Early Biblical Mortuary Archeology by Isaac Pollak

[Ed. Note: This is another in a series of blog posts by Isaac Pollak for Expired And Inspired. Each deals with matters related to the Chevrah Kadisha, Jewish burial practices, and similar topics.] 

I – Death in the Biblical World

Early in the book of Genesis , Abraham (2000 BC, categorized as the early Bronze Age which lasted approximately 2500 BC to 800 BC), first of the biblical patriarchs buys a cave as a burial plot for his wife , Sarah . This cave is not meant for his wife alone; rather it is meant for the whole family and those who will die in the future. Family caves like this once were very common in Abraham’s time and they stayed in use for generations. When a cave became too crowded, bones were pushed aside to make more room.

These caves were not unique to ancient Israel, they were commonly used by the polytheistic Canaanites.

The two methodologies for learning about the death practices of the biblical world are archeological research and biblical and other texts available from that period.

They must be used in tandem, as they serve as a system of checks and balances for each other.

One of the most intriguing pieces of evidence that archeologists have for the role of the dead in society is the location of the communities’ burial sites.

  • Cemeteries were only one of the three options for the placement of the dead in the biblical world.
  • The dead were also buried under the floors and in the walls of individual houses. 
  • The dead were also buried in the middle of open fields..

Of the three options, cemeteries are the most easily understandable since we still use them today. We do have cemeteries from the several hundred years of the Iron Age (approximately 1200 BC to 600 BC) and they at most contain fifty to a hundred tombs with perhaps twice that number interred.

Archeologically speaking, a lot of the dead are missing. Where are the other bodies? Simply, they have disappeared – they were buried so carelessly that they did not survive the centuries. Those that did survive were those members of society who warranted some sort of distinguishing burial treatment; usually from the upper strata of that society.

  • Burial in Cemeteries. There were no planned cemeteries, Israelite cemeteries developed organically rather than being forced into orthogonal plans. Cemeteries grew according to need rather than according to a planned arrangement. The Bible uses a particular expression time and again when referring to the deaths of important individuals. It is to “gather” a person to his ancestor. Taking the textual evidence along with the archeological evidence, we see that it is no mere metaphor. This is the Bible’s way of describing family tombs and the Israelite custom of moving older interments to make room for new ones. “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age … and was gathered to his people”. (Gen 25:8)

The phrase occurs again when Aaron, Moses’ brother dies, and the text once again states that “Aaron shall be gathered to his people” (Numbers 20:26). The phrase refers to the physical place of burial (the concept of an afterlife didn’t exist in the biblical period). The practice of disinterring the skeleton of a family member and gathering the bones into an ossuary, or bone repository, is also reminiscent of “gathering” to one’s father.

When King David dies the word “sleep” is substituted for “gather”, “then David slept with his fathers” ( I Kings 2:10) and many other similar references.

  • Burial under the floors or in the walls of individual homes .While I couldn’t locate specific textual or archaeological proof that Israelites as well were interred in the proximity of the home, there is enough circumstantial evidence that’s indicative that it was so.

Throughout Mesopotamia those who were not royalty were buried below the family home or next to it so the grave could be regularly maintained. If a person was not buried properly they could return as a harmful spirit to haunt the living.

  • Burial in open fields. Rather than a mark of uncaring disrespect these deceased individuals became the guardians of the fallow fields. In most agricultural societies, leaving some fields fallow each year is normal procedure, allowing the minerals to be replenished.

When a crop is growing it is constantly attended to by the owner, making it obvious to whom the field belongs. However when a field far from the owners home lies fallow, how can the landowner protect his field? A dead ancestor, usually an adult male, was the answer and made the perfect guard. Placing graves in fields was quite common in Talmudic times.

The Tractate Peah and Moed Katan discuss the issue (Hallote) whether these bodies placed in a field could serve as boundary to show ownership or to divide a field.

