Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler and Rav Zalman Leib Teitelbaum of Satmar to Address Lakewood Asifa on Behalf of Asra Kadisah


zalman-leib-teitelbaumThe year was 1957. The news reached the ears of the Brisker Rov zt”l: Archeologists were excavating the kever of the Rambam, hoping to learn more about the period in which he had lived by scraping samples off the bones. 

For months, the Brisker Rov was beside himself with anguish. He arranged protests, garnered political pressure – whatever could be done to halt the desecration. He couldn’t eat during the day; at night, his pillow was drenched in tears.

One of the gabbaim couldn’t help but ask the obvious question: “Rebbe,” he said respectfully, “there are so many almanos and yesomim nowadays. So many people with tzaros. For this you’re crying? For those who are no longer even amongst the living?”

The Brisker Rov replied, “The fact that you can even ask such a question is a fulfillment of the nevuah, ‘Hashmein lev ha’am hazeh.‘ People have natural rachmanus when they see somebody in pain. Excavated bones don’t scream; they don’t arouse that natural feeling of sympathy. But anybody who doesn’t feel the pain of the niftarim doesn’t have the proper emunah in techiyas hameisim! The bones feel pain – worms on the bones are as painful as needles in a live person’s flesh. And certainly digging out the bones – who can fathom the agony?

“Plus,” the Brisker Rov continued, “tampering with the bones of the niftarim creates a real danger for those who are alive.”

“I told this story during an appeal a few years ago,” Rabbi Tzalel of Asra Kadisha remarks. “A fellow sitting in the crowd called out, ‘I was there during that story. And the Brisker Rov was much more concerned about the second reason than the first one.'”

Indeed, the Brisker Rov was concerned. So concerned, that even after the excavations at the Rambam‘s kever were halted, the Brisker Rov founded Asra Kadisha, dedicated exclusively to the cause of chessed shel emes, protecting and reburying the remains of the niftarim.

rav-malkiel-kotlerOver the years, I’ve seen the notices from Asra Kadisha, asking the public to write letters and show support for the protection of various cemeteries. Practically speaking, though, I never thought too much about the logistics of the organization, its goals and how it sets about attaining them.

Yes, I learned about chessed shel emes during my school years. I know that even a kohein gadol is required to be metamei himself in order to bury a meis mitzvah. But somehow, other than attending levayos and forming chevros kadisha, chessed shel emes is not really on our radar screens.


I had the privilege of speaking at length with Rabbi Tzalel, a Yerushalmi who worked with Asra Kadisha for decades. Presently a resident of Monsey, Rabbi Tzalel was on the front lines of the battle for years.

“Over the course of twelve years in Eretz Yisroel,” Rabbi Tzalel tells me, “I personally buried over 3,000 skeletons. For years, we’ve had approximately two cases a day in Eretz Yisroel. The tractor starts digging a new development, and sure enough, they’ll discover bones, sometimes dating back as far as the first Bais Hamikdosh.” In some instances, it has been kevarim of Amoraim, such as the kever of Abaye and Rava in Avnis next to Tzefas that Asra Kadisha saved some years back.

 “How did you bury them?” I ask, envisioning tractors sterilely lowering ancient remains into mass graves.

“What do you mean, how?” this representative replies. “With my two hands.”

With his two hands. The words resound in my mind. “One time, I buried 2,200 teeth. The University of Tel Aviv was using them for students in the dental school.”

This, then, is Asra Kadisha. An organization that does things with its own two hands. No wonder I’ve never thought much about their publicity. There isn’t any, really. No grand marketing campaigns, no executives in fancy offices, no official letterheads. Nothing but a cadre of dedicated volunteers, shouldering the massive expenses of reburials and political networking, under the auspices of Rav David Shmidl, talmid and former ben bayis of the Chazon Ish. The Brisker Rov originally sent Rav Shmidl, rosh kollel of Mesivta D’Rav Yochanan in Tiveria, to stop the desecration of the Rambam‘s kever, and ultimately, Rav Shmidl was appointed by gedolei Yisroel to serve at the helm of Asra Kadisha, a position he has maintained for some fifty years.

Which segment of the community do they associate themselves with?

