Burying a Gentile in a Jewish Cemetery

There appears to be no biblical issue with burying Jews and gentiles together. As we will see, it also appears clear from the Talmud that we are indeed to bury gentiles along with Jews. Nonetheless, throughout history, many scholars have argued that gentiles may not be buried in Jewish cemeteries. It was traditionally considered quite important to develop local Jewish cemeteries (Kol Bo al availut, 3:1). Yet, while this is an old and strong tradition, in fact, there is no halakhah that actually forbids it. Both the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 47a) and the Shulchan Aruch (YD 362:5) state that it is only prohibited to bury a wicked person (rasha) next to a righteous individual (tzaddik). Unlike the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, the Chatam Sofer (YD no. 341) cites Rashi (BT Sanhedrin 47a; BT Gittin 61a) and argues that there is indeed a prohibition stemming from revelation at Sinai: halakha l’Moshe m’Sinai. And, to be sure, the Beit Yosef, in YD 367, says that Rashi based his decision on the notion the Talmudic idea of not burying the wicked with the righteous. So the basis of that view appears to be a past assumption that Jews are righteous and gentiles are wicked.

Following this position, some maintain that if a Jew was buried in a gentile cemetery, they should be exhumed; so too is it forbidden for a gentile to ever be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein argued it is, in general, forbidden to bury a gentile in a Jewish cemetery (Iggerot Moshe YD 3:147) but did think that one who was in the process of an Orthodox conversion or even completed a non-Orthodox conversion could be buried in a Jewish cemetery if separated off (Iggerot Moshe YD 1:60, 2:149, 3:147).

But there is much more to this story. Rabbi Joel Sirkis, the Bach, rules that while a gentile should not be buried next to a Jew in general, in some cases it is indeed the correct thing to do (YD 151). He maintains that when a Jew and gentile are murdered together, they should be buried together “in the same courtyard” because we should follow the paths of peace (darchei shalom). After all, the Sages taught that “we bury the dead of the gentiles along with the dead of Israel, in the interest of peace” (BT Gittin 61a. See also Tosefta Gittin 3:18, Tur and SA on YD 151). Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman infers from this that, indeed, Jews and gentiles may be buried in the same general area (Teshuvot Melammed le-Ho’il, YD 127-129). Some poskim argue that while there may be a prohibition of being buried right next to each other, being buried in the same grounds is only rabbinic and, therefore, darchei shalom outweighs that prohibition. The Gilyon Maharsha says the separation must only be “eight ells” (i.e. within the same cemetery) (YD 345:4). Rabbi Shlomo Klueger, on the other hand, ,merely requires a fence be set up to separate the graves (Teshuvot Tuv Tu’am va-Da’at, Mahadura Telitai’i, II, no. 253).

Arguing that gentiles can be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but with some fencing for separation, is an easy halakhic solution that many have already adopted (Shut imrei yosher 2:3, Iggerot Moshe YD 2:131 and 152, Shevet HaLevi 7:193, Tzitz Eliezer, Even Yaakov 26). Rabbi Yaakov Ruza said that Rabbi Shlomo Zalman also suggested a halakhic mechitzah is enough to separate a gentile person’s grave site within a Jewish cemetery. These legal authorities suggest that either fencing (ten tefachim high: 80-96 cm) or a separation (daled amot: six feet) without fencing would be fine. Rabbi Daniel Wolf, a prominent modern legal scholar at Yeshivat Har Etzion, suggested that we can dig ten tefachim deep and put cinder blocks or stones underground (גוד אסיק מחיצתא) and this virtual underground halakhic mechitzah would not even be seen; this may be the most appropriate solution to avoid any alienation or sense of separation within the family. The separation is there, one might argue, for the deceased, not as a separation for the living visitors. These legal authorities, in general, interpret the original Talmudic passage literally (unlike Rashi) suggesting that the only problem is burying a righteous person with a wicked person and that certainly we cannot suggest that all Jews today are righteous and all gentiles are wicked, God forbid.

The Bach has been used as an authoritative precedent by poskim today. Consider this position from Rabbi Shlomo Goren:

Lev Pisachov, a non-Jewish solider serving in the Israeli Army, was killed by the Hamas near Tulkarm. He was interred outside the gate of the cemetery in Beit Shean. Then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered that his body be brought into the military and buried alongside his Jewish comrades. When asked about this, Rabbi Goren, citing Rabbi [Joel] Sirkis, the Bach, said that when Jews and gentiles die together, they can be buried together. Rabbi Goren said he had made many such rulings during the time of his tenure as chief army rabbis. He was outraged that it was Jews who do not serve in the army who insisted on this separation. Rabbi Goren said the act of burying separately is a desecration of God’s name (Rabbi Shlomo Goren: Torah Sage and General, p. 185-186).

What should we say to a Russian Israeli who is not considered halakhically Jewish but lives in Israel, serves in the army, views him or herself as Jewish, and dies in battle with Israelis while fighting for the Jewish State? Shall we not allow him to be buried with his unit? This is not the ways of darchei shalom as Rabbi Goren ruled. And back in Russia, this applies too. Rabbi Tyson Herberger, a Jewish educator in Scandinavia, said that Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, permits burying gentiles in Orthodox cemeteries.

