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Why Does Jewish Law Forbid Cremation?

Why Does Jewish Law Forbid Cremation?

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Question:

I'm in the process of making arrangements for my final resting place. In my family, some of my relatives have opted for a traditional Jewish burial, while others have chosen the route of cremation. While researching my options, I've discovered that Judaism is vehemently opposed to cremation. Can you please explain to me the origins and reasons for this stance?

Answer:

Before I respond to your question regarding the background of the Jewish prohibition against cremation, allow me to make some prefatory remarks:

In order to help clarify some of the issues, I am choosing to explain the topic "as is," i.e., as they appear in the "Big Books." Commenting on the particulars of one's experience may need additional questions clarified and is often best done in person with a rabbi more familiar with the particular person or family.

Commenting on the particulars of one's experience may need additional questions clarifiedThus, if anything that I will write will come across as insensitive, I beg your forgiveness in advance. That is clearly not my intention.

The laws I will attempt to present here are a distillation of rabbinic writings over the years. In terms of some of the deeper reflection on the human body and its role that I hope to provide -- that is distilled from deep Chabad discourses, though I can hardly assert that my distillation of this lofty concept is categorically correct.


Jewish law ("Halachah") is unequivocal that the dead must be buried in the earth.1

As a deterrent measure,2 cremated remains are not interred in a Jewish cemetery.3 Furthermore, we are told that many of the traditional laws of mourning are not observed after the passing of an individual whose body was cremated.4 Kaddish, however, is recited for such individuals, and it is certainly appropriate to give charity and do mitzvot in memory of their souls.5

Responsibility for the deceased's proper burial lies with the next of kin.6 While ordinarily Jewish law requires the deceased's children to go to great lengths to respect the departed's wishes,7 if someone requests to be cremated or buried in a manner which is not in accordance with Jewish tradition, we nevertheless provide him/her with a Jewish burial.8 It is believed that since the soul has now arrived to the World of Truth it surely sees the value of a proper Jewish burial, and thus administering a traditional Jewish burial is actually granting what the person truly wishes at the moment. Furthermore, if anyone, all the more so your father and mother, asks you to damage or hurt their body, you are not allowed to do so. For our bodies do not belong to us, they belong to G-d.

These rules do not apply to an individual who was cremated against his will[It is important to note that according to Jewish law, a person is only held accountable for his/her actions when they are done willingly, and with full cognizance of their implications.9

Therefore, all the above does not apply to an individual who was cremated against his will. After the Holocaust, many conscientious Jews gathered ashes from the extermination camp crematoria and respectfully buried them in Jewish cemeteries. Recently, too, I heard of an instance where a hospital mistakenly cremated a Jewish body. With rabbinic sanction the ashes were put into a coffin and given a proper Jewish burial.

Furthermore, an individual who was raised in a non-religious atmosphere and was never accorded a proper Jewish education cannot be held responsible for his or her lack of observance.10 This general rule applies to individuals who opt to be cremated because their education and upbringing did not equip them with the knowledge necessary to make an informed choice in this area. This assumption impacts some of the legal results presented above.]

The Biblical Commandment

Man's soul comes from Above, "He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life,"11 and when its earthly mission has been accomplished it rises back to G‑d, returning to its source.

The body, on the other hand, was taken from the ground -- "the L-rd G‑d formed man of dust from the ground"12 -- and must therefore return to the earth. This is expressed in the words that G‑d tells Adam, the first man,13 "For dust you are, and to dust you will return."

This concept is reiterated in Deuteronomy,14 where we are commanded to bury the dead: "You shall bury him on that day." The Jerusalem Talmud15 explains that this requires us to bury the body in its entirety, not after it has been diminished through cremation or in any other manner: "You must bury him in entirety, not partially. From this verse we extrapolate that the command was not fulfilled if the person was partially buried."

Cremating a body destroys most of the body, making burial of the flesh impossible, and thus violates the biblical command.