Burial Markers

Burial Markers—Biblical texts refer to two types,

Either a pile of stones or pillars. “So Rachel died …. And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave: it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day” (Genesis 35:19 -20). Another example “And they took Absalom, and threw him into a great pit in the forest , and raised over him a very great heap of stones” (2 Samuel 17).

 Perhaps this is the earliest original source of placing stones (thus indicating ones presence at the grave site) on tombstones.

  • A living tree, often an oak, is also recorded as a burial marker. ”And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel; so the name of it was called Allon-Bachuth ( the oak of weeping” Gen 35:8 ). When Saul was killed by the Philistines, “ they took the bodies of Saul and the bodies of his sons and burnt them there and took their bones and buried them under the Tamarisk tree in Jabesh (1 Samuel 31.11-13).

Perhaps this is the original source of bringing flowers to a cemetery

 Biblical Imagery of Death

Fear seems to be the most prevalent image – it was fierce, painful and uncontrollable.

“….among those who go down to the pit…, like one forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom thou dost remember no more, for they are cut off from thy hand” (Psalms 88:4-5).

If God does not remember the dead, clearly being dead was not desirable. This attitude vividly underscores the need for death rites- if God does not take care of the dead , it is up to their family members to do so.

  • The Dead Cult in the Early Biblical World

To understand this concept (and cult isn’t pejorative) we need to go back to the beginning of the Monarchy. Scattered tribes eventually coalesce into a single unit when Saul conquers their territory; an entity that has been tribal must adjust to the curtailments of a monarchy. Their loyalties must be to the king and not to any other entity. Unity and divisiveness of the tribes is an ongoing issue in the Monarchy.

Towards the end of his life King Saul turns to necromancy – the practice of calling up the dead and seeking their advice – as a last resort.

One of the commandments in Exodus, repeated and expanded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the prohibition against witches and necromancers (Deut18:10-11, Leviticus 20:27). The practice, a manifestation of the Canaanite Cult of the Dead, was clearly outlawed in Israelite practice with very serious punishments (being cut off from the community).

According to 1 Samuel 28:8-9, King Saul himself reiterated very strongly these same laws and had all necromancers killed.

In spite of this, in desperation he seeks the help of a witch. He is engaged in a battle with the Philistines, is losing, and is desperate for advice and guidance, and views necromancy (and raising Samuel from the dead) as his last hope.

He finds a witch in En Dor , disguises himself and persuades her to bring up Samuels ghost.

While the story seems to cast Saul in a poor light, the real moral of the story may be that necromancy works. If it does, why was it considered so wrong; even the king himself resorted to it? Was there something wrong with using dead people to predict the future?

Was the problem knowing the future or was the problem consulting the dead?

The goal of the Cult of the Dead was to keep the doors of communication open between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.

The goal of the United Monarchy was to keep the people united as a single nation.

This goal of unity went directly against the goals of the Cult of the Dead as it was loyalty to family and tribe rather than to a single nation that defined the Cult of the Dead.

The clan and the tribe through their ancestral tombs would maintain the cults of its’ own ancestors. There are numerous references in the bible for maintaining the ancestors’ final resting place and for children maintaining their father’s ancestors’ cult. In fact the cult of the dead was probably integral to the way the tribe held itself together.

A tribe was mutinously bound together by common ancient ancestors.

This cohesion of tribal units was in direct opposition to the goals of Israel as a single political state.

The Cult of the Dead was the strongest surviving vestige of the original tribal ties. It was why King Solomon gerrymandered the tribal territories (1 Kings 4) hoping to break down tribal loyalties.

The prophet Isaiah called for a halt to the Cult of the Dead (Isa 65.2-6). He says God will punish those who act in this way.

During the United Monarchy the Cult of the Dead was too strongly ingrained to abolish it, at most they tried to rein it in; to limit the ways in which one could practice it.’

“Then you shall say before the Lord, ‘I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning ….  or offered any of it to the dead.’” (Deut 26.13-14.). Tithed food was special and a practice had developed of giving it to one’s dead ancestors. There were also specific annual sacrifices to the dead ( 1 Sam 1.21, 1 Sam 20.29 , PS 106.28 ). “Then they …. ate sacrifices to the dead.”

  • Early Greco Roman times (approximately 332BCE to 395 CE)

Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai was carried out in a coffin – indicating that Jews were buried in a coffin.

By the second century, Rabban Gamliel, head of the great assembly, announced that he was to be buried in a simple coffin, thus indicating that coffins of his day were quite elaborate. He criticized this, saying that such coffins placed material wealth above spiritual purity. In addition he wanted to differentiate Jewish burials from Christian burials which had already become quite elaborate.

  • Early Mourning Time Periods

In the Bible there are instances of many different lengths of time for mourning. Joseph mourned his father for seven days; the people of Israel mourned Aaron for 30 days and Moses for 30 days. Daniel mourned an unspecified person for three weeks (Daniel 10:2 ). Deuteronomy 21:13 mentions a captured gentile women who mourns her parents 30 days. This is a subject that begs for more exploration.

To summarize- we know quite a bit about early burial practices – either from archeology or from textual sources – but have yet to define exactly what occurred in what period of time and to what degree Canaanite practices influenced early Israelite practices.

Isaac Pollak, portrait, relaxed, informal
Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, and has been doing Taharot for about 4 decades. He is fascinated by and a student of customs and history concerning the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish burial and mourning rituals. He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student, participant, and lecturer in Gamliel Institute courses. He has offered blogs to Expired And Inspired periodically.

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About Expired and Inspired

Expired and Inspired is Kavod V’Nichum’s blog on all matters relating to life end, death, funerals, and comfort. 

The topic of death and dying has long been a taboo subject. Because death comes to all of us, and touches almost all of us in our life, we feel that it needs to be open for conversation and learning – not necessarily in a morbid fashion: there are aspects of this part of life that are beautiful and touching. Our view is that the death of a loved one is sad, but the sacred, holy work in which we engage in this arena can be spiritual, loving, transformative, and life-affirming. Talking about it should not be ‘taboo’ or avoided. There is even room, at times, for humor, as well as awe, love, and honor, as we explore this universal part of life.

Expired and Inspired is intended to educate, reveal, and share stories in an interesting and compelling way about the people involved, and the Jewish process, rituals, and activities that include Bikkur Cholim (comforting the ill and the dying) and the work of Caring Committees, and all aspects concerning the Jewish approach to the end of life, death & dying, the work of the Chevrah Kadisha (the Holy Society involved with preparation of the deceased for burial), care for the deceased, and comfort for mourners and those bereaved.


Our range of topics is very broad. As a part of what we include we consider Shmirah (watching or guarding) the body (and soul) of the deceased, burial preparations at ‘home’ or done ‘personally’ by family or community members vs. those provided by professionals, suitable locations for funerals and memorial services, the specifics of Jewish funerals and memorial services, all aspects of Jewish rituals, customs, and ceremonies, Jewish forms of mourning, comforting and supporting mourners, Jewish issues around cremation and other forms of non-burial, ‘difficult’ or complicated situations, ‘green’ funerals and cemeteries, concerns with care for and ownership/maintenance/regulation of cemeteries and Jewish burial locations, the fees and costs associated with funerals, and other related matters, with an emphasis on first person stories. Our goal is to draw attention, inform, raise interest, educate, and encourage others to learn more about the work that we do, to consider calling on the organizations that do this work in their community at their time of need, and perhaps to consider becoming involved in this work in their own community.


We are not limited other than by what our authors choose to cover.


Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”) uses education and advocacy to empower Jews of all backgrounds to reclaim the mitzvot (“commandments” or “good deeds”) of honoring the dead. The organization ensures that local groups and congregations can support mourners through traditional Jewish activities and rituals in ways that are accessible and relevant to today’s Jewish community. Kavod v’Nichum helps the Jewish community engage with traditional practices while giving individuals the information they need to adapt those traditions in their own meaningful ways.

