From the earliest times the Hebrews practised burial of the dead (, whence "ḳeber" = "tomb"), so that cremation, which was customary among the Moabites and Edomites, was regarded by the Jewish prophets as sinful and inhuman (Amos ii. 1), and was used only as an additional punishment in the case of criminals (Josh. vii. 25; but see I Sam. xxxi. 12). The most primitive mode of burial seems to have been either to throw the corpse into a pit or to pile stones over it wherever it happened to be at the time of death, an analogy being found in the Mosaic law that the blood of animals which had been killed must be covered with dust on the place where it had been poured out (Lev. xvii. 13). According to Josh. vii. 26, the remains of Achan were buried under a heap of stones in the valley of Achor, and the corpse of a conquered king was similarly interred (ib. viii. 29), while Absalom's body was thrown into a pit in the forest, and covered with stones (II Sam. xviii. 17). Adam and Eve are said to have been taught interment by seeing a raven bury its young in the sand (Pirḳe R. El. xxi.), and even Moses interred an Egyptian in the very place where he had killed him (Ex. ii. 12).

Single Tombs.

Single burial was customary in ancient times, as is still the case among many peoples and in many lands. The most natural method was to bury one's dead near the house on one's own land, as is clear from I Sam. xxv. 1 and I Kings ii. 34, while the latter passage, which refers to Joab, shows that this custom was not restricted to the burial of kings and prophets, as Winer ("B. R." i. 444) has supposed. The custom of interring Jewish kings in their castles, close to the Temple wall, is severely condemned by the prophet (Ezek. xliii. 7-9), this criticism showing that graves were considered unclean, and were therefore not to be made near human habitations (Num. xix. 16). Graves were, accordingly, outside the cities (Luke vii. 12; John xi. 30), or, according to rabbinical precepts, fifty ells from the town (B. B. ii. 9). A special field thus came to be set apart for the dead, but the simple methods of burial observed by the Jews prevented any development of a necropolis resembling the Greek or the modern Italian type. Special care was taken to keep lepers separated from others in death as well as in life, and the body of a leprous king was accordingly buried in the open field (II Chron. xxvi. 23). The graves of the common people were likewise kept separate from those of the wealthy and prominent (II Kings xxiii. 6; Jer. xxvi. 23).

Façade of the Church of St. Maria la Blanca at Toledo, Formerly a Synagogue.(From Amador de los Rios, "Monumentos.")

The tomb is to the dead what the house is to the living, so that the grave is termed a "house" (Isa. xiv. 18), or the "long home" (Eccl. xii. 5), while in Job xxx. 23 it is called "the house appointed for all living." The terrors associated with it are expressed by the terms "pit" (Isa. xiv. 19, xxxviii. 18), or "pit of destruction" (Ps. lv. 24), while the appropriate metaphor "silence" (ib. xciv. 17, cxv. 17) is still in current use among the Jews. The powers of death are implied by the words "hell" ("sheol") and "destruction" ("abaddon"; Prov. xv. 11; Job xxvi. 6). The later Jewish terms, on the other hand, contain no allusion to the horror of death, thecemetery being called simply the "house of graves" (), or the "house of eternity" (; see Eccl. xii. 5.), or even, in a euphemistic sense, the "house of life" ().

Family Sepulchers.

The wealthy and prominent followed the custom of the neighboring country of Egypt, and prepared their tombs in their own lifetime, often on an elaborate scale, as is evident from the allusions to Jacob (Gen. xlix. 29, 30; l. 5, 13), Asa (II Chron. xvi. 14), Shebna (Isa. xxii. 16), and Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. xxvii. 60), the reference in all these instances being to family sepulchers, which were the rule. This is confirmed by such phrases, frequently used in mentioning the Patriarchs and David, as "gathered unto his fathers," "slept with his fathers," or "gathered unto his people." Not only was this true of kings and men of prominence (II Kings ix. 28; II Chron. xxxii. 33, xxxv. 24; I Macc. ii. 70, ix. 19, xiii. 25), but the custom was a general one (Gen. xxiii. 20; Judges viii. 32; II Sam. ii. 32; I Kings xiii. 22; Tobit xiv. 10), and it was the natural desire of those who died away from home to be buried in the family grave (Gen. xlvii. 29; II Sam. xix. 38; I Kings xiii. 22, 31; Neh. ii. 3). One who could not hope to be interred thus was at least eager to rest in his native country (II Macc. v. 10) and in holy ground (Josephus,"Ant." x. 4, § 3). From the Talmudic period to the present time it has been the desire of all pious Jews to be buried in the sacred soil of Palestine; and the Talmud itself enumerates instances of prominent men who were interred there. This custom has increased in the course of time to such an extent that many Jews make a point of spending their last days in Palestine so as to be buried there.

