[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—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 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.