The Jewish Cemetery: Holy or Impure?

In his commentary on the double Torah portion of “Behar-Behukotai,” Rabbi Dr. Rabbi Sharon Shalom, Director of the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College asked whether a cemetery is a holy or an unclean place.

He noted that at the entrance to the cemetery, we are usually greeted with a sign stating: “Because of the sanctity of the place, please come in modest attire.” This would lead one to believe that the cemetery is a holy place and therefore the requirement to dress modestly is not strange. Indeed, this is seems to be the traditional approach of Rabbinic Judaism. Alternatively, the religious culture of Ethiopian Jews, which was not influenced by the textual work of the Rabbinic Sages and the oral rabbinic tradition for generations, views turning a cemetery into a holy place as paradoxical.

Indeed, there are rabbis who objected to the widespread custom of visiting the graves of the righteous departed. Other rabbis, did view the cemetery as a holy place. However, no one viewed it as an unclean place. The rabbis, aware of the the custom of washing one’s hands after visiting the cemetery (and the implication of spiritual uncleanliness that is the basis of this custom) still do not forbid visiting cemeteries. Therefore, the question remains. Is the cemetery a holy or an unclean place?

All scholars of Ethiopian Jewry point out that the laws of impurity and purity were at the center of the life of the Jewish family in Ethiopia. As a rule, “Beta Israel” avoided contact with anything that was considered unclean. The Jewish villages in Ethiopia were located near flowing water sources and the customs of frequent ritual immersions in natural flowing water (as the Torah commands), were so prominent that one of the nicknames given to Beta Israel by their neighbors, related to the odor of water which was characteristic of their bodies.

Adherence to the laws of purity also served as a means of protecting the members of the community from assimilation with their non-Jewish neighbors, and ensured their uniqueness and segregation. The laws of impurity and purity relate to several aspects of life: the purity of family life and married life, the daily contact with the non-Jews and with food including slaughter and the impurity of the dead. Because of the strictness on matters of impurity and purity, the care of the dead was entrusted to a limited number of people and only they were allowed to touch corpses. As Rabbi Reuven Tal Yassu argues, in Ethiopia, usually the Gentiles would deal with burial to prevent impurity, but if there were no Gentiles for various reasons, Jews would have no choice but to carry the body. “Those involved in the burial of the dead appear to be foreigners and certainly not relatives of the deceased or dignitaries of the community.” This is how Yossi Ziv commented on a photo from a funeral in Ethiopia that he possessed.

Whether or not the body was carried by Jews, after the funeral those Beta Israel participating in the service had to purify themselves before they could return home. The purification process lasted seven days. On the third and seventh day they sprinkled on themselves from the waters of the “Manza”, which are the ashes of a red cow mixed with the water of a spring, and at the end of the seventh day they immersed in a ritual bath and only then were they allowed to enter their village. After burying the dead in the ground, the grave was marked with a pile of stones or wood – but without a special inscription. The family then sat in the house. They sat on the ground for seven days and their relatives and friends came to comfort them. When “new faces” entered, they cried and sang special songs of lamentation. The food for all the days of the “shiva” was prepared by the neighbors and relatives. From that day forward, no one went to visit the cemetery. It was viewed as an unclean place and outside the world of life.

When I asked my late uncle Daniel Mangasha why in Ethiopia they did not go up to the cemetery to visit the graves of relatives, he replied: “It is written in Orit (Torah) that the cemetery is an unclean place. After we bury the dead, even a great man, we do not go up there. We are not allowed to be there, because now the soul is entrusted to the Lord (Igziabhar in the holy Gez language of Ethiopia). The Lord is the only big one and we are all the same.

Another time, my uncle Daniel said, “When my father was alive he lived in a small apartment, in the absorption center (in Israel). Our mayor used to live in an upscale neighborhood, in a large villa. After my father’s funeral, I saw who was buried next to him – the mayor. Real neighbors. In Israel, only in the cemetery is there democracy. “

Daniel actually says that once a person dies he is transferred to another world, to the world of God. The world of the living and the world of the dead are two separate worlds. The laws of impurity and purity reinforce this idea. Symbolically, whoever touches the dead or is in the cemetery disconnects from the world of the living and connects to the world of the dead. Immersion in the river brings the unclean back to the world of life.

The Torah portion of Behukotai begins, “If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; ” (Leviticus 26:3). Why does this verse use the conditional language of “if”? Previously, God used the imperative tense when He commanded the children of Israel, “My ordinances you shall do, and my statutes you shall keep.” (Leviticus 18:4). In light of the Jewish custom of Ethiopia, we can answer that the conditional language in the first verse indicates a demand for humility and flexibility when we do the work of God. One the one hand, I naturally think that my way of worshipping God is right and is indeed His will. On the other hand, the use of conditional language asks me to doubt myself and accept that perhaps the way of others in the work of God, which is different from mine, is also the will of God.

The full article can be read at: