It is customary in Israel today to carry the deceased on a stretcher until the grave and to bury the deceased without a coffin. Is it permissible to bury the deceased in Israel in a coffin?
It is a great mitzvah to bury the dead (Sanhedrin 46b). There were various forms of burial in the tannaitic period, including burial in caves until the flesh disintegrated followed by the collection of the bones and their reburial. But burial in coffins was also common, as we shall see from the following sources: Mishnah Moed Katan 1:6 teaches us that people were buried in wooden coffins immediately after their deaths. Mishnah Eduyot 5:6 teaches us that people were buried in coffins. Rabbi Judah the Prince also asked to be buried in a coffin, but with holes in the bottom or with the bottom slats removed (Yerushalmi Kilayim 9:3 and parallels). Rav Huna, an important Babylonian amora, was brought to Eretz Yisrael for burial on “a bed” but was buried in a coffin. These and other sources teach us that burial in coffins was common. Burial in wooden and stone coffins is also confirmed by many archaeological finds.
Despite all of the above evidence, some later authorities began to prefer burial in the ground itself without a coffin. The Tur (Yoreh Deah 362) cites both customs but prefers burial in the ground itself. The latter approach was adopted by Rabbi Yosef Karo (Shulhan Arukh ibid.) and by the poskim of Eretz Yisrael in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even so, there are exceptions in Israel today. Soldiers are buried in coffins. Some settlements such as Shavei Tsiyon in the Western Galilee also bury their dead in coffins with the approval of the local rabbinate.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b-47a) gives a number of reasons for burial, including the honor of the dead, but adds that whoever does something for the honor of the living does not dishonor the dead. This delicate balance allows a person to be buried in a coffin if he so instructed before he died or if his relatives request it after his death.
In conclusion, burial in a coffin was one of the ancient customs of Eretz Yisrael and is still observed today in the army and in a number of settlements. The poskim who recommend burial without a coffin do so as a recommendation and not as a command. A request by the family, and especially by the deceased himself, to be buried in a coffin is sufficient to indicate that this shows respect for the person in question.
In light of the above, we allow burial in a coffin in Israel provided that the coffin is built of plain wood and that there be holes in the bottom as has been the practice since the days of Rabbi Judah the Prince. And may we merit the fulfillment of the prophecy “So will I comfort you, and you shall find comfort in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13).
Rabbi Pesach Schindler