Parshat Vayishlach: Rachel’s Buriel Site

“And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrat – this is Betlechem. And Yaakov set up a pillar upon her grave; the same is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.” (Beresheit 35:19:20)

These passages describe the passing of Rachel. Yaakov returns to Canaan. During the journey, Rachel gives birth to Binyamin. Rachel dies in the process of childbirth and is buried in Betlechem. Yaakov erects a monument on her grave. This is the first and only instance in the Torah in which a monument is erected on the burial-site of a person. This practice – the erecting of a monument on the site of Rachel’s grave – seems to contradict a teaching of the Talmud. The Talmud teaches that it is not appropriate to erect a monument on the gravesite of a righteous person. The Talmud explains the reason for this prohibition. It comments that a righteous person should be remembered by his or her actions.[1] In his discussion of the laws of mourning, Maimonides rules that this teaching is the law and that it is not appropriate to erect a monument on the gravesite of the righteous.[2]

Obviously, this teaching seems to be contradicted by Yaakov’s actions. Rachel was a righteous person. Yet, Yaakov erected a monument at her gravesite. It is also difficult to reconcile the Talmud’s teaching with normative practice. Throughout the generations, it has been the practice of the Jewish people to erect monuments on the gravesites of our departed. We do not differentiate between the righteous and the more common people. How can we reconcile Yaakov’s actions and normative practice with the teaching of the Talmud?

Before attempting to answer these questions, it is important to carefully consider the prohibition outlined in the Talmud. This seems to be a strange prohibition. The explanation offered by the Talmud does not seem very helpful. We would imagine that the tzadik – the righteous person – more than anyone deserves the honor of a monument. Yet, the Talmud seems to indicate that the very deeds that distinguish the tzadik are the reason for not erecting a monument in the person’s honor. Should we not acknowledge these deeds through the creation of a monument?

Etz Yosef explains that the purpose of a monument is not to glorify the departed. Instead, it is designed to assure that the memory of the departed will not be forgotten.[3] This is a fundamental distinction. If monuments were intended by the Torah as a glorification of the departed, then the Talmud’s prohibition would be difficult to understand. More than anyone, the tzadik deserves to be glorified. However, as Etz Yosef explains, the purpose of the monument is to assure that the departed will not be forgotten. The righteous are to be remembered for their deeds and the guidance that they provided. They should require no other monument. The creation of a monument for the tzadik is a dishonor! The creation of the monument implicitly communicates that the deeds and the guidance provided by the tzadik are inadequate to assure that the person will be remembered. This means that either we are questioning the actual righteousness of the departed, or that we are implying that we are incapable of recognizing the significance of true righteousness. In other words, the erection of a monument at the gravesite of a righteous person implies a depreciatory assessment of either the righteousness of the departed or of our own values.

Etz Yosef’s comments also answer another troublesome problem. As noted in his laws of mourning, Maimonides rules according to the teaching of the Talmud. However, in his discussion of the laws regarding spiritual purity and defilement, Maimonides seems to contradict this ruling. There, he rules that all gravesites must be marked.[4] In this ruling, Maimonides makes no distinction between the gravesite of a tzadik or another person. All must be marked.

However, Etz Yosef’s comments resolve this apparent contradiction. Maimonides is identifying two different considerations that dictate that a gravesite should be marked. In his discussion of the laws of purity, Maimonides is concerned with protecting people from unintentionally associating with a source of impurity and becoming defiled. The body of a departed person is a potential source of impurity. In regards to the transmission of impurity, it makes no difference whether the departed was righteous or not. In any case, once departed, the body will potentially impart defilement. Therefore, in this context, Maimonides rules that every grave – even the grave of a righteous person – must be marked and identified. This is a precaution against the inadvertent transmission of impurity.

In his discussion of the laws of mourning, Maimonides is dealing with a different consideration. Maimonides begins the chapter by explaining that he will discuss the practices of the Jewish people in the preparation for burial and the burial of the departed.[5] These practices reflect our obligation to treat the departed with respect. In this context, the erection of a monument is an expression of respect. As Etz Yosef suggests, our objective is to assure that the memory of the departed is not lost. It is in this context that Maimonides rules that it is not appropriate to erect a monument at the gravesite of the righteous. Such a monument would not be an indication of respect. It would be a depreciation of the significance of the tzadik’s deeds and counsel.