Desecration and Consecration. Traditional Tombs of the Kings, Near Jerusalem.(From a photograph by Bonfils.)

Desecration of a tomb was regarded as a grievous sin, and in ancient times the sanctity of the grave was evidenced by the fact that it was chosen as a place of worship, thus explaining the circumstance that a sacred stone ("maẓẓebah") was set on Rachel's grave, and that sacred trees or stones always stood near the tombs of the righteous. The ancient Bedouin custom of placing the graves of their ancestors and of men of superior sanctity on high mountain peaks was imitated by the Israelites, who located the tomb of Aaron on Mount Hor. The mountain summit thus became a place of worship of the divinity, and may, by a slight extension of the term, be designated as taboo, since it was partly holy and partly unclean. Traces of such places of worship can still be found in Palestine, and the Mohammedans in like manner use high places as burial-grounds. "In this respect the usage corresponds precisely to what we find to-day. The 'maḳam' is the place of the saint. It is preferably on a hilltop, but may simply be a tomb of a saint in a rude enclosure under the open heavens, or the tomb may be in a little building, usually with a dome, called a 'ḳubbah '" (Curtiss, "Primitive Semitic Religion To-Day," p. 143, London,1902; see illustration annexed to p. 178: "Grave of Holy Man near Medeba")

No stranger might be interred in a family sepulcher (Matt. xxvii. 60); and the Nabatæan inscriptions contain curses against those who desecrate the family tombs (Neubauer, in "Studia Biblica," i. 212), a similar inscription being found on the sarcophagus of Eshmunazar, King of Sidon. Freedmen, however, were buried in the family tombs of their former masters. Violation of the tomb was punishable by fines (Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., iii. 54).


The preference for family sepulchers resulted in the development of a monumental style of tomb in Palestine as elsewhere. Although such structures afforded ample opportunity for a display of pomp and for the employment of sculpture and painting, as is shown by Egypt, the Jews did not bend their energies in that direction. Despite their insignificant appearance, however, these tombs are the very ones which testify to the activity of the former inhabitants of the country, since the graves, hewn into the solid rock, have shown themselves proof against decay. Few of these tombs reflected any architectural credit on the Jews, since they were mere feeble imitations of the work of the Phenicians and developed no originality of their own.

Interment in the rocks of the hills was suggested to the Phenicians by the natural conformation of the country, which contained caves everywhere that required artificial agencies only for the final touch. These cave-tombs were often situated at heights which seemed almost inaccessible; and where no natural caverns were formed in the walls of the rock, rectangular and roomy caves were artificially made by hewing excavations into the stone from above, while occasionally subterranean chambers were cut with lofty walls in which the graves were made. According to a Palestinian explorer, "the Phenician sepulchral chambers at Sidon and at Tyre consist for the most part of quadrangular vaults with three half-arched niches, one facing the entrance, and the other two on the sides. The Jewish tombs, on the other hand, are low, oblong chambers with many rows of partitions, so that the corpses are separated only by a small stone ridge. The Phenician structures apparently contained sarcophagi, while the plan of the Jewish tombs shows that they were intended for corpses wrapped in cloth" (Van de Velde, "Reise Durch Syrien und Palästina," German transl. by K. Göbel, i. 235, Leipsic, 1855).

Ancient Tombs Outside the City Walls of Jerusalem.(From a photograph by Bonfils.)

