י׳ באלול ה׳תשע״ז (September 1, 2017)

Sanhedrin 47a-b: The Dirt and Stones of Burial

On yesterday’s daf we learned about King Shapur of Persia who made inquiries regarding the Jewish custom of burying in the ground in Bavel, a practice that stood in harsh conflict with the Persian view that the earth would be defiled by such burial.

In contrast, the Gemara on today’s daf relates that people would go to Rav’s burial place and collect dirt that was used medicinally for a certain type of fever. When this was reported to Shmuel, with an apparent complaint that Rav’s grave was being used inappropriately, his response was to permit the practice, since the dirt is karka olam – merely earth – that does not become consecrated because he was buried there.

Rabbeinu Yehonatan rules that this is true of any dirt around a grave, even if it was dug up and replaced to bury the corpse; once returned to the earth it remains karka olam and has no special status. Other rishonim disagree and limit this to situations where the dirt around the grave was undisturbed, e.g. when the burial took place in a cave; if it was dug up and moved around when the grave was prepared it became set aside in honor of the dead, and cannot be used.

Another issue relating to burial discussed on today’s daf involves the time that aveilut – the mourning period – begins. Mourning begins only after the burial is complete. According to Rav Ashi, that is only after setimat ha-golel – when the golel is sealed.

The commentaries disagree about how to define a golel. Rashi explains that it is the cover to a casket. Tosafot suggest that it is a rounded stone that was used to close up a burial cave (several such stones have been found near ancient burial caves in Israel). During the times of the Mishna, common burial practice was to place the body in a temporary grave where it would decompose. At a later date, the bones would be removed and transferred to a family burial cave. The round shape of the golel stone allowed it to be rolled, closing the cave, yet easily opened when necessary.

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