Kavod v’Nichum encourages and assists the organization of bereavement committees and Chevrah Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities so that they can perform Jewish funeral, burial, and mourning mitzvot; protect and shield bereaved families from exploitation; and provide information, education and technical assistance. Kavod v’Nichum is the premier North American organization providing assistance, training, and resources about Jewish dying, death, funeral, and bereavement practices for Chevrah Kadisha groups and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kavod v’Nichum also works to expand and adapt its manuals and resources to serve the needs of a diverse Jewish community, taking into consideration emerging concerns such as interfaith, same-gender and other non-traditional families, transgender persons, and those interested in “green” burials.

Kavod v’Nichum was recognized and named as one of the 50 most innovative and cutting edge Jewish Organizations for 2013-2014 in the Slingshot guide (http://www.slingshotfund.org/overview/). Organizations included in the Guide are identified as driving the future of Jewish life and engagement by motivating new audiences to participate in their work and responding to the needs of individuals and communities – both within and beyond the Jewish community – as never before. The Slingshot Guide has become a go-to resource for volunteers, activists and donors looking for new opportunities and projects that, through their innovative nature, ensure that the Jewish community remains relevant and thriving. Organizations included in the Guide are evaluated on their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector and their effectiveness at achieving results. “The groundbreaking organizations that we highlight in the Slingshot Guide are game-changers in the realms of community engagement, social justice impact, and religious and spiritual life. The Slingshot Guide is not just a book listing organizations doing interesting things; it’s a resource relied upon by doers and donors alike. It’s the framework for a community that through the collaboration that results from inclusion in the Guide, becomes something significantly more effective than what each of the individual organizations can achieve on their own” according to Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot.

Kavod v’Nichum’s website (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/about-kavod-vnichum) offers the most comprehensive resource available for Jewish end-of-life matters. The organization provides technical assistance and educational materials, and organizes Chevrah Kadisha (“holy society”) groups at the local level to perform Jewish funerals and mourning activities. Kavod v’Nichum also hosts the North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, the only annual gathering of its kind (http://jewish-funerals.org/north-american-chevra-kadisha-and-jewish-cemetery-conferences).


The Gamliel Institute (http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute) is the foremost center for study, learning, advocacy, and leadership training concerning Jewish end of life practices. The Institute is a project of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort). The Gamliel Institute offers distance learning classes using the latest and best technology for rabbis, cantors, medical and health professionals, lay leaders, and other interested persons from across North America. These courses prepare individuals to assist grieving families and to train volunteers within their communities to perform Jewish end-of-life rituals and support members of their community.

It is the only institution (of which we are aware) that offers rigorous instruction at a graduate level in courses on the topics of the History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha; Taharah & Shmirah; Education, Organizing & Training a Chevrah Kadisha; Nechama (Comforting); & Ritual Practice. The Covenant Foundation has recognized the value of the work that the Gamliel Institute does by awarding a multi-year grant to fund the development of the fifth (and final) course in the curriculum on the subject of Ritual Practice (to be taught starting in Spring 2015). The Gamliel Institute offers a variety of ‘Taste of Gamliel’ sessions, class sessions focusing on specific topics, such as Complicated Taharot, Infection Control, Non-Traditional Mourners, and Taharah Liturgy.


The Gamliel Institute was founded in 2010, and began offering courses to the first cohort of students in October of that year. There have now been multiple cohorts, and at this point there are six courses that comprise the instruction cycle of the Gamliel Institute.

  1. The History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha
  2. Taharah & Shmirah
  3. Education, Organizing, and Training
  4. Nechama
  5. Ritual Practice
  6. International Perspectives

Each course is twelve sessions (except the sixth, which is six sessions and a travel period of over 2.5 weeks), and requires extensive reading, preparation, chevrutah study, writing, and hands-on work. Several of the courses also require development of a project in an area selected by and of deep interest to the student, usually something that will actually be implemented and used in their community, and possibly replicated elsewhere.


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