Moed Katan 5

Why Jews mark graves.

Some days the Gemara focuses tightly on one problem, and some days it wanders into side discussions. The mishnah that opened this tractate stated that one may erect grave markers on the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot. For this reason, today we find ourselves deep in one of those side discussions that has little to do with the overarching theme of the tractate — about the reason that we mark graves at all.

There are hardly any laws in the Bible regarding death, burial and memorials. In fact, when people die, their burial seems to follow local custom. When the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — pass away, the text states: “And he became a corpse, he died, and he was gathered to his people.” (See Genesis 25:8 for the death of Abraham, Genesis 25:17 for Ishmael’s death, Genesis 35:29 for Isaac, and Genesis 49:33 for Jacob.)

This cryptic phrasing perhaps references the Canaanite custom of allowing the body to decompose before gathering the desiccated bones and placing them in ossuaries or caves. In Egypt, Joseph apparently followed local custom by embalming Jacob (something that is against Jewish law as it was later formulated). He himself was also embalmed at time of death (see Genesis 50:2 and 50:26).

Likewise, the Bible offers little guidance on marking graves. Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his family, but we do not hear that he erected any kind of stone or monument there. On the other hand, Jacob buried Rachel after she died in childbirth on the road to Ephrat, and he erected a pillar to mark the location (Genesis 35:19–20).

With so little clarity from the Bible, most of Jewish law on burial practice is of later talmudic origin. (And many more of our customs date to the Middle Ages.) Nonetheless, the rabbis wish to locate the source for these laws in the Bible, even if it requires some interpretive work. Today, they do it for the law that one must mark graves:

Rav Shimon ben Pazi asked: Where is there an allusion in the Torah to the marking of graves? The verse states: “and if a person sees a man’s bone, then he should put a sign by it.” (Ezekiel 39:15

This is not a bad verse to use for anchoring the practice of marking graves, but the rabbis would prefer one from the Torah — this would situate the law earlier and give it more authority. Rabbi Abbahu cleverly supplies the following alternative derivation:

Rav Abbahu said: (We learn it) from here: “… a leper shall cry: Impure, impure.” (Leviticus 13:45) This verse teaches that impurity cries out to the passerby and tells him: Remove yourself.

From the rabbinic perspective, a major reason to mark graves is the concern that people will accidentally come in contact with human remains and thereby contract corpse impurity. Rabbi Abbahu says that just as the Torah requires lepers to call out to those who pass by and warn them not to come near, lest they contract impurity, so too a grave must “call out” — via the marker.

In short succession, the rabbis offer many other clever texts that could be the basis for the halakhah that one must mark a grave:

Abaye said: “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14)

Rav Pappa said: “And He will say: Pave, pave, clear the way.” (Isaiah 57:14)

Rav Hinnana said, “Take up the stumbling block from the way of My people.” (Isaiah 57:14)

Rav Yehoshua, son of Rav Idi, said: “And you shall show them how they must walk.” (Exodus 18:20).

Mar Zutra said, “Thus you shall separate the children of Israel from their impurity.” (Leviticus 15:31)

Rav Ashi said  “And you shall keep My laws.” (Leviticus 18:30) — which means establish a safeguard for My laws. 

Ravina said: “And to him who is careful how he walks, I will show the salvation of God” (Psalms 50:23)

Most of these verses allude, in one way or another, to marking pathways that are ritually pure and appropriate to walk on. And for this reason, all of them could be cited as the basis for the practice of marking graves. It is a testament to the remarkable erudition and creativity of the rabbis that when faced with the challenge of finding a biblical verse to anchor a law that seemingly has no biblical basis, they rise to the occasion with so many plausible candidates. 

Read all of Moed Katan 5 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 17th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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