According to the results thus far obtained, three different types of Palestinian tombs may be distinguished:

  • (I.) Tombs hewn in the rock, which are the most numerous, since the soft limestone of the Palestinian hills favored their construction. A characteristic feature of these tombs is the preference for entire walls instead of pillars (Renan, "Mission de Phénicie," p. 822). These Jewish sepulchers are simple, having nothing in common with the Egyptian pyramids. They are entirely unadorned with paintings; and only those of a comparatively recent period contain inscriptions. Of this type of tombs three varieties may be distinguished: (1) Single chambers without doors or other means of closing them and with but one grave, hewn vertically into the ground. (2) Single chambers with several graves, which might be either (a) shelf-graves, in which the corpses were laid on stone shelves which ran along the sides of the rock and which were often hewn breadthwise into it, so that a sort of overhanging vault ("arcosolia") was formed; or (b) thrust-graves, quadrangular galleries, which were cut lengthwise into the cliff, and into which the bodies were thrust horizontally. These galleries, or niches, which were called "kok" (plural, "kokim") by the Rabbis, had a length of about 1.8 meter, a width of 0.45 meter, and a height of 0.45 meter, and may be regarded as the specifically Jewish type of grave. (3) Tombs of large size with connecting chambers, which, if not located in a natural cave about the level of the ground, were reached by small stairways hewn into the rock. Tombs entered by vertical shafts, like those constructed by the Egyptians, have not thus far been discovered in Palestine.
  • (II.) Artificial tombs, which are of later date and occur less frequently. They may be compared with the modern Egyptian graves, which consist of "an oblong vault, having an arched roof, . . . made large enough to contain four or more bodies. Over the vault is constructed an oblong monument (called 'tarkeebeh') of stone or brick, with a stela or upright stone ('shahid') at the head and foot" (Lane, "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians," ii. 302, London, 1846; 5th ed. ii. 265).
  • (III.) Sarcophagi, which were anthropoid in shape among the Phenicians, but which consisted in their Hebrew type simply of troughs, cut to the length of the body and hewn vertically in the walls. They were, therefore, virtually shelf-graves, although they also bore a certain resemblance to the vertical tombs.

The two types chiefly known to the Rabbis were thrust-graves ("kokim") and vertical graves ("ḳebarot"), neither of which might be constructed on a festival, although it was permitted to dedicate the former if the communal interests required it (M. Ḳ. i. 6). A tannaitic and an amoraic saying state that kokim were dug, while ḳebarot were built. Thrust-graves were so little known among the Jews of the later period that Maimonides did not mention them in his codification of the passages bearing on the subject, alluding only to the earth-grave ("ḳeber"). A section of the Mishnah, however, clearly explains the construction of a family tomb (B. B. vi. 8).

In case one sold a place of burial to an associate, or obtained one from him, he might make the inner room four ells broad and six ells long, the height of the cave being given in Tosef., B. B. vi. 22 as four ells. In this room, moreover, he might construct eight cavities, three in either side wall, and two in the narrow wall facing the entrance. Each cavity was four ells in length, seven in height, and six in width (the Tosef., however, made the height seven "ṭefaḥim," or handbreadths, an extra ṭefaḥ. being added for the arched cover of the sarcophagus).

Interior View of the Traditional Tombs of the Judges, Showing Arrangement of Vaults.(From the "Journal of Biblical Literature.")

According to R. Simeon, "the inner room of the cave is six ells broad and eight ells long, and it contains thirteen cavities, four on the right, four on the left, three opposite the entrance, and one on each side of it." The owner of the ground on which the tomb was situated was required to grant a frontage of six ells square, so as to admit the bier and its bearers. The purchaser of the vault might from its interior open an additional one to the right and one to the left of the original tomb. In the opinion of R. Simeon, however, the purchaser might open an additional vault on each of the four sides, while R. Simeon b. Gamaliel regarded this as dependent on the formation of the rock (see Samuel b. Meïr's commentary ad loc., and the plan given in all editions of the Talmud).

As the honor of the dead was carefully guarded, the Talmud entered into a discussion of R. Simeon's scheme of construction, which allowed two graves at the entrance since visitors to the tomb wouldnecessarily have to step on them. To the suggestion that they might project from the wall like bolts from a door, the retort was given that not even an ass (or, according to Yer., not even a dog) would be buried in such a fashion. They could, therefore, be located only in the corners of the cave opposite the entrance, and must have been sunk deep in the wall, otherwise they would have touched each other (B. B. 101b). The Palestinian source, however, presupposes a special construction of the cave itself, and considers it allowable to have two cavities, one above the other, provided the cave was protected against trampling (Yer. B. B. 15c).

