Did 1st century Jews insist corpses be buried before sunset?

  • Our question

    Jews in AD 30 Palestine honored several religious requirements, and they came from a particular culture that valued death and burial a particular way. Were Jews at this time truly committed to making sure that any person who died but buried shortly after, and specifically before sunset?

  • Historians say "YES"

    • Shemuel Safrai (Professor emeritus of History of Jewish People at Hebrew U.): “The traditions about the customs of Jerusalem report that 'one should not keep the corpse through the night,' but rather bury it on the very day of death (The customs of Jerusalem are preserved in four versions: I) Aboth de Rabbi Nathan Version A. 35 (p. 104); 2) Aboth de Rabbi Nathan, Version B. 39 (p. 107); 3) T. Negaim 6:2; 4) T. B. Baba Kamma 82a. the antiquity of these customs has been disputed, but undoubtedly they preserve ancient traditions. See the recent discussion of A. Gutman in HUCA XL/XLI (1969/70), pp. 251-75 and the literature cited there.), and outside of Jerusalem efforts were also made to bury the dead as speedily as possible. Leaving a corpse unburied through the night, for any reason, was considered to be sinfully disrespectful, and was permitted only if more time was needed for the preparation of shrouds or a coffin. (See M. Sanhedrin 6:5; Semahoth 11:1)” [The Jewish People in the First Century (Van Goreum Fortress Press, 1976) 774.]
    • R.T. France: “The need for speedy burial depended not only on the general requirement that corpses should not remain unburied at nightfall (Dt. 21:23) but on the fact that this was προσάββατον, and sabbath laws forbade burial after sundown. Mark does not mention also here the relevance of the Passover season, but if the chronological scheme followed in this commentary is right, that sabbath was a particularly solemn one since it was also Nisan 15, the day which began after sunset with the Passover meal (Jesus having been crucified on Passover Eve).” [The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002). 662.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Jews insisted on burying corpses immediately

    Except in special circumstances designed to increase the honor of the dead one, Jews felt obligated to ensure that the corpse was buried without delay.

    There are two kinds of evidence for this:

    • First, Jews were obligated to hasten the burial.1
    • Second, the only exception was for parents.2

    This is relevant because if Jews were required to bury corpses literally as soon as possible, then all the more they would be required to bury them before sunset.

    1. The Tractate ‘Mourning’ (Semahot) 9.9: “…he should hasten the burial and not make the funeral elaborate.” [The Tractate ‘Mourning’ (Semahot) (Yale, 1966), 146. Cf. IX:9]
    2. The main exception was when one of the burier's parents died, in which case they were permitted to delay some number hours in order to make grander preparations, as long as they were buried before sunset

      The Tractate ‘Mourning’ (Semahot; Ebel Rabbathi) 9.9: “…he should hasten the burial and not make the funeral elaborate. In the case of his father or mother, he should make an elaborate funeral … In an emergency, however, or on Sabbath Eve, or if rain is coming down on the bier, he should haste the burial and not prolong the funeral.” [Cf. Yerushalmi Moed Qatan 3:8 [I.A.]][ • Yerushalmi Moed Qatan 3:8 [I.A.] -- For all other dead he should hasten the burial and not make the funeral elaborate. In the case of his father and mother, he should make an elaborate funeral and not hasten the burial, for whosever takes pains with his father and mother is praiseworthy. In an emergency, however, or on Sabbath Eve, or if rain is coming down on the bier, he should hasten the burial and not prolong the funeral. [Trans. by Zlotnick (Yale, 1966) 68-69.]
      • B. Sanh 47 a
      Talmud: “Come and hear! IF HE KEPT HIM OVER NIGHT FOR THE SAKE OF HIS HONOUR, TO PROCURE FOR HIM A COFFIN OR A SHROUD HE DOES NOT TRANSGRESS THEREBY… Come and hear! If he [the relative] kept him overnight for his own honour, so as to inform the [neighbouring] towns of his death, or to bring professional women mourners for him, or to procure for him a coffin or a shroud, he does not transgress thereby, for all that he does is only for the honour of the deceased!”
      Isidore Epstein et. al. (team): “the longer the body remains exposed, the greater the disgrace; and even in the case of an ordinary person, if the funeral is delayed without cause, but simply out of neglect, it is likewise accounted a disgrace to the dead, therefore it is forbidden.” [{Commentary on b. Sanh 47a} Soncino Hebrew/English Babylonian Talmud, 30 vols. (Bloch Pub Co, 1990)]

