This week’s parasha describes Avraham Avinu’s efforts to give his wife an honorable burial spot and to purchase the first and foremost Jewish cemetery – the Me’aras Hamachpeila, the Cave of Machpela in Chevron. This week’s article will focus on the issue of burial in the holy land. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 1,590 people who died abroad were buried in Israel in 2016, and the numbers are on the rise. Why do so many Jews feel it is important to be buried in Israel? Should every person try to purchase a plot there? The Midrash describes what will happen to those who are buried outside of Eretz Yisrael. What does this Midrash mean? Should one who didn’t care where he would be buried be brought for burial? It is customary to sprinkle a little earth from Israel in the coffin of Jews who are buried elsewhere. What’s the reason for this? Is burial in Jerusalem of any importance? And are there any special practices for reinterring the deceased in Israel? Who is obligated to uphold the deceased wishes to be buried in Israel if he left insufficient funding for it? Should tzedakah money be used towards an Israel burial? Of this and more in the coming article.
This week’s parasha provides an 18-psukim long detailed description of Avraham Avinu’s purchase of the Mearas Hamachpeila in Chevron. Yaakov Avinu also insisted his sons bury him in Eretz Yisroel, and even asked Yosef to swear to it, despite the hassle of having to secure Pharaoh’s consent. Yaakov Avinu’s concern about his burial spot, though, didn’t begin when he was on his deathbed – it started long before, when Hashem told him to go down to Egypt many years beforehand. It was then that Hashem promised him “I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up” (Bereshis 46:4) which Rashi explains as a promise to be buried in Eretz Yisroel. Yosef, following in his father’s footsteps, also asked his brothers to swear they would bring his bones back to be buried in Eretz Yisroel. Chazal mention that all the Twelve Tribes were buried in Israel. This week’s article will present the halachic aspects of burial in Eretz Yisroel.
The Gemara (Kesubos 111a) mentions many advantages of being buried in Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Anan learns from the pasuk (Devarim 32:43) “And appease His land [and] His people” that the soil in Eretz Yisrael renders atonement for those buried in it.
Ulla was an Amora in the Gemara who used to travel to and from Eretz Yisroel. He passed away in Babylonia, and Rabbi Elazar eulogized him “And you shall die on unclean soil” (Amos 7:17). Here we learn that dying outside of Eretz Yisroel is a special curse. Although his bones eventually were brought to Eretz Yisroel for burial, a Jewish soul that leaves its body outside of Eretz Yisroel is different from one that left its body in the holy land.
Similarly, Yirmiyahu prophesized about Pashchor, the false prophet “And you shall come to Babylon and there you shall die and there you shall be buried” (Yirmiyahu 20:6). His death and burial outside Eretz Yisroel was a special curse. The Yerushalmi (Kila’im 9:3) is split regarding one who dies and is buried outside of Eretz Yisroel – is he doubly cursed and one who dies outside of Eretz Yisroel but is buried in it received only one, or is one who is buried in Eretz Yisroel atoned for the curse of his death outside Eretz Yisroel.
The Gemara (Kesuvos 11a) also mentions that at the Resurrection of the Dead the bones of righteous people who are buried outside of Eretz Yisroel will roll to the holy land and will suffer a form of pain in it, while some will merit having tunnels dug to allow their bones to come to Eretz Yisroel to be resurrected. Yaakov and Yosef were afraid they would not merit those tunnels and asked to be buried in Eretz Yisroel so they would rise alongside the other Jews of the land.
Midrash Tanchuma writes (Vayechi 3) that Rabbi Chelbo said that those buried in Eretz Yisroel will arise and rejoice in Yemos Hamoshiach – the Days of Moshaich, while the deceased outside of Eretz Yisroel will arise only later.
The Radvaz (volume I, chapter 484) writes that Eretz Yisroel is called “one that devours its inhabitants” (Bamidbar 13:32) because the flesh of bodies buried in Eretz Yisroel disintegrates faster than in other soil. This is especially important because as soon as the flesh is wasted away, the deceased reach their final rest. (Contrary to popular belief, there is no merit in a body remining whole after death, only remaining of an intact skeleton and bones. The pasuk (Mishlei 14:30) tells us “Rotting of bones is jealousy” to indicate that the flesh should disintegrate, but not the bones.)
