The information I'm looking for is for a class report on an archeological discovery in a town in Eretz Yisrael that was destroyed in the Great Rebellion against Rome. The town was unwalled before the rebellion, but one of the ways its occupants signified their rebellion against Rome was by building a wall around it. In addition, the Romans built another wall around the town when they besieged it. The Romans totally destroyed the town and burnt it after they took it and it was never rebuilt. The archeologists excavating it, after removing the upper layers of weather borne debris, found many burnt skeletons lying around. When the archeologists started excavating the remains of some of the buildings, they removed debris from a family cistern and found, to their surprise, that a wall had been built inside the cistern. When they dismantled the wall they found the bodies (skeletons) of a man, woman, boy, and baby). These skeletons showed no sign of having been burnt though some showed signs of having died violently. There were other cisterns that were found to have walls in them with skeletons behind them which were in the same condition. After that, when the archeologists found a wall in a cistern they stopped excavating the cistern and left the wall intact. They do not know who put the bodies in the cisterns and built the walls, or why.
My theory is that the bodies in the walled cisterns were Jews who died during the siege. No one could get in or out of the town because of the siege, but the Romans were bombarding the town constantly and making armed forays against it, killing many, and the mitzvah was still not to delay burial and there was no place to bury them but inside the town. And in the time of the 2nd Temple in the Land of Israel, the bodies of the Jewish dead were customarily buried in a sealed burial cave for a year, after which the bones were removed to stone containers (ossuaries). Perhaps a sealed cistern was a substitute for the traditional burial cave, and the plan was to remove the bones after a year, when hopefully the siege would have ended.
My questions are:
1. Did Jews who lived in a walled town have to bury their dead outside the city walls or was it just Jerusalem?
2. Is there anything in the Mishnah or the Talmud that deals with the question of what is done with the dead in times of war - especially in a besieged city where the usual methods of burial can't be carried out?
3. Is there any record of the use of a cistern for burials?
4. Can a cistern used for burial ever be reused as a water cistern (once the skeleton(s) are removed)?
Libby, Jerusalem, Israel
1) If the city was walled from the days of Yehoshua Bin Nun then burial is prohibited in the city. According to the Rambam (Beis ha'Bchirah 7:13) the city council or the entire population can override this prohibition. The Ra'avad however disagrees and maintains that there is no way to override the prohibition. I believe that the case you mentioned is referring to the city of Yodfat in the Lower Galil. According to the Mishnah in Erchin (32a) the old Yodfat was indeed a walled city. There is no way for us to know whether we are dealing with the old or new Yodfat (although my guess is we are dealing with a later Yodfat). Even if we were dealing with the ancient Yodfat there would be no problem with the burial according to the Rambam's opinion.
2) War is never the ideal condition. The Toras Kohanim (Be'chukosai and quoted in Rashi 26:25) describes one of the curses as follows "The halacha forbids keeping corpses overnight in Yerushalayim, and when they would go out of the city to bury them, the enemies would capture those trying to bury the dead". I assume that if it was a matter of pikuach nefesh, there is no need for one to endanger his life in such a situation. Nonetheless we know from Josephus that during the Roman siege of Yerushalayim (70 CE circa) the Jews used to remove the bodies from the city.
3) As I mentioned, war is never an ideal condition. I'd assume that bodies would be placed in a makeshift grave in any convenient place. The Mishnah (Ahalos 18:8) implies that non-Jews would toss stillborn babies into drainage canals and sewage pits.
4) My guess is that if there is no health hazard there would be no reason to prohibit this.
Thank you very much Yehuda. I looked up the sources you sent me and am quoting them, and the information you sent me, in my report.
Would you also happen to know where I can look for answers to my fourth question, the one about the cisterns. According to Josephus, it seems that at least at the start of the siege there was some hope of success. My question is, since success returning to some sort of a normal life - would involve opening the burial cistern end of the year and removing the bones to ossuaries - would it then also be possible to use the cistern again, or can it never be used again for the storage of usable water (i.e., for drinking and bathing) once it was used as a grave?
Surely as regards 4. it should be osur behanoah, having been used for a meis?
I very much enjoy your work.
Bebirchas kol tuv
I'm not quite sure if you seem to have a halachic problem or a sanitary problem. Mendy Bude raised the issue of an item used for a Meis being Osur Behanoah. This is a valid point. However in our case there are two reasons for leniency.
The Shulchan Oruch (yd 364:1) rules that a tomb dug into the ground is Mutar Behanoah. A constructed tomb is Osur Behanoah. Even in the case of a constructed tomb, if the place was not originally intended for a grave and then used as a grave if afterwards more stones were added, the entire complex does indeed become Osur Behanoah. If however the Meis was placed there on a temporary basis and upon removal of the Meis all extra additions were also removed, the complex is later Mutar Behanoah. In our case, once the extra wall and the bones are removed, the cistern should seemingly be permitted for usage.