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Is there any halachic justification, or permission, to take a biological sample from a dead person in an ancient site? For example, in Israel there are many archeological digs which sometimes result in the findings of human remains. Should such remains be left where they are, buried properly, etc. and/or can fragments of the remains be taken for analysis? Such analyses are regularly done to date the remains rather than to solve some dispute.

This is different from discussions around autopsies which have more relevant application to people who are still alive e.g., cause of death, solving a murder.

For those that would permit taking biological samples from a dead person, what would be the reasons for allowing it, and how? Is taking a tissue sample different from a hair or bone sample? From what I understand several grams are needed for biological analyses of ancient remains (although it obviously depends on the age of the remains, what it actually is and the level of decay).

For example, if there is an unmarked burial site somewhere in central Europe from the 17th century and there is a question-mark over whether it is a Jewish burial site, can DNA samples be taken to verify to the authorities that it is indeed Jewish (if that is even possible), so that Jewish groups could better advocate for the Jewish burial site to be protected?

Another example: if it would ever be permitted, can biological samples be taken from places like Me'arat HaMachpelah? There have not been many studies of the cave itself (here). This could be for pure interest, but there could be a time in the future (unlikely!) that some DNA analysis of the contents of the cave could be used to solve some land dispute.

I would be interested to hear general discussion regarding this, but if you have specific examples, that would also be of interest.

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First off, halacha does not recognize dna testing to be a valid means of proving that someone is jewish. The halachic concept which I believe would apply is called nibul hamet, desecration of the dead. This is relevant for non-Jewish as well as jewish corpses. The Noda beyehuda on this topic writes as follows:

עוד הביא כבוד מעלתו ראיה מסוגיא דחולין דף י"א ע"ב וכ"ת משום איבוד נשמה דהאי נינווליה כו' הרי דלהציל הרוצח היה מותר לנוול ההרוג וכ"ת דשם ודאי הצלה הוא וכאן ספק הוא שירפאו הרופאים פעם אחרת ע"י כן, שם ג"כ ספק הוא שמא ימצא טריפה ועוד דגם ספק פיקוח נפש דוחה כל איסורין שבתורה חוץ מתלת. והאריך מעלתו בדבר זה. והנה בזה אמינא דלכאורה דברי הגמרא תמוהים דאיך קאמר משום איבוד נשמה דהאי נינווליה דאדרבה ע"י הניוול אנו רוצים להמית הרוצח ואם לא ננוולנו ינצל הרוצח דאמרינן טריפה הרג. ואמנם פירוש הדברים הם כך דאם אתה אומר שלא התירה התורה לנוולו א"כ על כרחך צותה להמיתו בלי בדיקה ולא לחוש כלל לשמא טריפה הרג יותר נכון לומר שהתורה צותה והצילו העדה לחוש שמא טריפה הרג ולא להרגו בלי בדיקה ולינוול שאם התורה התירה לנוולו אין לנו לחוש לניוולו, הא חדא. ועוד דאי אמרינן שלעולם לא יהרג הרוצח בלי בדיקת הנהרג א"כ ניוול זה הוא לכבודו של הנרצח וכל מה שהוא לכבודו אין בו משום ניוול.

Your Excellency also cited a prooftext from Hullin 11b: “if you say: let us desecrate this [victim] to save the life of that [murderer]”—that is, it should be permissible to desecrate the murder victim in order to save the murderer [from punishment, if the victim was found to be terminally ill in any case]. And if you say that in that case it is certain that a life will be saved, whereas in the present case it is uncertain that the doctors will cure someone next time due to this autopsy, the response is that there, too, it is uncertain that the victim will be found to have been terminally ill. Moreover, even if it uncertain that a life will be saved, all of the prohibitions of the Torah are superseded, except for three. Your excellency wrote about this at length. Regarding this, I say that the Talmud’s statements are puzzling. How could it say that we desecrate [the victim’s corpse] in order to save a life? On the contrary. The desecration serves to kill the murderer, for if we do not desecrate, the murderer will be saved, because we will say that he killed someone with a terminal illness. Rather, this is the interpretation of these words. If you suggest that the Torah does not permit desecration, perforce it commands us to put [a murderer] to death without examining and without any concern that the murder victim has a terminal illness, it would make more sense to say that the Torah commands “the congregation shall save”—namely, that we must be concerned lest he killed someone with a terminal illness, and therefore [the murderer] should not be put to death without an examination. And let there be desecration, for if the Torah permitted desecration, there is no reason to be concerned about desecration. Moreover, if we say that the murderer can never be put to death unless the victim is examined, this desecration is for the honor of the victim, and anything for his honor does not constitute desecration.