In conclusion, burial in the holy Land is desirable for various reasons: the earth provides atonement; the deceased will be saved from suffering; the deceased may merit resurrection sooner; and the flesh disintegrates quickly and speeds up the atonement process.
Inside or Outside Eretz Yisroel
The Yerushalmi (Kil’ayim 9:6) records the practice of bringing coffins to Eretz Yisroel for burial. Rabbi Kiriya objected to this practice, citing the pasuk: “but you came and defiled My land” (Yirmiyahu 2:7). Since they only came to the holy land after their death, despising it in their lifetime, they are considered defiling the land with their dead bodies. Rabbi Eliezer, however, answered him that there is value in their coming as the pasuk (Devarim 32:43) reads: “and Hashem will appease His land by bringing back His people”.
The Talmud Bavli mentions (Kesuvos 11a) no transgression in bringing the deceased to Eretz Yisroel for burial, and seemingly, according to both Talmuds it is permitted.
The Zohar (Vayechi 227a), however, forbids it under the above-mentioned prohibition, based on the pasuk in Yirmiyahu. It mentions though, that bringing a righteous person is permitted.
The Rambam (Melachim 5:11) writes: “There is no comparison between the merit of a person who lives in Eretz Yisrael and is buried there to one whose body is brought there after his death. Nevertheless, great sages would bring their dead. Take an example, from our Patriarch, Yaakov, and Yosef, the righteous.”
The Maharlbach (63) writes that even a talmid chacham who expressed his opinion against bringing the deceased to Eretz Yisroel is permitted to be brought after death. Only one who explicitly expressed his objection to it may not be brought.
Most poskim rule that bringing deceased to Israel for burial is permitted. However, the Satmer Rov (Divrei Yoel, Vayechi 515) explains the Rambam (ibid) as permitting only great men to be brought, as it brings a form of defilement (as mentioned in the Zohar). In his opinion, the only people the Gemara permits to bring to Eretz Yisroel are the great men who died in Babylonia, not simple folks. The Klausenberger Rebbe (Divrei Yatziv, Yore Deah 224-225-226) attributes this reason for the Ba’al Shem Tov’s students forbidding their bodies to be brought to Israel, and this was the reason he forbade brining the body of Rav Tzvi Hirsch of Rimanov. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos V’hanhagos, I, 707) rules that today, whereas coming to live in Israel is relatively easy, one who could have come to live and didn’t is seen negatively, as mentioned in the Yerushlami and Zohar. However, one who has a halachically-sound reason for not coming to live in Eretz Yisroel may be brought for burial.
Could Have, Should Have
The Kuzari (ma’amar II, 22) explains that the criticism against one who didn’t come to Eretz Yisroel is only directed at one who could have done so, but chose not to. The Shevet Halevi specifies this as criticism directed at the wealthy residents of Chutz La’aretz who didn’t want to come to live in Eretz Yisroel despite their ability to do so, instructing instead that their bodies be brought after their death.
In practice, though, most poskim agree that even one who didn’t live in Eretz Yisrael earns merit when his bones are brought for burial, and he earns atonement through that. Although it is of lesser value than one who had lived and died there, it is beneficial.
Bringing the Non-Observant
Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (34) writes: “Rabbi Chanina said: all the souls of the tzaddikim who died outside of Eretz Yisroel are gathered and brought there, as the pasuk reads: ‘But my lord’s soul shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your G-d’ (Shmuel I, 25:29). However, the wicked who die in Eretz Yisroel suffer their souls thrown back and forth as reads the pasuk’s ending: ‘while the soul of your enemies, the Lord will sling it with the hollow of the sling.’ In the End of Days, Hashem will hold the edges of the earth and shake every impurity from it as one shakes his clothes from the dust, as it is written “To grasp the corners of the earth so that the wicked shall be shaken from it” (Iyov 38:13).
Here, Rabbi Eliezer seemingly indicates that there is no value for a wicked person to be buried in Eretz Yisroel, and on the contrary – his soul suffers from it, and his body will be shaken out of Eretz Yisroel in the future.
