A three-part question about funerary practices.

In ancient times, Jews used to bury people for a year or two, then, after the body decomposed, collect their bones and put them in a family cave. In antiquity, the bones were all placed together, but later on, the bones were collected into ossuaries and the box was put in the cave.

  • Why did this practice stop?
  • When did this practice stop?
  • What limitations (halachic and otherwise) are there on reinstating this practice?
  • 4
    Do you have sources or examples for your assumed information?
    – jake
    May 22, 2011 at 7:24
  • 1
    Echoing @jake's comment - I find it highly unlikely that anyone would have exhumed a body to put it in a burial cave. You've got to have serious cause to exhume a body - it's called nivul hameis - desecration of the dead body.
    – Shaul Behr
    May 22, 2011 at 8:44
  • 3
    @jake, if you've never visited the burial caves at Beit Sh'`arim, I recommend them. IIRC, the practice is mentioned in the Yerushalmi Mo`ed Katan 3:5 (and so is Beit Sh'`arim, BTW). If I find an exact cite I will edit.
    – JXG
    May 22, 2011 at 10:40
  • 3
    Jxg's question is an excellent one. There is no doubt that this was the practice during first and second temple periods as is mentione in numerous places in chazal and evidenced by the hundreds of such sites that exist all over Israel. But I must make a slight correction. First, this was only the practice of wealthy or important people. Poor people were buried in a simple grave like today. Second the practice was for a cave to be prepared with stone beds inside. The corpse was laid on one of the beds and left for a year. After a year, the family would return and collect the bones and place... May 22, 2011 at 17:26
  • 3
    Them in a chamber at the bottom of the cave where all of the bones of the family for several generations where contained. For those in Israel, go to the Begin center outside the Old City of Jerusalem and you can see an excellent example of one such cave from the first temple period. They found there all of the bones including some pierced by arrows that were thought to have been killed in the Assyrian siege. They also found a silver amulet with the entire text of birchat kohanim. See here he.wikipedia.org/wiki/כתף_הינום May 22, 2011 at 17:31

1 Answer 1


I was told by a chevra kadisha that 90% of the rules for burial are local custom. Meaning, as long as the person can become part of the earth again, everything else is up to custom and people's comfort levels. I am sure leaving people in a cave today raises more concerns about health and sanitation than it does with halacha.

The practice itself stopped when Jews no longer had access to burial caves, and Jewish burial tended to take on the appearance of the burial in the places that Jews migrated to.

  • The question, then, is whether this practice is part of the 90% or not. It cannot be that enabling "the person to become part of the earth" accounts for 10% of all of hilchos k'vura. Can you cite a source for these two assertions?
    – WAF
    Jun 23, 2011 at 12:35
  • Sorry, I have no source other than the chevra kadisha member who I spoke to regarding the differences between burials in Israel, New York and California. Also, why can't 10% of the hilchos k'vura be related to ensuring that the body becomes part of the earth?
    – avi
    Jun 29, 2011 at 8:58

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