Our Responsibilities Vis-à-Vis the Human Body

In Jewish law, the human body belongs to its Creator. It is merely on loan to the person, who is the guardian of the body, but he or she has no right to deface it in any way.16 The body must be "returned" in its entirety, just as it was given.17

Additionally, Man was created in "G‑d's image and likeness."18 Any violation of the human body is considered, therefore, to be a violation of G‑d Himself.19

This general principle and law governs many of our laws, like those prohibiting self-mutilation20 or tattoos,21 and requiring us to do our utmost to keep ourselves from danger by maintaining proper hygiene and the like.22 This principle applies after death, too; any mutilation of the dead is prohibited.23

Any violation of the human body is considered to be a violation of G‑d HimselfThis is also one of the reasons why Jewish law does not permit autopsies24 other than in the most extenuating of circumstances.25

Utmost respect for the sanctity of the human body is also the overriding concern which pervades the process of preparing the deceased for burial. The funeral is scheduled for the earliest possible time, ideally on the same day as the passing,26 so that the body reaches its eternal rest as expeditiously as possible. The honor of caring for the dead is traditionally reserved for the most respected members of the community,27 who are expected to maintain the highest levels of decorum, privacy, and respect throughout the entire process.

According to traditional Jewish sources, the merit of facilitating the proper burial of a Jewish corpse is immeasurable. Even the High Priest, who was even prohibited from attending the funerals of his next of kin, was required to preoccupy himself and personally bury a met mitzvah, an abandoned Jewish body which had no one to attend to its proper burial.28

No lengthy explanation is necessary to conclude that there can be no greater violation of our legal and moral responsibilities to the body's Owner than to cremate.

Delving Deeper into our Relationship with our Bodies

When the body becomes the soul's vehicle to do good deeds ("mitzvot") it – the body – is invested with permanent value and sanctity. The body is seen as sacred, as the temple of the soul, and the medium by which we do goodness in this world. According to Jewish law, an object which facilitated the fulfillment of a mitzvah must be accorded respect, and cannot be casually discarded. Examples: papers upon which are inscribed words of Torah, tzitzit fringes, or leather tefillin straps. Such articles must be buried with due respect.29 How much more does this idea apply to a body. In the words of the Talmud,30 "even the wicked among [the Jewish people] are full of mitzvot"! Or, to quote the prophet Isaiah:31 "And your nation are all righteous people."

Judaism sees the refinement of the body and this physical world as the paramount objectiveOn a deeper level, as Jews, we believe there is purpose to life, purpose to this world, purpose to the act of creation.

There are other belief systems that view the body and all the other physical trappings of this world, and the temptations they present, only as strategic challenges set in the soul's path, in order to overcome these challenges en route to a heavenly paradise. As such, the body has no intrinsic worth of its own, and once its function has been fully served, it retains no value whatsoever.

Jewish belief also recognizes the importance of the soul's reward earned through its life-journey,32 but sees the refinement of the body and this physical world as the paramount objective.33 The soul was dispatched from its heavenly abode to infuse these otherwise mundane entities with holiness and purpose. While, the soul, too, is elevated to previously unimaginable heights through fulfilling its worldly mission,34 it is the sanctification of the physical -- both the body and the world at large -- which constitutes the very reason for Creation.

Click here for more on the topic of Body and Soul.

The Penultimate Bodily Experience

Two of the most fundamental tenets of the Jewish faith are the belief in the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people -- and of all of mankind -- through a righteous messiah,35 and the concept of the resurrection of the dead, an awaited time when all souls will return to their bodies.36

These beliefs are so central to the Jewish worldview that Maimonides considers them to be two of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith.37

The Messianic Era will be ushered in by a righteous scion of King David,38 and will be characterized by world peace and harmony. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift the sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore."39 The Jewish people will be gathered from all corners of the earth and will be returned to the Promised Land,40 where the Holy Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem.41

This era will be the culmination of G‑d's master plan for Creation.42 We will then be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor; we will then see the end-product of our millennia-long labor of permeating Creation with holiness and purpose. The curtain will be ripped aside, and the flesh, our very own bodies, will perceive G‑d: "And the glory of the L-rd shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see that the mouth of the L-rd spoke.43

These beliefs have sustained our nation throughout a 2,000-year exile fraught with pogroms, expulsions and persecution. Just one generation ago countless Jews entered the gas chambers whilst singing "Ani Ma'amin" ("I believe...") -- expressing their firm belief in a better time to come, and their trust that they would be resurrected to witness that awaited day.

Click here for more about the Resurrection of the Dead.

Cremation is an implied statement of rejection of the concept of resurrectionCremation is an implied statement of rejection of the concept of resurrection. It is in effect a declaration that once the soul has departed the body, the lifeless body has served its purpose and now has no further value.44

Our Sages teach that those who deny the notion of the resurrection will not merit to be resurrected45 within their own bodies, rather their souls will be enclothed in different bodies when that awaited day arrives.46

Based on this idea, many authorities conclude that a person who opts for cremation is subject to this consequence as well.47

(However, this applies only to such instances where the cremation was done at the behest of the deceased; only in such instances can it be said that the person rejected the notion of the resurrection, etc. Not too long ago six million of our people were denied proper burial, most of them cremated. Without a doubt these holy martyrs will be at the forefront of those who will return during the Messianic Redemption.)

