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.
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.