The Biblical Use of the Word "Ashes" It's Not About Cremation!

When someone dies, don't Jews say "ashes to ashes and dust to dust"? Doesn't that justify cremation?

The phrase "ashes to ashes" was first used in 1662 in the Christian Book of Common Prayer. The phrase is not part of the Bible.

But it is confusing - isn't the Hebrew word for dust the same as the Hebrew word for ashes?

The Hebrew words for "dust" and the Hebrew word for "ashes" are homonyms – they sound almost the same, but they are spelled differently.

  • Aleph Pay Rash אֵֽפֶר means ashes.
  • Eyin Pay Rash עָפָ֥ר means dust.

It is critical to understand the difference between dust and ashes when we explain the importance of ground burial.

The following chart categorizes the use of the word "ashes" in the Tanach.

Mourning Rituals Temple Sacrifice Red Heifer Rituals Literary Device Destruction (see below) Self Description (see below)
Genesis 1
Exodus 3
Leviticus 4
Numbers 1 4
II Samuel 1
I Kings 2
II Kings 1
Isaiah 2 1
Jeremiah 1 1
Ezekiel 1 1
Jonah 1
Malachi 2
Psalms 2
Job 2 1 2
Lamentations 1
Esther 1
Daniel 1

"Ashes" can refer to the destruction of objects or even an entire community such as the ashes of burnt idols or areas of complete destruction.

(ד) וַיְצַ֣ו הַמֶּ֡לֶךְ אֶת־חִלְקִיָּהוּ֩ הַכֹּהֵ֨ן הַגָּד֜וֹל וְאֶת־כֹּהֲנֵ֣י הַמִּשְׁנֶה֮ וְאֶת־שֹׁמְרֵ֣י הַסַּף֒ לְהוֹצִיא֙ מֵהֵיכַ֣ל יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֣ת כָּל־הַכֵּלִ֗ים הָֽעֲשׂוּיִם֙ לַבַּ֣עַל וְלָֽאֲשֵׁרָ֔ה וּלְכֹ֖ל צְבָ֣א הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַֽיִּשְׂרְפֵ֞ם מִח֤וּץ לִירוּשָׁלִַ֙ם֙ בְּשַׁדְמ֣וֹת קִדְר֔וֹן וְנָשָׂ֥א אֶת־עֲפָרָ֖ם בֵּֽית־אֵֽל׃

(4) Then the king ordered the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second rank, and the guards of the threshold to bring out of the Temple of the LORD all the objects made for Baal and Asherah and all the host of heaven. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron, and he removed the ashes to Bethel.

(מ) וְכָל־הָעֵ֣מֶק הַפְּגָרִ֣ים ׀ וְהַדֶּ֡שֶׁן וְכָֽל־השרמות [הַשְּׁדֵמוֹת֩] עַד־נַ֨חַל קִדְר֜וֹן עַד־פִּנַּ֨ת שַׁ֤עַר הַסּוּסִים֙ מִזְרָ֔חָה קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַֽיהוָ֑ה לֹֽא־יִנָּתֵ֧שׁ וְֽלֹא־יֵהָרֵ֛ס ע֖וֹד לְעוֹלָֽם׃ (ס)

(40) And the entire Valley of the Corpses and Ashes, and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, and the corner of the Horse Gate on the east, shall be holy to the LORD. They shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.

One author interprets this next use of the word "ashes" as referring to a "man trying to feed his

flock on a pasture that has been reduced to ashes."

(יח) לֹ֥א יָדְע֖וּ וְלֹ֣א יָבִ֑ינוּ כִּ֣י טַ֤ח מֵֽרְאוֹת֙ עֵֽינֵיהֶ֔ם מֵהַשְׂכִּ֖יל לִבֹּתָֽם׃ (יט) וְלֹא־יָשִׁ֣יב אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ וְלֹ֨א דַ֥עַת וְלֹֽא־תְבוּנָה֮ לֵאמֹר֒ חֶצְי֞וֹ שָׂרַ֣פְתִּי בְמוֹ־אֵ֗שׁ וְ֠אַף אָפִ֤יתִי עַל־גֶּחָלָיו֙ לֶ֔חֶם אֶצְלֶ֥ה בָשָׂ֖ר וְאֹכֵ֑ל וְיִתְרוֹ֙ לְתוֹעֵבָ֣ה אֶעֱשֶׂ֔ה לְב֥וּל עֵ֖ץ אֶסְגּֽוֹד׃ (כ) רֹעֶ֣ה אֵ֔פֶר לֵ֥ב הוּתַ֖ל הִטָּ֑הוּ וְלֹֽא־יַצִּ֤יל אֶת־נַפְשׁוֹ֙ וְלֹ֣א יֹאמַ֔ר הֲל֥וֹא שֶׁ֖קֶר בִּימִינִֽי׃ (ס)

(18) They have no wit or judgment: Their eyes are besmeared, and they see not; Their minds, and they cannot think. (19) They do not give thought, They lack the wit and judgment to say: “Part of it I burned in a fire; I also baked bread on the coals, I roasted meat and ate it— Should I make the rest an abhorrence? Should I bow to a block of wood?” (20) He pursues ashes! A deluded mind has led him astray, And he cannot save himself; He never says to himself, “The thing in my hand is a fraud!”

Here we have a few examples of punishment. A ruler who became full of himself, who thought his riches meant that he was a god. Ezekiel prophesized that God would bring him down and destroy his city.

People are reduced to ashes is a punishment for wickedness.