“Just about every rabbinical authority in the world is involved,” the Asra Kadisha representative says. “Our mailing address was originally the home of Rav Zelik Epstein, zt”l. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Nissim Karelitz, the Brisker roshei yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss the Pshevorsker Rebbe of Antwerp, the Lakewood roshei yeshiva – they’re all involved.

“We deal with everyone. When a skeleton is uncovered, you can’t tell if he had a beard or peyos; you can’t tell if he wore an up-hat or a bent-down. Who are we associated with?  We’re associated with the Aibirshter and with Am Yisroel.”

And it is with the mission of protecting the honor of Am Yisroel that they are so preoccupied. In a world where archaeologists will readily grind bones into powder to test for oil content and caloric intake, Asra Kadisha stands as a citadel of sanctity and dignity. Rav Shmidl answers his phone twenty-four hours a day. Disembarking from a long flight, he once quipped that it had been like a vacation: twelve hours without answering the phone.


If there are so many graves all around Eretz Yisroel, what can be done?

For starters, Asra Kadisha was formed to save Jewish cemeteries, whenever and however possible. If and when this is not possible, they engage in gathering the desecrated bones and bringing them to kever Yisroel.

“There’s never been a building that had no solution,” the Asra Kadisha representative says confidently. The purposes of Asra Kadisha are two-fold: to protect the kavod of the niftarim, as well as the taharah of the living. If solutions are not found, kohanim would be restricted from many, many areas.

Asra Kadisha has ten patrol cars that travel the length and breadth of Eretz Yisroel every single weekday. Once they find problematic excavations, they swing into action. By now, most contractors and archaeologists are willing to capitulate almost immediately; they know that once the Asra Kadisha is involved, they’ll never win.

“Usually we catch them on the spot,” the Asra Kadisha representative says about the archaeologists. “As soon as they see us, sometimes at 3:00 in the morning, they know the game is up. They hand over the bones immediately and we take them for reburial.”

Aside from reburial, there are other solutions employed as the situation demands. Sometimes a road will be re-routed to skirt around the cemetery or built on a bridge above the ground. Sometimes a building’s foundations will be shifted, a space will be left open for the tumah to escape, or an entire building will be moved higher.

When there are no other solutions, an expensive ohel al gabei ohel is erected. Poured concrete covers the gravesite, sealing it in and protecting it until the time of techiyas hameisim. The ohel al gabei ohel structure protects the dignity of the graves and retains the tumah underground.


Through the years, Asra Kadisha has been instrumental in the protection of countless gravesites around the world. Amongst the niftarim that were saved by Asra Kadisha were the kevarim of gedolei Acharonim, including the Pri Megadim in Frankfurt-D-Oder; the Shaar Mishpat in Vinica, Ukraine; the Meshech Chochmah in Dvinsk; and, in Istanbul, the kevarim of the Machaneh Efraim and the Semichas Chachomim.  

One area in which extensive work is being done is Spain. “They’re emptying grave after grave as we speak,” Reb Chizky Kalmanovitz tells me. I had tried to reach him the week before, but his cell phone was unavailable. I soon found out that he’d been urgently called out of town to Milan. Out and back in a matter of days, the delay gave me some insight into the life of a member of Asra Kadisha.

Rabbi Kalmanovitz was one of the members of the delegation that flew to Spain to speak to the authorities and accomplish what they could. In July, a delegation consisting of Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman of the Central Rabbinical Congress; Dr. Bernard Fryshman of the Conference of Academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries; and Rabbi Lazar Stern of Asra Kadisha met with Spanish ambassador Carlos Westendorp y Cabeza.

The topic in question was the discovery of Jewish bones in three locations: Montjewic, Barcelona; Tarrega, Catalonia; and Lucena, Andalusia. Hundreds of skeletons from Montjewic have been sitting in storage houses, some for as long as fifty years, waiting for archeologists to pick at them at whim. In Tarrega, an emergent housing complex uncovered an ancient Jewish cemetery. In Lucena, the construction of a road unearthed more Jewish skeletons. Some of the graves included inscriptions of Jewish names; some had Jewish jewelry. There was no disputing the character of the skeletons.