  • Jews must sleep on the floor until its done

    If a Jew finds himself responsible for the care of a corpse, that Jew was tasked with getting the corpse buried and was not permitted to sleep until the job was done.

    • The Tractate ‘Mourning’ (Semahot) 11.16: “So long as his dead lies unburied, a mourner may sleep neither on an upright bed nor on an inverted bed.”

    This is relevant because the implication is that the corpse ought to be buried before the Jew goes to sleep, and before sunset more specifically (while it was still light out).

  • Burying outweighed all Jewish priorities

    Burying the corpse was basically the most important Torah command; it even outweighed reciting the Shema, saying the Tefillah, and wearing phylacteries!

    You can see how much precedence it takes by examining these:

    • Semahot 10:1 says so.1
    • Mishnah: Berakoth 3:1 10:12
    • Mishnah: Moed Katan 3:53
    • Mishnah: Berakoth 31A4
    • Babylonian Talmud: Semahot5

    This is relevant, because it goes to show how serious Jews were about getting the burial rites done without interruption, which feeds into their needing to get the corpse buried as soon as possible and especially before sunset.

    1. The Tractate ‘Mourning’ (Semahot) 10.1: “So long as his dead lies unburied, a mourner is exempt from reciting the Shema, from the Tefillah, from tefillin, and from all the commandments written in the Torah.”
    2. Mishnah: Berakoth 3:1 -- He whose dead lies unburied before him is exempt from reciting the Shema, from saying the Tefillah and from wearing phylacteries. They that bear the bier and they that relive them, and they that relieve these, they that go before and they that follow after the bier--they that are needful for the bier are exempt, but they that are not needful are not exempt [from reciting the Shema], Both alike are exempt from saying the Tefillah. [Trans. by Danby (Oxford, 1933) 4.]
    3. Mishnah: Moed Katan 3:5 -- If a man buried his dead three days before the Feast, the rule of seven [day's mourning] is annulled for him; if eight days before, the rule of the thirty days is annulled from him. For they have said: The Sabbath is included and does not interrupt; but Feastes interrupt and are not included. [Trans. by Danby (Oxford, 1933) 210.]
      Jerusalem Talmud: Moed Katan 3:5 [6.C] -- [M. Ber. 3:1: He who dead lies before him (unburied) is free of the obligation of saying the Shema and of tefillin.] "A mourner on the first day does not put on tefillin. On the second day he does put on tefillin. [...] If on the third day after death, the mourner does not put on tefillin, is it necessary to say that he whose dead lies unburied [does not put on tefillin]? [That is self-evident.] [Trans. by Neusner]
    4. Babylonian Talmud: Berakoth 31A -- He who is confronted by a dead relative is freed from reciting the Shema, from the Eighteen Benedictions, and from all the commandments stated in the Torah. [as quoted by Wilkins]
    5. 13:1 -- One who gathers or guards the bones is exempt from reading Shema, prayer, and all the precepts commanded in the Torah, and if he desires to be rigorous with himself, he must not do so, for the honor of the dead. R. Johanan b. Nuri, however, said: He should step outside a distance of four ells and read. Ben Azai said: If they were with him in a boat he should remove them to another place and read. R. Itzhak said: Only from the bones of relatives he is exempt; from strangers, however, he is not. R. Simeon said: He is exempt only on week-days, but not on Sabbath. R. Nathan, however, said: He is exempt only when the bundle (of the bones) is on his shoulders, because the duty of guarding it is on him, but not of prayer. [Trans. by Rodkinson]