Therefore, the Cheklas Yaakov (Yore Deah 206:2) ruled that there is no reason to bring the body of a non-observant Jew to Israel for burial. However, he adds, if the deceased thought one thought of teshuva even one minute before his death, he is a righteous person and should be brought. One need not assume a person repented unless there is sufficient grounds for the assumption, he adds. However, a religious person who lived his life according to the Shulchan Aruch is certainly not considered wicked and can be brought for burial.
The Shevet Halevi rules similarly (volume II, 207:4).
Should the bones of one who couldn’t care less where he is buried be brought to Eretz Yisroel for burial? The Mahari Ben Lev (38) writes that the fact that a person didn’t write to bring his bones up for burial in a will or oral statement is insignificant since perhaps he didn’t want to inconvenience his children, or was unable to do so. Although the Zohar forbids it, since most poskim permit it and most people desire to be buried in Eretz Yisroel, there are no grounds to assume that the deceased meant to follows the Zohar and not be buried in Eretz Yisroel. (Seemingly, if we know that he was opposed to it, bringing him is forbidden.)
The Maharlbach (63) writes that one who explicitly asked not to brought for burial should not be brought because for one who has no desire for a certain kapara there is no mitzva to do so against his will. Some even add that it does not help him if he did not wish for it. This is also the ruling of the Igros Moshe (Yore Deah III, 153).
Exhuming a body is forbidden even when moving the body to a more honorable burial site. The only two scenarios the Shulchan Aruch permits exhumation is to move the deceased to a family burial plot among forefathers, and to bring him to Eretz Yisroel. (Several other scenarios are also mentioning in halacha which will not be mentioned here.) The Levush (1) and Shach (3) explain that although exhuming the deceased causes him suffering and fear of judgment, the benefit of being buried in Eretz Yisroel is great enough to warrant it.
A question was presented to Rav Moshe Feinstein regarding a London kehila that wanted to sell their cemetery which had become prime real estate, and move all the graves to Eretz Yisroel. Rav Moshe criticized the idea forcefully, stressing that the only reason to bring the deceased to Eretz Yisroel is for the benefit of the deceased, to enable them to achieve atonement in the holy Land. Doing so for financial reasons is despicable, and this case certainly incurs the prohibition of “and you came and defiled My land”. He adds that the permission to exhume a grave to bring to Eretz Yisroel for burial only applies to a single grave, but bringing an entire cemetery is forbidden. This is the reason, he writes, that the graves of those who died in the desert were left there and not brought to Eretz Yisroel for reburial.
Identity of Exhumers
Who has the right to exhume remains? The Igros Moshe writes (II 153) that only the deceased’s descendants have the right to decide what is good for their father. Others, good-willed as they may be, have no right to decide on the matter. Therefore, the bones of the Montefiore couple were left in their original burial spot and not brought to Eretz Yisroel – since they didn’t leave any heirs and their estate management had no say on the matter (especially since they specifically asked to be buried near the shul they built in which they had ten Torah scholars sitting and learning Torah under their sponsorship) their remains were left in England.
City With a Cemetery
The Shulchan Aruch rules (Yore Deah 363:2) writes that one who dies in a city with a Jewish cemetery should not be moved to another city for burial unless he is being brough to Eretz Yisroel for burial. The Levush (footnote 2) and the Shach (4) explain that the prohibition is because must not show disgrace towards the deceased of his city by refusing to be buried alongside them. But when a deceased is brought to Eretz Yisroel the reason for not being buried is clear and is not a show of disgrace. Rabbi Akiva Eiger (glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, ibid) writes a different reason– since the deceased suffers from the way and his burial is being postponed, one should preferably be buried where he died. However, when one is being brought to Eretz Yisroel for burial, since he will soon merit the benefit of Eretz Yisroel the suffering is worthwhile for the deceased.
Earth From Eretz Yisroel
The Or Zarua (II 419) and Hagahos Maimonios (Melachim 5:11) mention the custom to place earth from Eretz Yisroel inside the grave of one who dies outside of Eretz Yisroel in order to fulfill the pasuk “and appease His land His people”. The source is from the Yerushalmi (ibid) but they add that there is no proof that it helps outside of Eretz Yisroel. The Rama (Yore Deah 363:1), however, mentions the custom as a reliable one.
