Jewish Mourning Practices
As a congregational rabbi I have ministered to the dying and bereaved for more than thirty-five years. Helping others in what Rabbi Abner Weiss says “is the most universal of human experiences” is possibly the most arduous and yet most rewarding function of any minister of any faith, for how we confront mortality is one of the most difficult experiences of human endeavours. At the same time, it is a humbling privilege to share with dying people their very last thoughts and words, or to help the bereaved in their greatest hour of need brings very great satisfaction.
Judaism, according to Rabbi H. Rabinowicz, suggests a way of life, which is a continual “act of service to God and to man”, can also enrich and enhance human life. It also has a distinctive approach to death and its ensuing consequences. The Orthodox Jewish approach may appear to be somewhat doctrinaire. Rabinowicz however suggests that it is distinguished for its humane and therapeutic relevance in confronting mortality. He continues: “the real purpose of religion is to open the hearts to true joy and to strengthen the spirit in those inevitable moments of darkness and despair”.
An observer at a funeral taking place at Bushey Cemetery, one of the largest Jewish Cemetery in Europe, may be hard-pressed to support this notion with regard to Orthodox Judaism, on seeing the apparent regimented procedures being followed, which do not allow for variation or the inclusion of personal requests. Eulogies used to, in the main, only be delivered by the minister. Orthodox rituals of little significance to the mourners, relatives or friends, especially if they had little or no experience of such rituals. This has now changes, and eulogies may be given by others than the officiating minister. Yet, when the minister was the only one to give an eulogy, he was confronted by the difficulty of providing support at a time of intense loss, and also having to explain that the procedures are indeed designed to facilitate that support.
The bereaved may find it difficult to understand the Jewish orthodox approach especially when they have had little experience of Jewish rituals. They may not subscribe to a religious way of life, and yet by familial reasons, have some connection with a particular faith community, and will only come into contact with its doctrines and teachings when confronting life cycle situations. For them religious practices may be of little or no relevance except when it comes to dying or mourning. When confronted by one’s own mortality or that of a close relative or friend religion suddenly assumes an important role, and spiritual support is sought to find meaning and help in times of grief and mourning. Leslie Katz writes regarding American Jews that “a recent survey showed that Jews at every observance level follow traditional rituals in the wake of a loved one’s death.” Leon Wieseltier (1998) attended daily services to say Kaddish (commonly known as the “Mourner’s Prayer) after the death of his father, even though he described himself as being non-observant.
The reason why death triggers an interest in religion is obvious. It helps to demystify a process for which there is no empirical evidence, and therefore provides a means of overcoming a traumatic experience, which is full of emotion. Rabbi Norman Lamm says: “Death is the crisis of life. As there is a Jewish way of life, there is a Jewish way of death.” Judaism has evolved a whole ritual of dying, burial, mourning and remembrance. Each stage, according to Rabinowicz, endeavours “to reconcile the natural and spontaneous expression of profound grief with reasoned and resigned self-control.”
Leon Wieseltier adds a further dimension. On being asked why he said Kaddish he replied: “Because it is my duty to my father. Because it is my duty to my religion. Because it would be harder for me not to say Kaddish. I would despise myself. Because the fulfilment of my duty leaves my thoughts about my father unimpeded by regret and undistorted by guilt.” He echoes a well known phenomenon that even Jews who would not class themselves as being religious, will insist on keeping at least some of the ritual as an act of respect and reverence for the departed. I often hear the reason “because this is what my departed father would have wanted.”
Menachem M. Brayer propounds the notion that Jewish mourning practices provide a sound psychological and therapeutic way of confronting death and mourning, which can prevent pathological mourning. Katz adds: “These centuries-old traditions bring great comfort to people in a time of confusion and pain.”
Jewish Mourning Practices
Jewish practices regarding death and mourning practices have two purposes – to show respect for the dead and to comfort the living. They can be divided into several stages spanning the death and treatment of the dead, to the rehabilitation of the mourners. Once death has occurred the body should not be left alone, and it should be treated with the utmost dignity.
