The act of burning the dead. Cremation was not the prevailing custom among the ancient Hebrews, as it was among other contemporary nations (see J. Grimm, "Kleine Schriften," ii. 226). It was, however, not unknown to them, and was occasionally practised. The Pentateuch prescribes burning as the punishment in certain cases of unchastity (Lev. xx. 14, xxi. 9; Gen. xxxviii. 24). In Josh. vii. 15, 25, and perhaps I Kings xiii. 2, and II Kings xxiii. 20, the burning of the corpse is added to the death penalty. From this it may be concluded that the burning of the human body was looked upon with horror. In exceptional circumstances—for instance, in the case of an epidemic—cremation may have been resorted to. This at least is inferred from Amos vi. 10. From the unusual word there employed , held to be a dialectic variant for , many have concluded that in Amos' time cremation was far from being repugnant to the feelings of the people, and the care that the body should be properly burned became a sacred duty, devolving upon the nearest of kin—in the passage quoted, upon the uncle or the mother's brother, who therefore was designated as the (see Ḳimḥi's Com. ad loc., and his , s.v. ).
However, the evidence in support of this contention is very weak, probably meaning the maternal uncle without reference to an assumed obligation to direct the process of incinerating the bodies of his kinsfolk. Amos vi. 10 does not necessarily imply that the "bones of the dead" about to be removed from the house were burned. In a Karaite document by Jephet ben Ali (Felsenthal, in Kohut Memorial Volume, pp. 133 et seq.), occurs as "maternal uncle." Ibn Ezra, ad loc., quotes Ibn Ḳuraish as authority for the meaning "maternal uncle," saying that it is unsupported; Abu al-Walid, in "Kitab al-Uṣul," ed. Neubauer, p. 494, mentions this meaning. The passage in Jer. xxxiv. 5 has nothing to do with cremation. A. V. renders it "so shall they burn odors for thee," a rendering accepted by Graf ("Der Prophet Jeremias," Leipsic, 1862) and Giesebrecht ("Der Prophet Jeremiah," in "Kurz. Hand-Comment. zum A. T." Göttingen, 1894). Nor can I Sam. xxxi. 12 be interpreted to imply that the corpses of kings were cremated, and that this constituted one of the royal prerogatives. It is far more likely that in order to guard the bodies from insult on the part of the Philistines, the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead burned them, and for this received praise.
To the author of Chronicles the cremation of royal remains appeared so offensive that he changed itinto a regular burial (I Chron. x. 12). He states the occurrences as follows: "And [they] laid him [King Asa] in the bed which was filled with sweet odors and divers kinds of spices prepared by the apothecaries' art; and they made a very great burning for him" (II Chron. xvi. 14). "And his people made no burning for him [King Jehoram] like the burning of his fathers" ("II Chron. xxi. 19).
The custom of making "a very great burning" at the funeral of great men continued for several centuries. The Talmud ('Ab. Zarah 11a) records that at the funeral of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder (c. 117
No mention is made of cremation in Talmudical literature. Both Oh. ii. 2, where the question is discussed whether the ashes of those who were burned are to be considered clean or unclean, and Niddah 27b, where a similar question is raised in regard to a burned corpse, the skeleton of which has been preserved, refer to cases of accidental burning. The Tosafot Ta'an. 15b, s.v. , and 16a, s.v. , are of the opinion that the ashes strewn on the reading-desk and on the heads of all that attended the service on fast-days were those of burned human bones. But does not signify the ashes of burned bodies, but the ashes of the hearth. Nor does the Talmud contain any suggestion that cremation was once practised by the ancient Hebrews.
The question whether, from the point of view of Jewish law, cremation may be allowed, has been extensively discussed in modern times. It is generally agreed that there is no express law to be found in the Bible demanding the burial of the human body; and though the Shulḥan 'Aruk (Yoreh De'ah, 362) contains the statement "Burial in the earth is a positive command," a position assumed also by Maimonides ("Sefer ha-Miẓwot," p. 261), this command is merely deduced from ("Thou shalt surely bury him") in Deuteronomy (xxi. 23; compare Sanh. 46b). It seems uncertain whether it was ever a custom in early times to burn the bodies of kings and nobles. Referring to such a burning, the Mishnah ('Ab. Zarah i. 3) says, "Every death which is accompanied by burning is looked upon as idolatry"; and the fact that Saul's body was burned (I Sam. xxxi. 12) is said to have been the cause of the three years' hunger at the time of David (Yeb. 78b; Rashi to II Sam. xxi. 1). Funeral pyres of costly clothes and other articles, to which reference is made (Tosef., ed. Zuckermandel, 119, 3, and parallels) in the case of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, were also not unknown in Hasmonean times (Josephus, "Ant." xv. 3, § 4). According to the Shulḥan 'Aruk (348, 1) this is expressly forbidden in the case of ordinary people. Yom-Ṭob Lipmann Heller even tries to prove that the cases of burning mentioned in the Bible are to be explained as "embalming," by means of which all but the bones was destroyed (Tosafot to Pesaḥim, iv. 9).
