We know of great Tzaddikim that their bodies don’t decay, but there are cases of gentiles that are also like that, what does that mean?
אמר (ליה) רב מרי: עתידים צדיקים דהוו עפרא, דכתיב וישוב העפר על הארץ. כשהיה הנהו קפולאי דהוו קפלי בארעא דרב נחמן נחר בהו רב אחאי בר יאשיה אתו ואמרו ליה לרב נחמן, נחר בן גברא אתא ואמר ליה מאן ניהו מר? אמר ליה אנא אחאי בר יאשיה. א”ל ולאו אמר רב מרי עתידי צדיקי דהוו עפרא? א”ל ומני מרי דלא ידענא ליה. א”ל והא קרא כתיב וישוב העפר על הארץ כשהיה אמר ליה דאקרייך קהלת לא אקרייך משלי דכתיב ורקב עצמות קנאה, כל מי שיש לו קנאה בלבו עצמותיו מרקיבים כל שאין לו .קנאה בלבו אין עצמותיו מרקיבים
The Gemara states that after a person passes away from this world their bodies return to dust. This is the case even by tzadikim, as we find it says in the pasuk ‘And the dust returns to the earth as it was’. Chazal understands this to include even the righteous men. However after coming across Rav Achai Bar Yoshia, whose body was still fresh and not decomposing, they asked him how that could be the case. To which he answered since we find the pasuk ‘But envy is the rot of the bones,’ therefore only one who has envy will his bones rot. If he does not have envy then his bones will not rot.
Whether Chazal were referring to only the bones not rotting, or the entire body, is not entirely clear. From Tosfos in Bava Basra (17a) it is implied (see Marsha) that when Chazal said the bones do not rot, it includes the body as well, as was the case by Rav Achai Bar Yoshia.
In a letter to the Noda BeYhudah (Y”D 89), Rabbi Meir Bumsla (the Rav of Prague) writes to him that although Chazal tells us that by tzadikim their bones do not rot. This is only the case by exceptional tzadikim, such as Yosef Hatsadik or Rav Achai Bar Yoshia. However tzadikim on that level is not found amongst us in our times. Rabbi Meir writes that he verified this with the Chevra Kadisha, who have seen many old graves, and all in all of them it was found that the bodies had returned to dust.
Throughout history, it has been reported about many different tzaddikim whose bodies were found after many years to be complete and whole. It is said that in the Nazis ym”s forced some yidden to dig up the grave of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, and they found his body in a way that it looked like he was sleeping. It said that when the Stoliner Rebbe R’ Yochanan Perlow’s body was transferred after a year to be buried in Eretz Yisroel, some eyewitnesses reported saying that they saw his body fresh and clean as if he had just passed away. I have not come across a comprehensible list of tzaddikim that it has been said about them that their bodies did not rot, but it seems that such a list would include quite a few if we are to accept all of them as verifiable.
The Sfas Emes as well writes that there are very few that it can be said about them that they are in this category of tzadikim whose bones do not rot. One must be a tremendous tzadik for him to have this special merit, although he does record that in his times it was said that when the cemetery of town Brisk was dug up, two bodies were found to be complete and whole. The Sfas Emes adds that for most people it is a kindliness if the bodies decompose quickly for this allows their souls to depart and find peace.
Can Gentiles bodies also remain intact?
While much can be discussed about this phenomenon. It is beyond this scope of this short article to properly analyze them and discern which of them are true and which are legends. What I would like to discuss is the supposed phenomenon that by gentiles as well it was found that by some people their bodies did not rot even after many years.
Rabbi David Ganz (1541-1613, He was a talmid of the Rema) writes in his sefer Tsemach Dovid as follows: King Rudolf renewed the cemetery in Prague for his honor. In order to do so they needed to exhume the graves of the various kings. Amongst the graves of the Kings they found the body of Charles IV and the body of Louis IV, both who were dead at that point in time for more than 200 years. Both of their bodies were found to be whole and not decomposed in the slightest. Rabbi Ganz writes that this was witnessed by thousands of people including various members of the Jewish community which he mentions by name.
Today in France one can find the shrine of Bernadette of Lourdes, where one can see her body preserved and not decomposing, even after being dead for 150 years. Although it is acknowledged there was some help over the years, and it is very likely that without the help of the church her body would have decomposed by now.
The Catholic Church claims that quite a few of their Saints were found in what they call in an “Incorruptible” position, where their bodies were found whole and preserved.
Are we to dismiss all these stories, as nonsense? Can we accept that gentiles are worthy of such a level that their bones will not rot? After all the Achronim write that this is only said about exceptional tzadikim, and in our times it would be hard to find someone on that level. What about the testimony of Rabbi David Ganz? He writes that he heard from eye witnesses who saw the bodies of King Charles and King Louis, are we to dismiss this as well?
It is said that once people were discussing in the presence of the Chofetzs Chaim a story that was being told in their times. How the grave of Michelangelo was exhumed and it was found that his body was whole and preserved. The people remarked that of course it cannot be true, for how can such a great thing be found by a gentile as Michelangelo. The Chofetzs Chaim remarked, whether the story is true or not, he does not know. However if it is true, he does not see any difficulty with accepting that that was the case. For Chazal never said one has to be a tzsadik to merit this, rather the single condition one must have in order that their bones should not rot is that they do not have any envy. If a gentile does not have an envy, he is happy with his lot and not jealous of people around him, then his bones will not rot. As the pasuk said ‘but envy is the rot of the bones’, and as he had no envy his bones will not rot.
If this is the case, then it would explain the supposed phenomenon that is found amongst gentiles, where it has been claimed that some people’s bodies were found to be whole and not decomposing. Whilst we have no way of knowing if any of these stories are true, it may be that they too are included in what the Chazal tells us, one who does not have envy in heart his bones will not rot.
Although many Achronim write that only by very great tzaddikim will find this to be, perhaps their meaning is that only amongst the greatest tzaddikim do we find them completely free of envy. However this does not exclude the possibility that it may be found amongst gentiles as well.
A completely different and diametrically opposed view can be found in the Sefer Chasidim (siman 1143). Rabbi Yehudah HaChosid writes as follows: “If you will ask how can it be that people have found the bodies of many gentiles, and they were found to be whole although it was many years after they died? The reason for that is that on the contrary, it is a punishment for now they are being judged with their bodies as well.”
According to Rabbi Yehudah HaChosid, yes it is possible to find amongst the gentiles bodies which do not rot, but that is not a sign that these people were righteous. On the contrary they were so wicked that they were being punished with their bodies as well.