“Humans are not laboratory specimens,” Dr. Fryshman remarked sharply at the meeting. “You don’t dig first and then examine.”

Since then, Rabbi Kalmanovitz and other representatives have traveled to Spain to arrange for the reburial of 170 bodies exhumed at Tarrega in the new Jewish cemetery at Barcelona. The date of the return of the bodies – Chamishah Asar B’Av – was reminiscent of the famed burial of the bodies of Beitar.

Even while they were there, new reports kept coming in of further desecrations. Home to the Rashba, Rav Yehuda HaLevi, the Rambam and the Ramban, Spain was a center of flourishing Jewish communities for close to 1,000 years prior to the expulsion. Following the traumatic events of 1492, the remains of the Anusim were added for years to come.

Among the bones of the Jews of Tarrega, metal screws were found interspersed. There were no caskets to account for the discovery, leading Rabbi Kalmanovitz to conclude that the screws were the telling remains of the torture undergone by the Anusim in the infamous chambers of the Inquisition.

“These people suffered 500 years ago,” Rabbi Niederman said, “and now they are again feeling pain from the descendants of those who once persecuted them.”


Wherever they might be busy with their vital work, the representatives of Asra Kadisha have seen the Yad Hashem guiding and assisting them in their efforts.

In Grodno, which is currently located in Belarus, a sports stadium is located on the site of a bais hakevaros. Despite this, most of the kevarim there remained intact. Several years ago, it was brought to the attention of Asra Kadisha that plans were being made to build a much more extensive sports complex in that location, which would have required destroying the entire cemetery. Even as efforts were made to halt the plans, dirt from the cemetery was being used to pave a nearby road. With frequent rain and inclement weather, bones mixed in with the dirt would frequently wash up along the road. Members of Asra Kadisha were occupied throughout the winter with reburying these bones.

During this time, an employee of the stadium showed a member of Asra Kadisha an entire roomful of human remains. These bones would need to be reburied in another cemetery on the outskirts of town. By the time the lone Asra Kadisha representative was ready to begin his holy work, only one hour remained until nightfall. After that, it would be too dark to work. The job he had before him, though, seemed impossible to complete in that short time.

In an amazing twist of Hashgachah, an entire group of American bochurim appeared shortly thereafter and was able to assist with the job. What was truly astounding was that this group originally had no plans to visit Grodno, but one bochur insisted on including the stop on their itinerary.

Also part of this group was a doctor from Cleveland, who was so taken with the work of Asra Kadisha that he left behind a sizable donation, as well as his tallis, to be used in the reburial efforts. Within the year, this man recounted that he saw tremendous bracha – he had two older, single daughters who got engaged – and attributed this to his donation to Asra Kadisha.


Due to the current difficult financial situation, Asra Kadisha will be hosting a massive asifa in Lakewood, jointly chaired and hosted by Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah, and Rav Zalman Leib Teitelbaum of Satmar. They are personally asking the olam to attend and show their support for the niftarim by assisting in this worthy cause. It is so appropriate for the members of the Lakewood community, a town in which so many individuals spend much of their day immersed in the holy words of the Rishonim and Acharonim, to come together to rescue the graves of these very same Rishonim and Acharonim. The event will take place tonight at the Cheder Bnei Torah Hall on Fifth Street between Forest and Madison Avenues.

Our chachomim teach us that live people would not exist even half a day without the tefillos of the niftarim. In keeping with this dictum, Asra Kadisha, with its chessed shel emes, is bringing yeshuos and preventing tragedies, lo aleinu, every day. May they continue to be matzliach in their holy work, until the time when dry bones come together and arise with the advent of techiyas hameisim. May it be speedily, in our day.

{Y. S. -Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. Truly amazing! Frightening!!
    And Matzav.com, Yaasher Koach for covering this issue with such an informative and detailed article! Tizku Le’Mitzvos

  2. I’m sure that this is a great mitzvah

    Its a great lesson, if that all these kedoshim & tzadikim feel when their physical bones are disturbed how much more do they anguish about their descendants who bodies are whole but their neshomos are burnt which is much much more painful to them. Are we doing enough to be mekarev the thousands of their descendants.

    This should be the test if we really care about their pain.


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