Forms of Tombstones from the Old Cemetery at Frankfort-on-the-Main.(From Horovitz, "Inschriften.")Laws About Tombs.

A field in which such graves were located was subject to special laws. Trees might not be planted upon it, nor might seed be sown in it. In Oh. xviii. 4 the corrupt form appears, which was erroneously derived in M. Ḳ. 5b from "baka," since it was the scene of wailing and lamentation over the dead. Tosef., Oh. xvii. 1, however, has the better reading , with the correct interpretation: "A kokim field is one in which the earth has been dug up and cavities excavated at the sides." Such niches were known to all ancient Semitic races; the Nabatæans called them "goḥ," and the Palmyrenes "gamchin" (Krauss, "Lehnwörter," ii. 282; I. Löw, ib.). The pious will rise from the dead by means of these niches (Targ. Cant. viii. 5), which in other passages are described as cavities ("meḥilot"; Ket. 111a).

Outside of Palestine the custom of interring bodies in galleries was continued in the Catacombs; but among the Jews the single grave became more common, as was also the case in Babylonia, where the soil was sandy. Later information concerning the subject is found in a responsum by Naṭronai, gaon of Sura, who was asked whether the face of a corpse laid in a cavity should remain exposed, or whether it should be covered with earth (Kohut, "Aruch Completum," iv. 210). The Jewish graves in Carthage have the exact measurements of the rabbinical kokim.

Many natural graves have been preserved in Palestine. Van de Velde (l.c. i. 136) saw at the ancient Canaanitish town of Hazor a vault, called "ḳabur," or grave-cellar, which he declared must have a very large subterranean chamber, though the entrance was filled up.

Famous Graves.

Among the famous graves which have been partly preserved, and more or less accurately identified, may be mentioned the tombs of David, John Hyrcanus, Alexander Jannæus, Herod, and most of the tombs of the kings; also the tomb-chambers of Helena of Adiabene, and the tomb of St. James with the very ancient inscription "Bene Ḥezir." All of these graves, which are of the kokim type, are at Jerusalem.

Tombstone of the Sixteenth Century.(In the Museo Civico, Bologna, Italy.)

No less renowned are the tombs of the patriarchs at Hebron, Joshua's tomb at Thamna, the tomb of the Maccabees at Modein, and the grave of Archelaus at Bethlehem, while Jewish legends know also numerous other graves of prophets and rabbis in Palestine and Babylonia (see Luncz, "Jerusalem," i. 71 et seq., where about 300 are mentioned), which still receive great honor, even from Mohammedans. That so few tombs have been preserved is due, according to the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, to the fact that "the graves of the Jews are situated about three miles from Jerusalem. In ancient times the dead were buried in caves, and each grave was marked with the year of death ["ta'rikh," which, however, can hold good only of the medievalperiod], but the Christians destroyed the graves, and used the stones for building-material" ("J. Q. R." vii. 128). It is clear, therefore, that the same fate was then befalling the Jewish monuments which is still annihilating them, like all other antiquities of the Holy Land.

Protection of Graves.

In ancient times the graves had but one enemy, the ravenous jackal (Pliny, "Hist. Nat." viii. 44), and the tombs were, therefore, closed by means of doors, or by large stones (Matt. xxvii. 60, xxviii. 2; John xi. 38), which in the Talmud is often expressed by the phrase ("he closed the top-stone"; see Kohut, "Aruch Completum," ii. 281; Jastrow, "Dict." p. 222), "golel" being frequently used in combination with "dofeḳ" (Jastrow, l.c. p. 287), which signifies a low estrade of stone enveloping the grave on all sides, and probably used to support the stone cover. In addition to closing the grave with a stone, it was occasionally sealed (Krauss, "Leben Jesu," p. 262, Berlin, 1902).