The Chochmas Adam (158:2) adds that while in general, dirt should not be placed directly upon the deceased, if he has dust from Eretz Yisroel it should be placed directly upon him, especially upon his bris mila as it is beneficial for the deceased. Indeed, this was done for the Noda B’Yehuda (as mentioned in the introduction to his sefer by his son). The Maharsham (Techiles Mordechai) also mentions in his will that he prepared a bag of dust from Eretz Yisroel for his burial and he asked for it to be sprinkled underneath and around his entire body, and especially on his Bris Mila.
Burial in Yerushalayim is considered virtuous. Maseches Smachos (10:180 and some Rishonim — Teshuvos Rambam, Ramban Toras Ha’adam) mention coming to Yerushalayim for burial. Obviously, this does not refer to the holy parts of the city, as there are no graves in the holy city of Jerusalem (Rambam Beis Habechira 7:14). On the contrary – the custom is not even to leave the deceased without burial overnight in Jerusalem. For burial purposes “Jerusalem” refers to the cemetery outside of the holy city, i.e. – Har Hazeisim. In fact, the Radvaz writes (VIII 197) that it is especially virtuous to be buried in Yerushalayim and it is good for the deceased to be moved from their graves to Jerusalem because there is a tradition that the Resurrection of the Dead will start from Emek Yehoshafat (the Mount of Olives), and all the dead, even those from the rest of the country, will have to roll there. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos V’hanhagos II, 413) mentions burial in Har Hazeisim in this context.
The Shevet Halevi writes (II 207) that while burial in Har Hazeisim is important, since this idea is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch as a reason to reinter the dead, it is forbidden to exhume remains in order to reinter them in Jerusalem. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo II 96:7) writes that the holiness of Yerushalayim extends only to the parts that were consecrated, and the desire to be buried in Yerushalayim stems only from an emotion and has no halachic basis. Therefore, anyplace that is called “Yerushalayim” is important and there is no real difference between Har Hamnuchos or Sanhedria (this answer was written when the Mount of Olives was still off limits).
The Gemara mentions (Kesubos 111a) that the righteous people of other countries would come to be buried in Bavel. Rashi explains that in Bavel the merit of Torah study is present. Following this Gemara, Betzel Hachochma (V 19:5) and Teshuvos V’hanhagos (2:613) write that burial in Yerushalayim is important because it is a city of Torah study. Teshuvos V’hanhagos adds the city of Bnei Brak to the list of cities with Torah. Betzel Hachochma adds that even if no yeshivos exist anymore, past Torah study still protects those buried in the environs.
East of the Jordan
The Tashbetz (III chapter 6) rules that although the eastern side of the Jordan is considered part of the holy land, regarding burial, it falls short of the land west of the Jordan, as we find in the Gemara (Sota 13b) that Moshe Rabbenu didn’t merit being buried in Eretz Yisroel despite being buried in the portion of the Tribe of Gad. In light of this, it is not recommended to be buried in the Golan Heights, as parts of it are classified as land east of the Jordan.
The Radvaz (VIII 197) instructs exhumers to be careful not to leave even one part of the body in its previous grave, because the deceased cannot arise without every single part of its body. If a body part remains in another grave, the entire body cannot be resurrected until that part rolls to Emek Yehoshafat, causing delay and suffering to the deceased. The Shevet Halevi stresses this, in light of a professional opinion stating that most times graves are not cleared entirely. Despite this, one need not be concerned for the honor of the deceased because the atonement of Eretz Yisroel is very beneficial. Teshuvos V’hanhagos (volume I 707) writes that when there is doubt if all the flesh has disintegrated or not, it is better to leave the grave alone until it is, due to concern for disgracing the deceased.
Mishne Halachos (volume XII chapter 259) writes that the obligation to bring the deceased who asked to be buried in Eretz Yisroel rests upon his sons, even if he didn’t leave enough money for it. They are not, however, obligated to collect tzedakah for this purpose. If there is no one to tend to it, the local Beis Din is not obligated to tend to the wishes of the deceased to be buried in Eretz Yisroel, and he should be buried like all other Jews.