A Playing Field Above a Former Jewish Cemetery


South Central, USA

A congregant who is a librarian has discovered that a big open field that is part of the library complex, which is often used for activities, was actually a Jewish cemetery until the mid-19th century, and there is no evidence of the bones there being disinterred or moved. He’s wondering if there are issues for him running activities/programs on that field (he’s not a kohen). Thanks!


This is a very complex question. Here are some of the relevant issues:

1. How does he know it was a Jewish cemetery? The field has a chezkat taharah, and it might require 2 eidim to directly testify otherwise in order to redefine its status.

2. If we determine it was a cemetery, then there are 3 possible issurim here: (a) issur hana’ah, (b) kavod for beit hakevarot and (c) Kohanim.

3. There is also a question of whether this is considered the derabanan status of בית הפרס because it is a שדה שאבד בה קבר, or if the entire space is considered as if there is grave below the whole place, like a cemetery which is filled with graves.

Looking at the issues in more depth:

1. Regarding how we know it is a cemetery, and the quality of the testimony, Chatam Sofer YD 337 is the first to raise all the relevant issues of believability. The case he is dealing with is one of a non-Jew’s testimony, but in his discussion he gives a basis to dismiss a Jew’s testimony as well, unless it is absolutely clear,

ולעיי’ בהך מילתא צריכי’ לעיי’ בג’ ספיקות (א’) אם נאמין שהי’ שם קברות כלל (ב’) אם היה שם אולי כבר פינו העצמות משם (ג’) אם לא פינו משם אולי כבר נרקבו והי’ כלא היה דאף על גב דמלא תרווד רקב מטמא היינו בנקבר בארון של שיש ערום וזה לא שכיח כמבואר ונבוא מהמאוחר אל המוקדם. …כי אפילו היה ישראל האומר כן הלא לא יאמר דבר ברור שבזה המקום ממש היה קבר אלא שהיה המקום הזה קברות ויש במשמעות זה שהיה חצר בה”ק והקברות סמוכה לו מלפניו או מלאחריו ועוד אין ע”א נאמן להוציא דבר מחזקת טהרה וזה פשוט ומבואר.

2. Regarding the three issurim related to a cemetery:

  1. Hana’ah – see Shulchan Arukh YD 364:1 who rules that there is no איסור הנאה on the ground because it is not a separate thing (it is just קרקע עולם). Rema, however, brings an opinion that ground that was removed and put back (like we do when we are burying a body) is forbidden, since when it was being put on the grave, it was not ground, but dirt. Now, how much of the dirt on top of the grave is included? The simple language of Rema would suggest everything that had been dug out and put back on top. However, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (quoted in Pitchei Teshuvah 1) argues (hesitantly) that this would be limited only to the dirt directly on top of the body needed to cover the body. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe YD 1:233) argues that it is either like Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the smallest amount, or at most 3 tefachim. In contrast, Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach (Tanina 92) argues that everything directly above the grave is forbidden (according to this position in Rema).
  2. Kavod – see Shulchan Arukh YD 368:1, regarding how one must act in a cemetery-

בית הקברות, אין נוהגין בהן קלות ראש [רמ”א – כגון לפנות שם או לאכול ולשתות שם, ואין קורין ואין שונין שם ואין מחשבין שם חשבונות]… ולא יטייל בהם לקפנדריא. הגה: וכן אין ליקח מקרקע עולם של קבר, אף על גב דמותר בהנאה וכל זה אינו אלא משום כבוד המתים.

(Note that it seems that Rema rules like the lenient position that the dirt, even if removed and put back in the grave, is permissible – although poskim debate this.)

Regarding our case, however, there is a question as to whether the halakha of kavod applies to a beit HaPras (assuming that is the status here). Seridei Eish (2:110) takes it for granted that it does not,

דמשום טומאה נגעו בה ולא משום כבוד מתים, דבשדה שאבד בה קבר לא שייך כלל כבוד מתים.

  1. Kohanim – even were this a beit hapras, and not a cemetery, nevertheless, since it is of the type of a grave being lost, a kohen cannot enter there. See Mishnah Ohalot 18:3,

שדה שאבד קבר בתוכה נזרעת כל זרע ואינה נטעת כל נטע ואין מקיימין בה אילנות חוץ מאילן סרק שאינו עושה פירות ומטמא במגע ובמשא ובאהל.

And see Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Aveil 3:13,

– כל כהן שנכנס… לבית הפרס … מכין אותו מכת מרדות, מפני שהן אבות של דבריהם כמו שביארנו בהלכות טומאת מת, אבל אם נכנס לבית הקברות לוקה מן התורה.

Even if the librarian is not a kohen, he would be doing activities with kids. If the kids are kohanim who are bar mitzvah – he would be making them sin. If they are underage – then there still remains an issur to make kohanim, even minors, tamei (Yevamot 114a).

However, as in the case of kavod, we can ask if this halakha applies in the case of beit hapras or only an actual cemetery. Rav Sternbach (Teshuvot veHanhagot 2:567) assumes that the restriction of making minors tamei does not apply in such a case,

מ”מ כיון דטומאת בית הפרס קיל דהתירו לכהן ליטמא לצורך מצוה, ה”נ יש לומר דלקטן לא גזרו להרחיקו ד’ אמות, וצ”ב.

3. Status of beit hapras – Minchat Yitzchak 8:122 discusses if a case of multiple graves in considered a בית הפרס a ודאי קבר.


In conclusion:

Assuming that it is only a beit hapras, given the questions of the reliability of the testimony, we have the following conclusions:

  1. There is no issur hana’ah (two opinions in Rema, Rav Moshe, R. Akiva Eiger).
  2. The problem of kavod should apply, however, it may not if the place is defined as a בית הפרס rather than a cemetery (Seridei Eish)
  3. For adult kohanim, it is a problem even if it is just a beit hapras. If the kohanim are minors, there should be a problem of an adult causing minor kohanim to become tamei, but this might not apply to בית הפרס (Teshuvot veHanhagot).

So it is possible, if and only if, we define this as a beit hapras and not as a cemetery, and if the kids are all minors, that it would be permissible. However, it would be important to mark it so that adult kohanim do not enter there.

In a follow up response, you wrote: “He sent me some of the information from cemetery associations in the area. It appears that in 1967 the cemetery was demolished and re-established as a playground, with the city trying to dig up and rebury as much as they could at a new cemetery. So it sounds like, as a result, there wouldn’t be an issur, perhaps even for a kohen, correct?”

Given this report, and given the approach of Chatam Sofer, we can assume that the field is not a cemetery and not even a beit hapras, and fine even for adult Kohanim.


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