Many communities will arrange a rota of “watchers” to sit with the body and recite excerpts from the Book of Psalms. Rabbi Rabinowicz says that one of the reasons for this tradition is “as a mark of respect for the dead since it is considered disrespectful to leave a human body in a defenceless state unattended.” Some rabbinical authorities understanding the difficulties of keeping this tradition especially in a hospital ward, will accept that by placing the body in a mortuary, will be a sufficient safeguard. Some hospitals will provide special facilities for this “watching.”
Jewish law prohibits the desecration of the body. This principle is the basis upon which post-mortem examinations or transplantation is opposed in Jewish law. However, this prohibition can be overridden in the case of saving life, or in the case of post-mortem, at the direction of a coroner.
Jewish law also demands that burial should take place as soon as possible based on the biblical directive that one who had been executed – “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him that day.” (Deut. 21:23). The Talmud  teaches that the purpose of a funeral is for the dead. The consequence of this is the rabbinical ruling that a funeral can only be delayed if it means that due honour can be accorded to the dead, which can include enabling close mourners to be present. The theological Biblical and Talmudic source is also the basis for Orthodox Jewish abhorrence against cremation. The theological reasoning for the undue delay of a burial, is that it causes suffering to the deceased, as the soul cannot commence is journey until the physical remains have been laid to rest, for we are created both as spiritual and physical beings.
Jewish burial practices are remarkably simple. Preparation of the body for burial is performed in accordance with well established traditions by voluntary or paid members of the community, who are formed into a group called the “Chevra Kadisha”, who take great care to treat the body with the utmost dignity and sanctity. Once the body has been washed it is dressed in simple shrouds. In the case of a man it is wrapped in a prayer shawl. A plain coffin is used. While the process from death till internment focuses upon the deceased, experience has shown that the bereaved gain much solace knowing that a loved one has been accorded such dignity. Even non-observant Jews may object to autopsies being performed, even when rabbinical sanction has been given.
Who are the mourners?
Judaism, while propounding a clear method of mourning it limits the observance of mourning rites to close relatives of the deceased – children, parents, siblings and spouses. This is based on the Biblical teaching (Leviticus 21:1-3) that the priests were prohibited from being ritually defiled by contact with a dead body. This rule could only be broken in the event of a priest losing a close relation – parent, child, sibling or spouse. Judaism also sets perimeters as to the length of mourning that the Avel (mourner) should observe, for there is a Jewish theological imperative that there should not be excessive mourning.
Alan Kay discerns five stages of the Jewish mourning process, each of which involves specific rites that the mourners should observe. Intertwined with these stages, is the continued requirement to have due respect for the deceased. The stages are –
1. From death until burial.
2. The first three days of mourning after burial.
3. The next four days of mourning
4. The first thirty days after burial.
5. The first year after the loss of a parent.
From death until burial
Immediately upon death the mourner is classed as an Onen, (meaning – one who feels grieved). Lamm defines an Onen as: “a person in deep distress, a person yanked out of normal life and abruptly catapulted into the midst of inexpressible grief. He is disorientated, his attitudes are disarranged, his emotions out of gear.” Jewish law understands the state of mind of the mourner, and therefore he cannot be expected to behave in a regular manner. Therefore observance of any religious ritual, including prayer is suspended until internment, for they are considered to be too psychological traumatised to be able to properly observe these rituals. In addition, burial arrangements primarily rests with the mourners, which in itself is thought to be a religious act, and therefore are exempted from performing other religious acts.
The climax of this period is the rending of clothing, which is performed immediately prior to the commencement of the funeral. The Bible recognises that the act of rending a garment was a common reaction to receiving news of death. Lamm states that this is: “the most striking Jewish expression of grief”. This physical vent of ones emotions is also designed to help the mourners acknowledge their feelings, while at the same time accept the divine judgement that, just as God gave life, he has now taken it away. Therefore the rending of the garment is accompanied by the recitation of a blessing which recognises God as the true judge.”
Jewish burial practices.