Additional Prohibition and Concepts

A. We are commanded in the Torah48 not to follow the practices of the non-Jews. Cremating the dead was (and, in fact, still is) a ritual observed by many pagan cultures, and thus is also a violation of this biblical prohibition.49

B. According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the soul does not depart the body immediately after death.50 Such an abrupt departure would be intensely painful for the soul. The gradual decomposition of the body allows the soul the time to slowly depart the body and acclimate itself to its new heavenly abode.51 The instant destruction of the body caused by cremation deprives the soul of this much-needed adjustment period.

Throughout our history, a traditional Jewish burial was always considered a highest priorityC. Throughout our history, a traditional Jewish burial, known as Kever Yisrael, was always considered a highest priority. During times when many of their non-Jewish co-citizens regularly cremated their dead, the Jews were distinguishable by their commitment to bury their dead with dignity. This fact was already noted by Tacitus, the famed 1st century Roman historian.52 Understanding the great importance of this mitzvah, the Israeli army is known to take great risks, venturing behind enemy lines to bring back to Israel the bodies of their fallen comrades.

It is safe to assume that the deceased's soul is certain to evoke heavenly mercy and blessings upon those individuals who ensured that its body was accorded its final proper respects.


To sum up:

Cremation

· is a transgression of a Biblical law to bury our dead,
· demonstrates a rejection of G‑d's supreme "ownership" over all of Creation,
· violates our legal responsibility to return what was loaned to us (our bodies) in as wholesome a state as possible,
· constitutes a rejection of the Jewish belief of tzelem Elokim (created in G‑d's image),
· constitutes a rejection of the Jewish belief in resurrection of the dead,
· (if done voluntarily, knowing fully the responsibilities) will cause the body not to be included among the Jewish People when the time of resurrection arrives,
· violates the biblical prohibition of following heathen practices,
· upends the soul's natural separation and acclimation process, thus causing it additional untold pain,
· deviates from Jewish history and our forebears' and contemporaries' selfless and heroic efforts to properly bury our dead, and
· declares, in effect, that once the soul has departed the body, the lifeless body has no further value.


May we soon merit seeing the day when this whole discussion is rendered inapplicable, for G‑d will "conceal death forever, and the L-rd G‑d shall wipe the tears off every face."53

Thank you for using Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi portal.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg,
Chabad.org

FOOTNOTES
1.

Code of Jewish Law, Yorah Deah 348:3; 362:1.

2.

The rabbinic responsibility to institute ordinances to deter people from violating Biblical commands is referenced in Mishna, Avot 1:1; Talmud Yevamot 21a, based on Leviticus 18:30.

3.

Melamed L'hoil Vol 2 #114 (Responsa of Rabbi David Hoffman, 1843-1921, noted German authority on Jewish law.) Whether or not there is an obligation to bury the ashes elsewhere, in order to prevent further disgrace, is the subject of dispute between halachic authorities.

4.

This is based on the principle (quoted in the Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De'ah 345:5) that we do not mourn after individuals who have "strayed from the ways of the community" (Responsa Minchat Elazar vol. 2 ch. 34).

5.

Chatam Sofer Responsa (by Rabbi Moses Sofer, 1762-1839, famed rabbi of Pressburg, Slovakia), vol. 3 (Even Ha'ezer 1) ch. 69.

6.

Code of Jewish Law Yoreh Deah 348:2.

7.

E.g. Code of Jewish Law Yoreh Deah 349:2.

8.

Code of Jewish Law Yoreh Deah 348:3 (See Jerusalem Talmud Ketubot 11:1).

9.

Talmud Nedarim 27a; Bava Kamma 28b; Avodah Zarah 54a; deduced from Deuteronomy 22:26.

10.

Talmud Shabbat 68b; Maimonides, Laws of Mamrim 3:3.

11.

Genesis 2:7.

12.

Ibid.

13.

Genesis 3:19. This is also the reason why Jewish law advocates the use of a wooden casket which will fully disintegrate.

14.

21:23.

15.

Nazir 7:1.

16.

See Maimonides, Laws of Murder 1:4; Ridvaz, Laws of Sanhedrin 18; Shulchan Aruch Harav (by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) Laws of Body Damages 4.

