Sefiras Ha’Omer, the season when thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim tragically passed away, is an opportune time to discuss various aspects of interring the deceased. The practice of burying the dead has been customary since time immemorial not only among Jews but also among the nations of the world, expressing mankind’s traditional reverence for the human body and firm belief in the afterlife.
Grave Robbers of Two Types
Many ancient peoples believed that besides interring their beloved ones, it was necessary to supply them with worldly goods in order to sustain them in the next world. Because of this, they sometimes included a vast variety of worldly implements that would hopefully be of use in the afterlife. This practice has left its traces worldwide, from Denmark where Viking chiefs were interred in huge barrows that included anything from knives and jewelry to full-sized sailing ships, to the more modest graves of the early Canaanites who had a propensity to bury noblemen together with horses and chariots.
Of course, these buried treasures were a great temptation to grave robbers hoping to make an easy killing. This can be amply testified by any tourist visiting the Kidron Valley of Yerushalayim and viewing the huge hole that erstwhile grave robbers once bored into the side of the Yad Avshalom in the hope of extracting its non-existent treasures. To fight off such predators, many tombs were carefully sealed and often inscribed with dire curses threatening whoever dared open them up.
One example of this is found in the Kidron Valley where a Jewish grave dating back to the time of the Melachim bears the inscription, “Cursed be he who opens this,” and many tombs dating from the time of the second Temple have similar warnings. Of course, these pleas are ignored by modern day archeologists, who condone grave robbing so long as it is done for the sake of increasing the fund of human knowledge and not for other people’s financial gain.
The most famous of these grave curses involves one of the most famous tombs in the world, buried in the heart of an Egyptian pyramid. This was the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 5682/1922. From the beginning, its violators seemed doomed. On the very day that archeologist Howard Carter opened the sensational tomb a cobra devoured his pet canary, and if you argue that this was because Egypt is a snake hotbed, a few months later, Lord Carnarvon who had financed the expedition, died of pneumonia. Newspapers raved that this was the fulfillment of an ancient Mummy’s curse inscribed in the tomb:
“They who enter this tomb shall be visited by wings of death.” As time rolled on, papers reported that up to twenty-six people connected with the tomb’s exhumation had died within the decade.
Actually, all this was nonsense. The curse was a literary invention and twenty of the reported deaths were figments of the imagination. After all, even archeologist Howard Carter, the greatest culprit of all who had opened the tomb, survived seventeen years after the expedition, while Adamson Richard, the guard who slept every night in the tomb during Carter’s depredations, survived for sixty more years and died at a ripe old age in 5740/1980. In fact, many of the key people involved survived for decades afterwards.
In more modern times, graves suffered not from thieves attempting to steal hidden treasures, but from people trying to snatch the bodies themselves. This was due to the advance of modern medicine and the thirst to study the human body up close.
An earlier article discussed how the basic Jewish definition of the moment of death came into conflict with that of the non-Jews who sometimes waited for days to ensure that a person had expired. In 5532/1772 the Duke of Mecklenburg- Schwerin issued a decree forbidding the interring of a corpse for three days. Moses Mendolsohn supported his decree, making the erroneous claim that the idea of delaying burial is actually supported by Chazal (Semachos 8:1), who mention that some people had the custom of visiting the cemetery for three days after interment as, “It once happened that they watched someone who continued living for twenty-five years, and another who still had five children before dying.”
The Perisha explains that this was o n l y possible in times when people were interred in easily opened kuchin (stone chambers inside burial caves).
Rav Yaakov Emden (cited in Teshuvos Chasam Sofer Y.D. 338) violently disagreed, explaining that incidents such as happened there “are remote incidents that may happen once in a thousand years.” The Chasam Sofer concludes his discussion of the matter by declaring, “All the winds of the world… will not dislodge us from the position of our holy law” regarding the establishment of death through the cessation of breathing. Tragically, the Jews’ staunch adherence to halachah and early establishment of death led to giant problems. In seventeenth century Padua, Italy, Jews had to fight demands of its university medical students who preferred Jewish bodies for their studies, and the problem persisted until the nineteenth century when we find Rav Yitzchok Elchonon of Kovno writing to an American kehillah and advising them how to deal with a similar problem (Shu”t Ein Yitzchok Y.D. 33).