The funeral follows the theme of simplicity, while maintaining the dignity of the dead, and of enabling the mourners to come to term with their loss, by directing them to what Lamm calls: “the reality of death that enables man to overcome the trauma of death.” He says that Judaism does not try to mask the reality of death, but enables us to confront it. Lamm states that the Jewish burial and mourning process allows the mourner to: “work through, naturally and at and his own pace, an acknowledgement and acceptance of his loss.”
The funeral service is usually conducted at the cemetery chapel prior to internment. Apart from readings from the Book of Psalms, one of the most important prayers recited at this stage is called Tziduk HaDin (meaning the righteous Rock). It is based on the Talmudic description of Rabbi Hanina, his wife and daughter who recited biblical verses before being put to death on the orders of Hadrian. These verses form the basis of this prayer that acknowledges God as true and just, and augments the acceptance of the mourners of their plight, already started by the rending of the garments. The eulogy that follows is in Jewish tradition designed to portray the life of the deceased, and more importantly to encourage the mourners to weep and express their grief, and therefore needs to be delivered with the utmost sensitivity and regard for the dignity and sanctity of the cemetery. Weeping was seen as an integral part of the mourning process.
Following the chapel service, the coffin is accompanied to the grave. This act of accompanying the coffin is seen as a supreme show of respect. The coffin is lowered into the grave, and the mourners are encouraged to participate in filling the grave. Lamm says that this has strong psychological benefits in overcoming grief: “The heart-rending thud of earth on the casket is enormously beneficial. In proclaiming finality, it helps the mourner overcome the illusion that his relative still lives; it answers his disbelief that death has indeed claimed its victim.” It also enables those other than the mourners participate in the burial, enabling them to physically express their emotions.
The funeral service, which concludes with the recital of a memorial prayer and the Kaddish also marks the beginning of the next stage of the mourning process. The Kaddish is commonly and perhaps mistakenly known as the Jewish mourner’s prayer, although there is no reference to death in the prayer itself. The Kaddish is an integral part of the synagogue liturgy that acknowledges the greatness of God. The earliest reference that the Kaddish is considered to be a mourner’s prayer was made by Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (ca. 1180 – 1260). The burial confronted the mourner with the reality of loss. Now the Kaddish enables the mourner to begin a process of rehabilitation, by himself acknowledging that God has given life and has now taken it back, recognise the greatness of God. It was the tradition that the Kaddish could only be said by a men, because it can only be recited in a quorum of ten men. However some orthodox rabbinical authorities in recognising the needs of women mourners will permit them also to recite the Kaddish.
Having been stunned into a sense of despair and loneliness, the rehabilitation process includes a re-entering into the community. This process includes walking between two rows of friends and according to Lamm (1969, Page 87) by being “formally comforted. This takes place at the cemetery before the mourners return home, where the seven days of mourning will be observed.
The Shiva – The Week Long Period of Mourning.
The second stage of mourning is commonly known as the Shiva (seven days). Many restrictions apply to the mourners including the requirement to sit on low stools and the prohibitions of washing, shaving, working, marital relations, and the wearing of leather shoes. Rabinowicz states that the Shiva “is a unique institution. For seven days, the mourners…are united in their common sorrow. Daily routines and work cease. Death, with its awesome majesty, casts its shadow on the mourners.” He goes on to say that many of the customs observed during this period were developed in Talmudic times, and many of their origins can be traced back to the Bible.
The first rite to be observed by the mourners on returning home will be the partaking of a special mourner’s meal. This reflects the biblical account of how Jacob prepared a mourner’s meal for his father Isaac, on the death of Abraham. While different Jewish communities will keep their own traditions, the staple component of this meal is a boiled egg, to reflect the fact that just as the egg has no mouth, there are no real words to comfort the mourner. The egg is also a symbol to the mourner, that even though one life has ended, life must still continue. Friends and relatives as with all meals during the seven days of mourning will prepare this meal.
The Shiva itself can be divided into two parts. The first three days are considered to be particularly difficult for the mourners, and while those who visit should at all times respect “the mourner’s grief and bitterness” (Rabinowicz), these first days require far greater sensitivity. Jewish tradition holds that visitors should not speak until the mourner initiates conversation. The origin of this tradition is found in the Book of Job (Job 2:13) “So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights and none spoke a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great.” The last four days are of less severity, only in respect that the mourner is able to respond to any greeting.