17.

Adapted from a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, dated 26 Nissan 5729 (1969).

18.

Genesis 1:27.

19.

See Genesis 9:6.

20.

Deuteronomy 14:1.

21.

Leviticus 19:28.

22.

Maimonides Laws of Murder 11:5; Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De'ah 427:9-10.

23.

Deduced from Deuteronomy 21:23. See Da'at Cohen - Responsa of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935, Israel's first Chief Rabbi).

24.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 115a) relates: It once happened that a person sold his deceased father's estate, and then died himself. The other family members claimed that he was a minor at the time of death and was therefore unauthorized to sell the property. The rabbis did not allow them, however, to medically examine the body to determine his age. "You are not permitted to dishonor him," Rabbi Akiba said.
From here we infer that it is forbidden to modify the body of the deceased in any manner even if it would lead to tangible results.
The Talmud (Chullin 11b) also discusses the possibility of performing an autopsy on a murder victim to ascertain the state of the victim's health at the time of the murder. The result of this autopsy could have possibly affected the murderer's punishment. The Talmud objects on grounds of disrespect toward the dead and concludes that only in the theoretical event that the autopsy would actually serve to save the murderer (considering the premium Jewish law places on saving lives) would it be allowed.
See also Noda B'Yehudah Y.D. 210; Chatam Sofer Y.D. 336.

25.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains in the previously cited letter (fn 16) that in those very rare cases "where an exception was made to the rule, it was because of special reasons, which in no way diminished the sanctity and inviolability of the body, as G‑d's property, but only because under special circumstances, G‑d Himself has permitted certain isolated exceptions, in which case it is the Owner's will that is being carried out, namely G‑d's will."

26.

Deuteronomy 21:23; Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De'ah 357:1.

27.

Kol Bo p. 175; Hadrat Kodesh 3a.

28.

Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 3:6.

29.

See Proper Disposal of Holy Objects.

30.

End of tractate Chagigah.

31.

60:21.

32.

Maimonides even considers the concept of the soul's reward to be a principle Jewish belief.

33.

Tanya (by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812, founder of Chabad chassidic movement), ch. 36.

34.

See Likuttei Torah (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi), Deuteronomy 29a.

35.

Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:1, based on Deuteronomy 30:3-5; ibid. 19:8; Numbers 24:17-18; and, to quote Maimonides, "from the words of the Prophets it is unnecessary to bring proof, for all their books are filled with this concept."

36.

The Talmud, Sanhedrin 90b-91b, brings multiple scriptural proofs for the resurrection.

37.

Introduction to his commentary on "Chapter Chelek" in tractate Sanhedrin.

38.

Isaiah 11:1; Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:1.

39.

Micah 4:3.

40.

Deuteronomy 30:3-4.

41.

Maimonides ibid.

42.

Tanya ch. 36.

43.

Isaiah 40:5.

44.

Achiezer Vol. 3 #72 (Responsa of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, early 20th century Lithuanian rabbi); Beit Yitzchok, Yoreh Deah Vol.2 #155.

45.

Mishna, tractate Sanhedrin 10:1.

46.

See Igrot Kodesh by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 1 p.142-153.

47.

See Minchat Elazar responsa cited above in footnote 3.

48.

Leviticus 18:3.

49.

See S'dei Chemed encyclopedia, "Mourning" entry.

50.

Zohar I 122b.

51.

Jerusalem Talmud Mo'ed Kattan 3:5.

52.

Hist. 5:5.

53.

Isaiah 25:8.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife Chaya Mushka and their three children.
Special thanks to Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson for his assistance in researching this article.
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Discussion (72)
September 15, 2014
I am so sorry to hear about your loss.

I understand your feelings and pain. This is a sensitive issue, especially during a time when it is filled with such emotion and sadness.

What is the Torah's approach to this delicate topic?

We honor and respect our parents because this is what is instructed to us in the Torah. Important to keep in mind is that the very same Torah that tells us to respect our parents also tells us that there are exceptions when we do not do listen to their wishes! (Examples includes when a parent tells a child to go against the Torah, or in this context, their own wishes regarding burial.)