When did Jewish tombs begin? Although the first explicit mention of burial in the Torah is when Avrohom inters Sarah in the Ma’aras Hamachpeila, the first instance of setting up a tombstone is when Yaakov erects a matzeivah as an everlasting memorial to Rochel (Bereishis 35:20). After that, the subject of marking graves is mentioned a few times in Nach such as in the unusual episode of a prophet who was eaten by a lion (2 Melachim 23:17).
It appears that the tombstone is not only in order to warn Kohanim to steer clear from graves, because for this a less significant marking would be sufficient. Due to this distinction between simple markings and tombstones, Raban Shimon ben Gamliel famously declares (Shekalim, end chapt. 2), “We do not erect nefashos for tzaddikim for their words are their remembrance.” The Rambam (Hilchos Avel 4:4) rules as a definitive halachah: “We mark the whole cemetery and build a nefesh (tombstone) on the grave. But regarding righteous people, one does not build a nefesh on their grave for their words are their remembrance. And a person should not turn aside to visit graves.”
The Igros Moshe (Y.D. volume 3, 154) wonders why this ruling is ignored nowadays – after all, Jews have been erecting headstones on tzaddikim’s graves for centuries! He answers that, “Perhaps this is because there a number of laws applying to talmidei chachomim that are not customary nowadays.”
From the above Chazal that states, “We do not erect nefashos for tzaddikim for their words are their remembrance,” we can infer that a major purpose of the matzeiva is to act as a memorial for the deceased and perpetuate his memory, something the righteous person does not need because people remember his wise teachings and great deeds. However, the Taamei Haminhagim mentions another reason for the tombstone based on the fact that the matzeiva is sometimes called a nefesh – that its purpose is to provide a clearly defined resting place for the nefesh of a person, which, unlike the ruach and neshamah that rise to higher realms, hovers around the kever and only leaves on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
Tombs of all Trades
The tombstones of Torah observant Jews are generally without much ostentation and ornamentation. Rav Moshe Feinstein (ibid) explains that this is in accordance with the decree of Raban Gamliel (Kesuvos 8b) that deceased people should be buried in plain tachrichin – the same applies to matzeivos. Nonetheless many old time stones added a carving or two to depict a person’s name or occupation.
Besides the customary motif of raised hands for Kohanim or a pitcher and washbasin for Levi’im, stones had depictions of scissors for a tailor, lions for people named Yehuda (as on the Maharal’s kever), deer for the name Hirsch (deer), a tzeddakah box for a gabai tzeddakah, chains for a goldsmith, a goose feather pen and klaf for a sofer, a bird if someone’s name was Yonah and a fish if his name was Fischel. One fourteenth century stone in Speyer, Germany, has a flower in memory of a woman named Blume bas Yaakov. Generic engravings included two candlesticks for women and a broken candlestick for women who had died in their youth.
Family names were commemorated in similar fashion, such as the goose on the tombstone of Dovid Gans (the Tzemach Dovid of Prague), a mouse for members of the Maisl family, and for the deceased of the Karpelis family – a fish. According to legend, a well known fish monument in Vienna is in memory not of any human being but of a finned and scaled creature of the depths. Near the stairs leading to a Jewish old age home in Vienna stands a stone monument topped with an inverted fish. The story goes that a Jew once caught a large fish in the Danube that flows through Vienna and was about to decapitate it when it suddenly pronounced the words Shema Yisroel. Puzzled, the Jew hurried to the local Rav where he received the pesak that rather than eat the fish, it should be interred and its burial place marked forevermore with a fishy engraving in commemoration of the unusual event.
In one famous cemetery, most of the graves have no tombstones at all and are completely invisible. This is the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague where the local authorities gave the Jewish community a relatively tiny plot of land to bury their dead. Realizing that the cemetery would soon be full to overflowing, the Jews deliberately excavated the cemetery to a great depth in order to add new layers every time it filled up, and over the centuries, most of the interred were lost to view.
It is estimated that the 12,000 visible tombstones on its surface are the legendary tip of the iceberg and that it actually contains about 100,000 graves buried in twelve layers.
As for the forgotten generations buried beneath, their memorials are the words of the verse of Mishlei (17:6), “Children’s children are the crown of the old, and the glory of children are their fathers.”
(Sources include: Jakobovits, Rabbi Immanuel. Jewish Medical Ethics. New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1967.)