The Thirty Days
The next stage of the Jewish mourning period is the thirty days, countered from the day of internment. The restrictions during this period include not participating in any happy occasions, and not shaving. The mourner is during this time gently coaxed back into normality. Formal mourning for relatives other than parents only lasts for thirty days.
The Year Long Mourning for a Parent
Jewish law considers that while any loss is traumatic, the death of a parent is particularly formidable. Therefore the mourning for a parent should last for twelve months until the anniversary of the death. In discussing the justification behind this distinction, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin quotes a Palestinian leader Abu Ali who paid a condolence visit when the rabbi was sitting Shiva for his mother. Abu Ali said: “If one loses a spouse it is tragic, but one can nevertheless always marry another. If one loses a child the pain can never be healed, but one may well have other children. After all I have four wives and thirteen children. But a mother is irreplaceable; we are given only one set of parents, who can never be replaced.” Riskin adds a further dimension by stating that our parents are a link with our past, and mourning them is a part of the biblical command to honour our parents. This view echoes the opinion of Leon Wieseltier (1998) as to why he said Kaddish for his father.
Although the restrictions will last for one year, the Kaddish is only recited for eleven months. Theologically the saying of the Kaddish has the effect of helping the soul in its journey to heaven, which according to the Talmud only takes up to eleven months. The Kaddish is also recited on the anniversary of the death of the departed relative.
Jewish mourning practices have their theological and psychological rationale enabling one to confront loss, and recognise the trauma and crises that ensue. Sonsion and Dyme state: “Judaism regards death as an inevitable part of life” citing Psalm 89:49 “Who is the man who lives, and shall not see death?” The effectiveness of Orthodox Jewish mourning rites is also recognised by progressive Jewish opinions (Neuberger 1999) as being able to demystify death and dying, and face the resultant fears, feelings and emotions.
Michael J. Krant questions whether those who do not observe a ritualistic way of life, can gain comfort from observing religious rituals. He says: “Individuals who are not immersed in a total life ritualistically codified experience cannot find gratification from adhering to a ritual at a particular life crisis.” I would reject this notion, and argue that rituals at times of death and loss are relevant even to those who do not normally subscribe to ritual. Bereavement does not only cause deep emotional and traumatic upheavals. It causes disorientation. Therefore Jewish mourning rituals provide a practical framework to address both the emotional and practical issues. Anxieties can often be allayed by the bereaved in the knowledge that they are being guided through a well-established system.
Judaism provides a powerful process of mourning precisely because it has clearly defined rituals. In trying to give pastoral support to the bereaved I have learnt that initial reluctance to the keeping of rituals and restrictions, can give way to an acknowledgement that Jewish mourning practices can be most effective, if they are applied with great sensitivity. At the same time, they can lose their ability to confront death, when they are applied devoid of any dignity or awareness of the needs and state of the mourners, and others who may be affected by the loss.
Babylonian Talmud - Sanhedrin 46b
Babylonian Talmud - Avoda Zara 18a
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Rabinowicz, H. – A Guide to Life – Jewish laws and customs of mourning. Jewish Chronicle Publications (3rd Ed. 1982)
Katz, Leslie – Mourning rituals help Jews confront the grief of loss – Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, (August 11, 1995) http://www.jewishsf.com.com/bk950811/1loss.htm
Kay, Alan A. – A Jewish Book of Comfort. Jason Aronson Inc. 1993
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Lamm, Norman – the Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Jonathan David Publishers, 1969
Neuberger, Julia – Dying Well – A guide to enabling a good death – Hochland & Hochland Ltd. 1999
Riskin, Rabbi Shlomo – Why we mourn our parents – Jewish News of Greater Pheonix – http://www.jewishaz.com/1997b/torah.shtml
Sonsion, Rifat & Dyme, Daniel – What happens after I die – UAHC Press 1990
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