Shakespeare’s Skull and Halacha

(Monday, March 28th, 2016 08:15 AM)

shakespeare[by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times]

Utilizing the latest ground-penetrating radar technology, a team of archaeologists has recently claimed that, in fact, rumors of William Shakespeare’s skull having been stolen are probably true. If true, the famous bard’s skull was stolen from Shakespeare’s grave in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, England at the Holy Trinity Church burial site.

The new discovery brings new credence to what was thought to be a long-discredited claim that the skull was stolen from the playwright’s grave by trophy hunters way back in 1794.

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“We came across this very odd, strange thing at the head end,” lead archaeologist Kevin Colls, of Staffordshire University, told the British newspaper, The Guardian. “It was very obvious.. that there was something different going on at that particular spot. We have concluded it is signs of disturbance, of material being dug out and put back again.”

The claim that the skull was stolen was first published in a magazine in 1879. Colls said the team investigated a skull held at a church 15 miles from Stratford and found out that it could not be Shakespeare’s.


Halacha, of course, views a “mais” as sacrosanct and absolutely forbids violating it or disrespecting it. Not that those eighteenth century grave diggers would follow halacha, or that it would apply to them, but it is interesting to explore the Jewish view on a halachic mais.


There are five different areas in Halacha where this issue comes forth. We will briefly explore all of the areas and sources that discuss honoring the deceased. It should be understood that the discussion is in regard to Torah law that applies to relatives of those to whom Torah law is applicable. Indeed, this author received a psak from Rav Dovid Feinstein to that effect in regard to a Ger whose brother was arranging a cremation for his father.


The first one deals with the obligation incumbent upon all Jews to bury a deceased body as expeditiously as possible. This would include reinterring a skull that was taken illicitly. The book of Genesis tells us that Man was created in the Divine image. It is a matter of utmost import in Jewish law never to insult the Creator by leaving His Handiwork – unburied in a state of indignity and disgrace. Maimonides describes immediate burial as a sacred obligation incumbent upon all of Israel, at all times and in all places. This would apply, it seems, to a head that was stolen as well.


The second area deals with disgracing the body. The Talmud (Bava Basra 154a) deals with the prohibition of disgracing or defacing the human body. This is a separate issue from the obligation discussed above.


The third area deals with a prohibition in ever benefiting from the deceased human body. It would be absolutely forbidden to have a “head” as a trophy, heaven forbid. The Talmud in numerous places (Sanhedrin 47b, Avodah Zarah 29b, as examples) describes how it is reprehensible to ever derive benefit from a deceased human body. The only time an exception to this can be made is to directly save a human life. However, to derive any physical benefit from a body is something that should be avoided at all costs.


The fourth area deals with the notion of theft. The human body is sacred and belongs to no one but G-d. It is for this reason that autopsies are absolutely forbidden as well. We cannot deface, cut open, and or examine the body of a deceased family member. Just as they are not ours to examine or cut open, so too are the bodies of our family members not ours to examine, cut open or explore even in an autopsy. The issue is one of out and out theft as explained in the Talmud (Gittin 20a, Kiddushin 17a – see also Ran Nedarim 47a).


Finally, the fifth area deals with sensitivity. Jewish tradition tells us that the soul is in a state of anxiety and anguish until it is buried in the ground. The more it sees its body being explored, cut, etc. the more agitated the soul becomes. One of the most basic ideas in which a society can be judged lies in how that society treats the helpless. Does our society abuse the weak, the elderly, the children – in short, those who cannot speak up for themselves? If so, this does not bode well for us. By the same token we cannot abuse the soul in its most fragile state.

It is this author’s view, by the way, that there seems to be a debate as to how to understand the incident of Pilegesh b’Givah at the end of Shoftim. Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal seems to understand that the husband did not act incorrectly when the Pilegesh body was cut up. He explains in a response that it was a situation of direct Pikuach Nefesh. Other commentators, however, seem to understand the husband’s action as removed from Torah.


The ideas expressed in this article may seem new to the uninitiated. But these beliefs, customs and traditions lie at the core of the Jewish nation. Whenever they are violated they cause extreme stress and anguish to observant Jews. True, the discussion came up in regard to Shakespeare’s skull, but the ideas and ideals discussed here are primary to what the Torah wishes us to aspire.
It is interesting, or perhaps ironicthat , Shakespeare’s grave famously bears the poetic admonition, “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” Could it be that he anticipated this reaction? Was this perhaps a divine retribution for having created Shylock’s “pound of flesh?”

The author can be reached at

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