And a city is reduced to ashes as punishment for dishonesty and desecration.

(יח) וְשַׁבְתֶּם֙ וּרְאִיתֶ֔ם בֵּ֥ין צַדִּ֖יק לְרָשָׁ֑ע בֵּ֚ין עֹבֵ֣ד אֱלֹהִ֔ים לַאֲשֶׁ֖ר לֹ֥א עֲבָדֽוֹ׃ (ס) (יט) כִּֽי־הִנֵּ֤ה הַיּוֹם֙ בָּ֔א בֹּעֵ֖ר כַּתַּנּ֑וּר וְהָי֨וּ כָל־זֵדִ֜ים וְכָל־עֹשֵׂ֤ה רִשְׁעָה֙ קַ֔שׁ וְלִהַ֨ט אֹתָ֜ם הַיּ֣וֹם הַבָּ֗א אָמַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־יַעֲזֹ֥ב לָהֶ֖ם שֹׁ֥רֶשׁ וְעָנָֽף׃ (כ) וְזָרְחָ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם יִרְאֵ֤י שְׁמִי֙ שֶׁ֣מֶשׁ צְדָקָ֔ה וּמַרְפֵּ֖א בִּכְנָפֶ֑יהָ וִֽיצָאתֶ֥ם וּפִשְׁתֶּ֖ם כְּעֶגְלֵ֥י מַרְבֵּֽק׃ (כא) וְעַסּוֹתֶ֣ם רְשָׁעִ֔ים כִּֽי־יִהְי֣וּ אֵ֔פֶר תַּ֖חַת כַּפּ֣וֹת רַגְלֵיכֶ֑ם בַּיּוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִ֣י עֹשֶׂ֔ה אָמַ֖ר יְהוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃ (פ)

(18) And you shall come to see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between him who has served God and him who has not served Him. (19) For lo! That day is at hand, burning like an oven. All the arrogant and all the doers of evil shall be straw, and the day that is coming—said the LORD of Hosts—shall burn them to ashes and leave of them neither stock nor boughs. (20) But for you who revere My name a sun of victory shall rise to bring healing. You shall go forth and stamp like stall-fed calves, (21) and you shall trample the wicked to a pulp, for they shall be ashes beneath your feet on the day that I am preparing—said the LORD of Hosts.

(יח) מֵרֹ֣ב עֲוֺנֶ֗יךָ בְּעֶ֙וֶל֙ רְכֻלָּ֣תְךָ֔ חִלַּ֖לְתָּ מִקְדָּשֶׁ֑יךָ וָֽאוֹצִא־אֵ֤שׁ מִתּֽוֹכְךָ֙ הִ֣יא אֲכָלַ֔תְךָ וָאֶתֶּנְךָ֤ לְאֵ֙פֶר֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לְעֵינֵ֖י כָּל־רֹאֶֽיךָ׃

(18) By the greatness of your guilt, Through the dishonesty of your trading, You desecrated your sanctuaries. So I made a fire issue from you, And it has devoured you; I have reduced you to ashes on the ground, In the sight of all who behold you.

We've explored the use of "ashes" as it relates to destruction.

What does the phrase "dust and ashes" mean? In the three Tanach examples it is used to in a self-deprecating way.

(כז) וַיַּ֥עַן אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הִנֵּה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֙לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר׃

(27) Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes:

(ו) עַל־כֵּ֭ן אֶמְאַ֣ס וְנִחַ֑מְתִּי עַל־עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר׃ (פ)

(6) Therefore, I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes.

(טז) וְעַתָּ֗ה עָ֭לַי תִּשְׁתַּפֵּ֣ךְ נַפְשִׁ֑י יֹ֭אחֲז֣וּנִי יְמֵי־עֹֽנִי׃ (יז) לַ֗יְלָה עֲ֭צָמַי נִקַּ֣ר מֵעָלָ֑י וְ֝עֹרְקַ֗י לֹ֣א יִשְׁכָּבֽוּן׃ (יח) בְּרָב־כֹּ֭חַ יִתְחַפֵּ֣שׂ לְבוּשִׁ֑י כְּפִ֖י כֻתָּנְתִּ֣י יַֽאַזְרֵֽנִי׃ (יט) הֹרָ֥נִי לַחֹ֑מֶר וָ֝אֶתְמַשֵּׁ֗ל כֶּעָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר׃

(16) So now my life runs out; Days of misery have taken hold of me. (17) By night my bones feel gnawed; My sinews never rest. (18) With great effort I change clothing; The neck of my tunic fits my waist. (19) He regarded me as clay, I have become like dust and ashes.

Rabbi Jack Moline writes, "Where does Abraham get such a description of himself? You might make the case that for dust - afar - our father Abraham hearkens back to the story of our origin. God gathered dust from the earth and blew breath, blew a soul into it and it became the first human being. But to add ashes to it - even if in Hebrew it has an almost lyrical quality, afar va'efer - seems to diminish any sense of life. Ashes are extinguished. How much lower can you get?"

Another approach is that of the Beit Halevi (Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik)quoted by Rabbi David Wolpe, who says that "dust represents something that has never been of value, but might one day be of value. You can sow plants in dust, or make pottery from it.

Ashes, on the other hand, are of no value in the future, but represent something that has had value in the past, before being reduced to ashes.

So Abraham was referring both to what he had been and what he might be. It was a statement of complete humility."

We can find no source in Tanach for cremation of the human body as part of a Jewish tradition for honorable burial.