Gesher HaChayim explains that these two concerns require different responses. In order to assure that defilement is not transmitted, it is only necessary to mark the gravesite. Concern over preventing inadvertent defilement does not require the erection of a monument. Any effective marker is adequate. However, the requirement to demonstrate respect for the departed demands the erection of a more substantial monument. [6] It follows that according to Maimonides; the gravesite of a tzadik must be marked. However, a substantial monument is not appropriate.

Although Etz Yosef’s comments are useful in understanding the Talmud’s ruling and resolving the apparent contradiction in Maimonides’ rulings, they do not provide much assistance in resolving the original questions. Why did Yaakov erect a monument over the gravesite of Rachel? How can we reconcile the normative practice of creating monuments at the gravesites of the righteous with the ruling of the Talmud and Maimonides?

In order to answer these questions, it is helpful to consider another comment of our Sages. Moshe sent spies from the wilderness to survey the Land of Israel. These spies decided that they would alert Bnai Yisrael to the difficulties the nation would face in its efforts to conquer the land. They were even willing to portray the land in a negative manner in order to discourage the nation from embarking on the dangerous task of conquest. Kalev was among these spies. He disagreed with the assessment of the other spies and did not wish to participate in their conspiracy. However, he was not sure that he had the determination to stand against them. Kalev traveled to Chevron – to the burial-site of the forefathers. There, he prayed for Hashem’s help in facing this challenge.[7] It is not surprising that Kalev – faced with this challenge – made a pilgrimage to the burial-site of the forefathers. Kalev was confronted with the challenge of opposing his peers and standing alone against their overwhelming influence. Whose lives could provide greater inspiration than those of the forefathers? The forefathers introduced a radically new concept of G-d to humanity. They stood alone against the religious doctrines of their times. Their examples were a compelling inspiration to Kalev.

Kalev’s behavior indicates an additional reason for marking the graves of the righteous. The lives of the righteous are a source of inspiration. In times of personal trouble, we can draw from this inspiration and this inspiration, hopefully, will infuse our prayers for Hashem’s assistance in dealing with our own challenges. Based on this consideration, there is a reason to mark the gravesites of the righteous.

This explains our practice of placing monuments on the gravesites of the righteous. We do not do this as an expression of respect. As the Talmud and Maimonides rule, such monuments would not communicate respect. However, we erect monuments at the burial-sites of the righteous for our own benefit. We mark these graves so that we can visit them and draw inspiration from these unique individuals.

Gesher HaChayim confirms this thesis. He explains that there are three considerations that dictate the marking of graves or the erection of monuments. In addition to the two noted above – prevention of inadvertent defilement and as an expression of respect – he identifies a third consideration. We also mark the grave so that we can return to the site and pray there. He further suggests that the Talmud and Maimonides only intend to prohibit the creation of an imposing monument at the burial-site of a tzadik. However, a basic monument designed to mark the location as the burial-site of a tzadik is completely appropriate. This basic marker makes it possible for us to return to the site and inspire our prayers.[8]

The midrash seems to indicate that this was the consideration that motivated Yaakov to erect a monument at the burial-site of Rachel. The midrash discusses our question. Why did Yaakov erect a monument at the gravesite of Rachel? Rachel was a righteous person. A monument would not seem appropriate. Among the responses is one that indicates that Yaakov intended to provide a source of future inspiration. The midrash explains that Yaakov foresaw, through prophecy, that his descendants were destined to be exiled from the Land of Israel. He foresaw that as they left their land, they would pass the monument he had erected at Rachel’s grave. The midrash describes Rachel praying to Hashem. She implores Hashem to act with mercy towards her children – Bnai Yisrael. This midrash requires careful study. But, the comments of Etz Yosef provide an important insight. He explains that Yaakov’s intention was to mark Rachel’s gravesite as a place of prayer. He hoped that his exiled descendants would be able to return to this site at the border of the Land of Israel and prayer there for Hashem’s mercy.[9]

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[1] Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Shekalim 2:5.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 4:4.

[3] Etz Chaim, Commentary on Midrash Rabba 82:10.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Met 8:9.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 4:1.

[6] Rav Yeschiel Michal Toktsinski, Gesher HaChayim, 28:1.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:22.

[8] Rav Yeschiel Michal Toktsinski, Gesher HaChayim, 28:1.

[9] Etz Chaim, Commentary on Midrash Rabba 82:10.