On the other hand, it has been asserted by some authorities that burial is merely a custom ("minhag"), and that no serious objection can be brought against cremation. In proof of this the following citation has been adduced from Midr. Wayasha' (Jellinek, "Bet ha-Midrash," i. 37): "Isaac begged his father on Mount Moriah: 'Burn me completely, and bring my ashes to my mother that she place them in an urn in her own room, and that whenever she enters the room she may remember me with tears.'" The same idea is referred to in a number of liturgical pieces. It is further asserted that can not be construed as opposed to some other form of disposing of the dead, since it simply means that a Jew should be careful so to dispose of the dead as to bring the body as quickly as possible into contact with mother earth. Many authorities went so far as to permit calcium to be strewn over the body in the grave, in order to hasten the process of decomposition (Solomon b. Adret, Responsum No. 369; Moses Isserles to Yoreh De'ah, 363, 2). This custom became general among the Portuguese Jews. On dogmatic grounds, it is further asserted, no opposition can be entertained against cremation (Maimonides, "Yad," Teshubah, viii. 2, 3); and Joseph Albo ("'Iḳḳarim," iv. 30) criticizes Abraham ibn Daud and Naḥmanides for opposing the practise. Some Italian cabalists were opposed to cremation on the ground that according to their system the soul was supposed to go from the house of the deceased to the grave and back again during the seven days following death "Il Vessillo Israelitico," xxx. 105).Recent Declarations.
Orthodox Jewish authorities have as a rule opposed cremation on the ground that it is not in consonance with the spirit and traditions of Judaism. The Italian rabbinate made a declaration in this sense (ib. xxiii. 12). Zadok Kahn, grand rabbi of France, has decided that in the case of cremation the religious ceremony should precede incineration; that the rabbi should then retire and not be present during the act of cremation; and that the "Hashkabah" should be recited at the home. Herman Adler, chief rabbi of Great Britain, considers cremation a violation of Jewish law and custom; but he permits the "Lewayah" at the burying of the remains (ib. xliii. 394). The late haham of the Portuguese community in London, B. Artom, preached Nov. 7, 1874, a sermon on cremation, in which he asserted that it was opposed to the spirit and history of Judaism ("Jewish World," June 15, 1874; compare "Il Vessillo," xxiv. 294, 327). This position was also maintained by J. Hildesheimer in Berlin, Kohen in Inowrazlaw, and others. But Moses Israel Tedeschi, rabbi of Triest, published a responsum in 1890 in which he not only tried to prove that cremation was not opposed to the spirit of Judaism, but asked that at his death his own body should be disposed of in this way ("Monatsschrift," 1890, pp. 149, 153). In 1895 the rabbis of Württemberg declared cremation contrary to Jewish law because that law, with rare exceptions, forbids us to mutilate a corpse (see "Rev. Et. Juives," xxxii. 276).
One of the foremost advocates of cremation was Rabbi A. Wiener of Oppeln, who not only contributed articles to the "Flamme," but also became a member of the Gesellschaft für Feuerbestaltung. In 1892 the Central Conference of American Rabbis resolved"that in case we should be invited to officiate as ministers of religion at the cremation of a departed coreligionist, we ought not to refuse on the plea that cremation is anti-Jewish or irreligious" ("Year Book," 1892, p. 43).
- Küchenmeister, Die Todtenbestattungen der Bibel und die Feuerbestattung, Stuttgart, 1893;
- Perles, Die Leichenverbrennung in den Alten Bibelversionen, in Monatsschrift, xviii. 76;
- Hamburger, Realencyclopädie des Judenthums, iii., Supplement, iii. 38 et seq.;
- S. A. Weissmann, , in Ha-Boḳer Or, 1877, ii., iii.;
- El Educatore, xxii. 139, 292;
- Il Vcssillo Israelitico, xxx. 105, xliii. 493;
- Rahmer, in Jüdisches Litteraturblatt, 1879, p. 37; 1886, p. 32; 1887, pp. 127 et seq.;
- Die Moderne Reform und die Todten Verbrennung, in Israélit, 1887, p. 861;
- Stössel, in Allg. Zeit. des Jud. 1894, Nos. 32, 33;
- Wiener, ib. No. 38, and in Die Flamme, 1885, No. 19;
- Israel. Wochenschrift, 1886, 1887;
- Elijah Benamozegh, Ya'aneh he-Esh, Leghorn, 1866;
- M. Klotz, in Bloch's Wochenschrift, 1901, No. 25, p. 423.