such internment in 1987  based on a number of sources including  the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 361:4) ruling  that permits placing graves above each  other. The rabbinate.s letter concluded:  “After hearing of the scarcity of  land available for cemeteries in Israel  and the suggestion of the architects  Uri Ponger and Tuviah Sagiv to build  an above ground cemetery as included  with this, it has been decided: Basically,  there is no halachic objection to inter in  this way, that is, in a cemetery building  within a hill of rising earth, etc.”

Obviously, multi-level cemeteries  are vastly different than the simple  burial caves and catacombs of ancient  times and this innovative method of internment  is subject to controversy. Last  Elul, for example, Rav Gedalya Axelrod,  the Av Beis Din of Chaifa, fiercely  opposed the concept, writing that “internment  not within the earth is not considered  internment at all.” He cites Rav  Moshe Feinstein who forbids mausoleums  (vol. 3 Y.D. 143), insists that Rav  Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss (the Minchas  Yitzchok) opposed this type of burial,  and mentions Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv’s ruling “to remove a well-known  rav who had been interred in makburas  ha’avonim (a stone burial place) and  to move him for Jewish burial in the  earth.”

The ruling of Rav Elyashiv was issued  about a year ago after a prominent  Yerushalayim Rov suddenly passed  away on erev Shabbos just before Chanukah  and was hurriedly interred in a  multi-level section of Har HaMenuchos.  Rav Elyashiv paskened that he  should be transferred to a regular grave  if it was still within 48 hours of interment  and that after that time the transfer  should be delayed until the end of  the first year.

However, the question of to what extent  the poskim are stringent and exactly  which types of multi-level internments  their pesakim refer to, lies beyond the  scope of this article. 

Two Unusual Graves 
Research for this article unearthed  the stories of two unusual graves.  The first concerns a longstanding  Jewish claim that the father of the man  whose birth was celebrated last month  was actually a Roman soldier named  Pantera. One source for this claim is the  Tosefta of Chullin (2:4), which relates  how Rabbi Eliezer was hauled before  a non-Jewish court on non-charges.  When Rabbi Akiva suggested to him  that this may have been because he had  inadvertently heard “words of minus  (apikorsus),” Rabbi Eliezer replied that  he was indeed told words of minus in  the town of Sachnin on once occasion,  and some texts have that he was told  this minus in the name of Yeshu ben  Pantera.

The Pantera story gained a new lease  of life in 1859 when workers constructing  a railroad in Bingerbrück, Germany,  unearthed an ancient Roman cemetery,  whose monuments included one  dedicated to a Roman officer who lived  from 22 BCE to 40 CE. Its inscription  read: “Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera  from Sidon, aged 62 years, served 40  years. lies here.” In 1966, the Italian  scholar Marcello Craveri suggested  a possible link between the Jewish  Pantera tradition and this newly found  grave. Intriguing, but doubtful.  The second gravestone is located in  the seaside resort of Swakopmund in  Namibia or South West Africa. Visitors  to the town’s local cemetery were  flabbergasted to discover that in addition  to the deceased’s name, Walter  Galler, the gravestone also displayed  upside down Hebrew words kosher  l’Pesach together with a diminutive  Mogen Dovid. Apparently, Walter.s  non-Jewish spouse was determined that  even a renegade Jew deserved a Jewish  gravestone and since the only Hebrew  text available was the legend kosher  l’Pesach printed on an old box of matzah,  this is what ended up on his stone.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, a Traveling  Rabbi who regularly visits scattered  Jewish communities all over  sub-Saharan Africa was concerned that  this strange epitaph might become the  butt of jokes and removed it, thus erasing  mute testimony that in one way or  another Walter Galler had retained his  Jewish identity to the end.  With these anecdotes of the past, the  story of Israel’s futuristic space-saving  efforts comes to its conclusion.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.