These stone covers, however, must not be confounded with the tombstones erected on graves in honor of the dead. The Sephardic Jews lay these tombstones flat on the graves; but since these monuments are erected to be seen, the upright position, preferred by the German Jews, is the more normal one. In Biblical Hebrew the tombstones are called (II Kings xxiii. 17; Jer. xxxi. 21; Ezek. xxxix. 15), while the Rabbis termed them . The gravestone was erected at the expense of the estate of the deceased (Sheḳ. ii. 5), although it was not necessary to set up a monument in memory of the righteous, since their own deeds (their teachings) were a memorial of them (Yer. Sheḳ. 47a; Gen. R. lxxxii.). The mishnaic saying (M. Ḳ. i. 1), "The graves should be marked [] at the festival," probably referred originally to the tombstones, since the Talmud itself bases the passage on the Biblical (M. Ḳ. 5a). It is generally regarded, however, as an allusion to the whitening of the graves after the rainy season (Ma'as. Sh. v. 1; B. Ḳ. 69a, where the reason is given "that the bones are white"), which was done to protect against defilement the numerous pilgrims who traversed the roads at the Passover festival (see Josephus, "Ant." xviii. 2, § 3; Matt. xxiii. 27). R. Bannaah was especially praised for thus marking caves (tombs), including that of Abraham (B. B. 58a), while Simeon ben Laḳish is likewise said to have marked the burial-place of R. Ḥiyya (B. M. 85b), and to have cast himself in prayer, for the propitiation of the great, on the graves of the pious (ib.), of the Shammaites (Ḥag. 22b), of the justified (ib. 16b), and of the wronged (Yoma 87a). In the Middle Ages Jonah Gerondi wished to offer an apology on the grave of Maimonides (Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., vii. 98).

Inscription on the Tombstone of Samuel ben Shealtiel, Dated Monzon, Palencia, 4857 (1096).(From the "Boletin de la Real Academia de la Historia," Madrid.)Pilgrimages.

The custom of making pilgrimages to famous tombs, and of praying at the graves of parents and ancestors, is still maintained among all classes of Jews. Even in the Biblical period the belief was current that interment beside a great man might work miracles (II Kings xiii. 21). See Pilgrimages.

Ornamental Tombstones from the Cemetery at Amsterdam.(From Castro, "Keur van Grafsteenen.")Double Tombstone from the Cemetery at Amsterdam, Depicting, Biblical Incidents.(From Castro, "Keur van Grafsteenen.")

Judicial procedure required two forms of burial, one for criminals who had been beheaded or hanged, and the other for those who had been stoned or burned (Sanh. 46a), while interment among convicts was the utmost disgrace (Yeb. 32b). The tombs of Gentiles were entirely different from those of Jews (ib. 61a). Special caves were used for the interment of the pious ("ḥasidim") and of the members of the Sanhedrin ("dayyanim"; M. Ḳ. 17a), as well as for still-born children ("nefalim"; Ket. 20b). In the ancient cemetery of Prague the Nefel-Platz is still to be seen: different legends are, however, attached to it, and its origin can not, therefore, be determined. Even at the present time all Jewish communities invariably bury suicides in a separate part of the cemetery. Abba Saul was buried at his father's feet (Sem. xii.), thus reviving in a certain measure the use of family tombs.

Every one who beholds a Jewish grave is required to repeat the following prayer: "Blessed be He who begat thee in righteousness, who nurtured thee in righteousness, who letteth thee rest in righteousness, and who will resurrect thee in righteousness. . . . Blessed be He who giveth life to the dead" (Ber. 58b). For other expressions of the religious sentiments of the Jews as displayed in their tombs, see Burial; Burial Society; Cremation; Funeral Rites; Mourning.

  • Nicolai, De Sepulcris Hebraicis, in Ugolino, Thesaurus, xxxiii.;
  • Winer, B. R. i. 443;
  • Nicoll, in Hastings, Dict. Bible, iv. 454;
  • Stade, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, i. 14-15;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. i. 476;
  • Kinzler, Die Biblischen Altertümer, p. 345, Calw and Stuttgart, 1884;
  • Rosenmüller, Arch. ii. 2;
  • Benzinger, Arch. pp. 163 et seq.
J. S. Kr.