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Divrei Chaim: Space Between Graves Print E-mail

Sanzer RavThe 25th of Nisan is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, author of Divrei Chaim (1793-1876), founder of the Sanzer Chasidus. Born in Tarnograd, Poland. At the age of 18, he was appointed Rav of the small town of Rudnick, where he became a close talmid of Rav Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz. In 1830, he became Rav of Sanz (Tzanz), where he stayed for 46 years. He had 15 children, including Rav Yechezkel of Shinov. His third son, Rav Meir Nosson, died of an epidemic at an early age; his only son was Rav Shloime, who would become the first Bobover Rebbe. Another scion of Sanz, Rav Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, the Klausenburger Rav, has erected several towns, yeshivos, and a modern medical center in Israel, as well as yeshivos in New Jersey and New York. The Sanz Chassidim have a yicchus document showing how they are descended via the Maharal of Prague from Rav Yosef I of Rome and back to King Dovid.


How much space must be left between graves? Clearly this question was often an urgent one. Cemeteries became crowded and it was difficult to acquire new ground. Jewish law requires, generally, that there be a space of 6 handbreadths between grades. Can this requirement be eased and less space be used? May 1 body be buried in the same grave over another? If so, how much space must be provided between the coffins?

There is, for example, an interesting series of questions from the community of Harris addressed to Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Metz, the Sha'agat Aryeh, and later question asked of Rabbi Isaac Shmelke of Lemberg, the Bet Yitzchak (Yoreh Deah #153). The various permitted relaxations of the law are enumerated fully by Rabbi Avraham Danzig in Chochmat Adam (Matzevet Moshe, #10).

Incidentally, the responsum cited below reflects an important principle in Jewish legal tradition, namely, the validity of popular custom. Any well-established custom is to be respected, especially if it is an old custom in a community which has had honored rabbinic leaders; for in that case, we may assume that these scholars of past generations had studied the local custom and had approved of it. We therefore accept the custom is valid even when we do not know the specific reasons for the approval. Thus, the questionnaire here asks whether it is permitted to bury two bodies in the same grave. The Divrei Chaim (Volume II, Y"D #136) answers that according to the letter of the law this is not permitted, but that if there is a well-established custom in the community to do so, then the practice cannot be forbidden.

To my brother, the famous scholar, Avigdor, Rabbi of Dikla:

As for your question with regard to the burial of two dead to gather, no, dear brother, that it is forbidden to bury to dead without a partition of 6 handbreadths of earth between the grapes. Of course, according to Tashbetz (Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, Algiers, 14th-15th century, Volume III, #119), in case one grave is above the other, it is sufficient if there is a separation of 3 handbreadths; but really the second body should be removed. Thus it is decided in Evel Rabbati cited by the Ramban in his Torat haAdam, and quoted in the Beit Yosef (Y"D 362).

No one disagrees with this decision. However, later scholars write that nowadays, since we are in exile, or in times of emergency when it is impossible to find any other place, it is necessary to bury the second body and there is no other way. Thus wrote Rav Hai Gaon, cited by the Beit Yosef (Y"D 363). But the later scholars are lenient when it is impossible to get another place of burial.

This is clear from the words of my grandfather, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (#149), and Rabbi Jacob Reischer of Metz (Shevut Yaakov, II:95). “With regard to the distance between the bodies although the clear law is given that the space between one and the other should be 6 handbreadths, nevertheless, go forth and see what the people say. In all the scattered dwelling places of Israel they buried the dead one alongside the other and one over the other. Now, although this is not according to the law, it seems to me that this custom has spread in our exile because we are not given room. What arduous efforts do we need to expend in all places to get the little space that we have! So it is sufficient if we keep to the limited space. After all, these spaces were meant to apply only when we had plenty of room.

All the laws of space between graves are for the purpose of avoiding shame to the dead. Thus in the case that you asked about, according to the letter of the law, we should disinter the second body which is buried to close, either beside the other grave or about. But, if it seems to be the custom to bury so closely in your community, then we have no right to disagree with the famous scholars of your community. For certainly this custom of yours was carried out according to the opinion of these great scholars. If, therefore, it is known to you that this has been the custom in the past, then it is impossible to change the matter. But here after, you should seek a place to bury with proper space.

Signed in the month of Av, 1861

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