We recognize how our perspective changes on many issues within different eras of our life. How much more so do we view things differently when free from the limitations of out body. At that point, the soul deeply values the importance of a Jewish burial and would certainly request it if it could...
Yisroel Cotlar
Chabad.org
September 10, 2014
Creamation
I find it an abomination that I am reading this garbage about cremation while i am trying to morn my Mom who passed away on April 21 of this year. To say that I violated her soul by honoring her wishes to be cremated is cruel. It was my Mothers wish and I was raised to honor my Mother and Father. I am not happy that she chose cremation, but I made it my business to honor her and her wishes. Rabbi, thank you for the horrible interpretation. Now I know why my Mom had trouble with the Orthodox....you give no comfort only Torah. Although the Torah is comforting when someone is in pain from grieving that is not what is needed. Compassion and love and forgiveness for not being perfect in your eyes is what the person needs. It is what I need. You probably wont allow this to be posted as I am sure you will find this offensive it is not meant to be. I am sure others out there feel as I do. Conflicted and needing support not condemnation.
Sharon Weiner
Boynton Beach, Fl.
April 3, 2014
what does Jewish law say about keeping cremation ashes?
Tzipi
February 21, 2014
So I will recognise my non-Jewish relatives and anyone else I love who died before the Resurrection, because even if they were cremated they didn't know any better? Good.
Alexandra
Australia
February 9, 2014
Re: 94 year old mother
It is my belief that many people, your mother included, who feel that cremation is their preferred route, do so out of ignorance about the importance of this issue in Jewish thought and law, and not out of spite, G-d forbid. I don't know what the wishes of your family are, but if I can be of any influence, I would urge you to consider burial according to Jewish law, which appears to be the policy of the new management of the cemetery you are writing about. It is certain that after your mother passes, she will appreciate it if you take that decision. Perhaps you can share this article with your family, and even with your mother if possible, so that all can understand that there is no loss but only gain in being buried in the way the Torah prescribes.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
Chabad.org
February 2, 2014
Cremation
My 94 yr old mother has always strongly voiced her desire to be cremated and placed in a casket next to my deceased father, her sister, brother, parents, etc. The cemetery where she has her plot has been purchased by Orthodox Jews who don't believe in cremation. Doesn't her wish and the purchase of her plot (originally in this non-Orthodox cemetery, in some way entitle her to be buried as she wishes? How would the family deal with this dilemma since she wants to be (1) cremated and (2)buried with her husband and her deceased family members?
Caroline
GA
January 15, 2014
Re: Shellfish and cremation
A fundamental belief of Judaism is that indeed our laws of the Torah are of divine origin. We in fact have no idea how G-d judges us and what things matter to an infinite being, although it does stand to reason that if we defy His commandments we could be in trouble. The best we can do is work with what He has revealed to us through the Torah. Jewish mystical thought teaches that the decomposition of the body post mortem is directly connected with the fate of the soul in heaven. Cremation disrupts this process. Even if it's not the person's fault, it still causes problems. Saving another's life overrides other considerations, especially if the organ recipient will eventually be buried. "Ashes to ashes" is not part of Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
Chabad.org
January 5, 2014
If you are Jewish, and you eat shellfish, you can be cremated
For many of us, we need to update ancient interpretations that were written by humans, not super beings. Certain traditions make sense in the context of underlying beliefs, and some don't. For example, organ donations, never envisioned 4,000 years ago, are a mitzvah today, yet inconsistent with ancient interpretations. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, could have easily been interpreted as allowing cremation. God judges you by your deeds and actions, not by whether your body is completely intact when you are judged after death.
Anonymous
USA
July 26, 2013
I don't believe that man has the right to assume who shall face damnation nor who will receive the blessings of G-d. We pray for blessings but man can not give them out as if he has the authority to do so. The Holy Ones can help us pray by adding their voice but they do not have the right to speak for G-d and to tell those who led a righteous life that he/she would not be granted the right of resurrection and make their lives as nothing because of cremation. Let no man have the right to sit in judgement because of their assumption of the will of G-d.
Man will be judged by his Maker. We will live on thru those who knew us and what deeds we leave behind of the music that people will hum long after the author is gone, or the inventor, or the leader who perpetuated an idea. As for the soul, I believe it can leave the body which houses it, before the body ceases to exist. If one has not seen when the sould ascends than do not speak with certainty and give false visions.
Chana Toba
california
July 21, 2013
To Jeremiah
Torah law, meant to be implemented by human beings, can only address spoken words and actions, not what is deep within a person's heart. The treatment of one who has been cremated is based on the choices made during their lifetime which precipitated their cremation, not to something over which they had no control. However, family members can spare the soul the negative results of cremation by according the deceased proper Jewish burial.
Shmary Brownstein
Chabad.org
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