את כל אלה כתבתי לפי דבריכם שאתם קורים זה פיקוח והצלת נפש. אבל אני תמה הלא אם זה יקרא אפילו ספק הצלת נפשות א"כ למה לכם כל הפלפול והלא זה הוא דין ערוך ומפורש שאפילו ספק דוחה שבת החמורה ומשנה מפורשת ביומא דף פ"ג וכל ספק נפשות דוחה שבת ושם דף פ"ד ע"ב ולא ספק שבת זו אלא אפילו ספק שבת אחרת ע"ש. ואמנם כ"ז ביש ספק סכנת נפשות לפנינו כגון חולה או נפילת גל, וכן במס' חולין שם גבי רוצח הפיקוח נפש לפנינו וכן אפילו לענין ממון שם במס' ב"ב ההיזק לפנינו אבל בנדון דידן אין כאן שום חולה הצריך לזה רק שרוצים ללמוד חכמה זו אולי יזדמן חולה שיהיה צריך לזה ודאי דלא דחינן משום חששא קלה זו שום איסור תורה או אפילו איסור דרבנן שאם אתה קורא לחששא זו ספק נפשות א"כ יהיה כל מלאכת הרפואות שחיקת ובישול סמנים והכנת כלי איזמל להקזה מותר בשבת שמא יזדמן היום או בלילה חולה שיהיה צורך לזה ולחלק בין חששא לזמן קרוב לחששא לזמן רחוק קשה לחלק. וחלילה להתיר דבר זה ואפילו רופאי האומות אינן עושים נסיון בחכמת הניתוח ע"י שום מת כי אם בהרוגים ע"פ משפט או במי שהסכים בעצמו בחייו לכך ואם אנו ח"ו מקילים בדבר זה א"כ ינתחו כל המתים כדי ללמוד סידור אברים הפנימים ומהותן כדי שידעו לעשות רפואות להחיים. ולכן האריכות בזה הוא ללא צורך ואין בזה שום צד להתיר. ולדעתי שגגה יצאה מלפני כבוד מעלתו שמיהר להשיב להקל.

I have written all of this in accordance with your words, for you call this saving lives. But I am puzzled. If this is considered even a questionable case of saving lives, why must you engage in all of these mental gymnastics? It is clear and explicit that even an uncertainty supersedes the severity of Shabbat, and there is an explicit mishna on Yoma 83 that the possibility of saving a life supersedes Shabbat. And there on 84b it states that not only an uncertainty concerning the present Shabbat, but even an uncertainty concerning a different Shabbat [supersedes]. However, this all applies when there is a present case of uncertainty concerning a risk to life—such as a sick person or collapsed building. Similarly, in the case in Hullin regarding a murderer, the risk to life is present. So too in the monetary case in Bava Batra, the potential damage is present. But in our case, there is no ill person who needs this. Rather, they want to study this discipline in case they encounter a sick person who requires it. We certainly do not supersede any Torah prohibition or even a rabbinic prohibition due to such a slight concern. For if you call this concern “an uncertainty pertaining to a life,” then any task related to healing—grinding and cooking medicine or preparing a scalpel for bloodletting—will be permitted on Shabbat, perhaps they will encounter a sick person who requires it that night or the next day. It is also difficult to distinguish between concern for the need arising in the near future and concern for the need arising in the distant future. Heaven forfend that such a thing should be permitted. Even gentile physicians do not gain surgical experience with just any corpse, but only with those put to death by the law or with those who themselves consented to it while living. If we, God forbid, are lax in this matter, they will operate on every corpse to learn anatomy and physiology, so that they may know how to cure the living. Therefore, this is all unnecessarily lengthy, and there is no lenient approach whatsoever. In my opinion, your Excellency was mistaken in rushing to respond leniently.

(Translation from Sefaria)

From this reponsa we derive that we would ignore the law of ניבול המת for pikuach nefesh, such a purpose would not be a desecration of the body, but rather a kavod for the meis. However, this only applies if it's a real case of pikuach nefesh that is at hand currently. Thus, this excludes scientific research such as your question.

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  • please note I just edited the text to have a break between the Hebrew and English so it reads more clearly. Feel free to revert the changes, but this is a lot more user-friendly :-)
    – Dov
    Sep 19, 2023 at 19:37
  • Duly noted and much obliged!
    – Shababnik
    Sep 19, 2023 at 22:41
  • Thanks for this source. My question was also probing an indirect desecration of the death, not pikuach nefesh, e.g. if an authority will tear down a Jewish cemetery and someone needs to prove it is Jewish.
    – bondonk
    Sep 20, 2023 at 6:49
  • "halacha does not recognize dna testing to be a valid means of proving that someone is jewish" is a huge statement and warrants backing up.
    – terryg
    Oct 22, 2023 at 14:54

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