ט׳ באלול ה׳תשע״ז (August 31, 2017)

Sanhedrin 46a-b: The Obligation to Bury the Dead

Among the most scrupulously kept traditions in Judaism are burial practices. Somewhat surprisingly the source for these practices is found in the laws of capital punishment.

According to the Torah, after the death penalty is carried out by the courts, the condemned man is hanged (see Devarim 21:22-23), but then is immediately removed and buried on that same day. The Mishna on today’s daf explains that this law applies not only to individuals who are killed for committing capital crimes, but also to anyone who dies. Thus Jewish law requires burial to take place as quickly as possible, unless it will honor the deceased to arrange for his burial to be pushed off for a short time.

The Gemara relates that Shevor Malka – the Persian King Shapur – asked Rav Ḥama if he could bring a biblical source for the Jewish law requiring burial of the dead. Rav Ḥama was unable to respond. Upon hearing this Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov became angry, arguing that Rav Ḥama should have referred to the above-mentioned passage in Sefer Devarim. In defense of Rav Ḥama the Gemara argues that the passage can be understood as a requirement to prepare a coffin, but not to actually bury the deceased. Other suggestions, e.g. that the Avot (forefathers) were all buried, or that God Himself buried Moshe Rabbeinu, are also rejected since they may only be evidence of a tradition, and not a true halakhic requirement.

Shevor Malka was the name of a number of Persian kings. Our Gemara is apparently referring to the second king Shapur, who lived during the 3rd and 4th generation amora’im in Bavel. He was a zealous supporter of Zoroastrianism, a religion that he tried to impose on the minorities under his rule – especially Christians.

The discussion in our Gemara should be understood in the context of the Persian belief that in-ground burial defiles the earth, which is why Rav Ḥama, who appears to have been the official Sage of the Diaspora community, was required to respond to questions about why it was so important to Jewish law and tradition.

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