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)|
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.