The rabbis of Beit Hillel in Israel have so ruled today as well. They have issued a statement stating that gentiles serving in the Israeli army may indeed be buried alongside Jews. They gave the following halakhic justifications:

  1. The Rambam does not mention the law that one does not bury a wicked person beside a righteous one, and even though this law appears in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 362, 5), nevertheless, when necessary, one may rely on the Rambam who does not rule this way (see Rav Arusi, תחומין 14 313).
  2. One may deduce from a careful reading of the Rambamin the Laws of Kings (10, 12) that one may bury a Ger Toshav next to a Jew, and so is the opinion of the Bach (Yoreh De’ah 151), that for the sake of harmonious relations one may bury a Jew and a non-Jew side by side.
  3. Similarly, the leniency is necessary for the sake of the morale of the fighters and their ability to fight, a concern which has a shade of “saving lives” (on this principle, see Rabbi M. Halperin, תחומין  22 , פינוי חללים בשבת, p. 106), since they know that should they die, they will be afforded dignity in their death, and be buried in an Israeli Army cemetery, in a section alongside their comrades, and will not be buried in a separate plot, on the side. Moreover, since the source of the custom is that one may not bury a wicked person next to a righteous person, it seems obvious that one would not define a non-Jew who forfeited his life for the sake of the Jewish people as a wicked person (see BT Bava Batras10b).

In fact, this is what is being done in Israel at the present moment. The rabbis of the Israeli army count arbah amot (six feet) for a separation and then bury Jews and gentiles next to one another. The Shulchan Aruch rules that plots can, in general, be one on top of the other if there is a space of six tefachim between them (YD 362:4). So, in our case, we might bury one on top of the other with a distance of daled amot (six feet) as well. The fencing separation according to the above sources could be a more lenient position than six feet since plots could be right next to each other with this little demarcating separation (even an underground discrete demarcation as suggested above by Rav Wolf).

In America, we face a different challenge. Many Jews who converted have gentile parents who they wish to be buried with or beside. On the one hand, we say that converts are to view themselves like newborns (ketinok she-nolad dami). On the other hand, we do not discourage nor desire that children emotionally distance themselves from their biological family in any way. And there are other common cases: A Jewish parent, who converted, may well wish to be buried with their gentile children; an intermarried couple wants to be buried together; one who underwent a non-halakhic conversion and lived a partially observant Jewish life among other Jews will probably want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, as would a patrilineal Jew (zerah yisrael) who views themself as Jewish. In all these cases we should take a lenient approach and honor the family desires. Surely, we do not view these people as “wicked,” nor do we automatically view many gentiles as “wicked.”  If one wishes to be stringent, there may be a little fencing of separation, but there is no need to prohibit a gentile relative from being buried in a Jewish cemetery next to his family.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a contemporary Modern Orthodox authority, argues that those who have not converted but are in the process of conversion are already considered part of the Jewish family. He mentions that Rabbi Gedaliah Dov Schwartz, head of the rabbinical courts of both the Beit Din of America and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, noted that those in the conversion process have been buried in Jewish cemeteries. I would argue that just as gentile Israeli soldiers have thrown in their lot with the Jewish people within Israeli society, so too in America, those gentiles who are part of Jewish families and who respect and support Judaism are also—in a broad sense—a part of the Jewish community for the purposes of burial. Further, it may be possible that we can view a family plot as a halakhic entity in itself, separate from the cemetery at large. With such an assumption, no family can make a claim on another family’s plot within the same cemetery since they are distinct entities.

Yes, it is also important that we maintain Jewish identity and the customs of Jewish cemeteries. The traditional position should not be treated lightly. And all of this matter requires more discussion and research. Yet, we dare not be pulled into a philosophical position that might lead one to believe that Jews are automatically purer, holier, or more righteous merely because of our blood. Being a Jew or not being a Jew is not a binary but a spectrum. There are countless wonderful people who are not “halakhic Jews” but are most certainly members of the Jewish community and should be embraced warmly as such. There is no need for higher walls of exclusion or to pursue ethnic “purity.” Loved ones who are respectful and supportive of Judaism should be buried with loved ones when they request it. Their funerals there should only be performed by rabbis, not by non-Jewish clergy and the gravestone should not have any non-Jewish religious symbols on it. In some cases we may need to be sensitive to families who only want Jews in the cemetery and create a unique mixed section, but more ideally would be to simply have one cemetery, mostly for Jews but with some exceptions when needed.  We must be careful not to add more sorrow during a time of loss and mourning. We must maintain our core commitment to Jewish burial, as well as a safe space for Jewish community to mourn and a sensitivity toward the norms of religious mourners, yet still embrace the Torah’s value of peace wherever needed. As our Sages taught “The purpose of the entire Torah is to maintain peace, as it is written: ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace,’” (Proverbs 3:17), (BT Gittin 59b).

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of sixteen books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.