“Surely the Lord will redeem my soul from my grasp of the grave, for He will receive me. Selah” (Psalm 49,16)
To strengthen our spirit in moments of darkness and despair, Judaism provides much beneficial guidance,
With tender regard for the dead and deep concern for the bereaved family, a series of time-honoured regulations is specifically requested so that the dignity of the deceased may be preserved and comfort offered to the mourners.
Obviously it is not possible for relatives – due to the immediate stress of the bereavement – to sit down and absorb a vast amount of detailed information. Hence this short guide which lists the basic instructions and gives some essential background knowledge.
To help mourners directly to appreciate the various stages of the mourning process which Judaism prescribes, from learning the sad news to the funeral arrangements to the rules about Shiva, the information contained here is brief, to the point, and clearly set out.
There is no way round grief – only a way through – and the profound psychological components of the mourning practices of Judaism are thoughtfully asserted in order to help with the emotional needs of the mourner.
The fervent hope of the compilers of this booklet is that at a sad time it will enable the mourners to cope the better with their sorrowful responsibilities.
With the observance of the procedures outlined herein, the mourner will be held firm throughout a trying time, to come eventually out of the sorrow of darkness towards the daylight of resumed life.
WHAT TO DO
When someone dies
1. If one is present at the time of death –
a. Close the eyes and mouth of the deceased, place the arms by the sides and straighten the feet.
b. Remove rings, etc, from the deceased
c. If possible, with the help of another person, lower the deceased modestly and respectfully to the floor so that the feet face the door.
d. A sheet should be drawn over the entire body
e. Open the windows
f. Light a Yahrzeit candle in the room
a. Touch the deceased unnecessarily other than for the above
b. Eat, drink or smoke in the same room as the body; that is disrespectful
Then, as soon as possible –
a. Call the doctor
b. Contact the Chevra Kadisha and your local Synagogue (see appendix for full details)
c. Phone the Rabbi concerned with the family
d. Inform as many members of the family as possible
a. The Chevra Kadisha will arrange the pick-up of the deceased and liaise with the family doctor with regard to the Death Certificate, without which the funeral cannot take place.
b. The funeral should always be arranged to take place as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours of death. Should you wish to delay the funeral, consult your Rabbi as there must be a valid reason for such postponement e.g. waiting for the arrival of a son from abroad to say Kaddish at the funeral
2. If a relative dies in hospital –
a. The hospital has standing instructions regarding the deceased
b. If you are the next of kin proceed to the hospital as soon as possible
c. Contact the Chevra Kadisha and your local /Synagogue (see appendix for full details)
d. Notify the family doctor
e. Phone the Rabbi concerned with the family
f. Inform as many members of the family as possible
g. See note below on Post Mortem examination
3. If a person dies on Shabbat or Yom Tov –
a. The family should wait till Saturday night, or until Yom Tov goes out, before contacting the Chevra Kadisha
b. In case of emergency, in large towns, the Chevra Kadisha’s answering machine will give instructions regarding a gentile undertaker to remove the body. In country communities, enquire at the local synagogue.
4. If unfortunately the death is caused by accident or is unnatural –
a. The police authorities will give instructions
b. The family must insist that the remains be afforded reverential burial as soon as possible.
NOTE ON POST MORTEM EXAMINATIONS
In deference to the deceased, Judaism forbids unnecessary desecration of the body. Where the law of the country demands a post mortem examination, the family have the legal right that a doctor of their choice be present at the post mortem. Should there be any problems with this, contact the Chevra Kadisha (see appendix details)
5. If the death occurs abroad
If the family wish the deceased to be buried here in South Africa, the Chevra Kadisha (see appendix for details) must be contacted as soon as possible.
If the funeral has already been held, consult your Rabbi as there is a difference in what you are required to do between hearing the sad news within 30 days or thereafter.
NOTE ON CREMATION
Cremation is totally forbidden in Jewish religious law. The deceased’s body is entitled to be treated with every respect – not be burnt like a useless object. It must also be emphasised that Judaism believes in the resurrection of the dead.
1. There are seven categories of relative for whom mourning is obligatory – for the loss of a father, mother, spouse, brother, sister, son, and daughter.
2. For a parent one mourns for a whole year: for all other relatives for a period of thirty days.
STAGES OF MOURNING
FROM THE DEMISE TO THE BURIAL
From the moment of death until the reverential disposal of the body by burial, the mourner is called and “Onen”. He is regarded as being entirely occupied with the solemn duty of helping to make the funeral arrangements, and as having no mind for concentration on any other matter. As a result, he is not only exempt from performing any of the normal religious requirements, such as Prayer, reciting the Grace before and after Meals, and donning Tefillin, but is actually forbidden to do so. He is not counted in the quorum of ten (Minyan) for prayer, or three (Mezuman) for Grace after Meals. Once, however, the Chevra Kadisha takes over the funeral arrangements, he is technically freed from all those pre-occupations, and if he feels the urgent need to fulfil these duties he may do so although there is no obligation on him. During this period of Aninut, male and females are forbidden to eat meat or drink wine.
In any case of doubt, the Onen should refer to his/her Rabbi for direction.
Prior to the burial, the Tahara (Purification Ritual) is performed. This is a holy duty and is carried out by official and voluntary attendants of the Chevra Kadisha. If the deceased was a male, it is customary for the family to give the Chevra Kadisha his Tallis so that he may be buried in it.
Prior to the funeral – the mourners, male and female – are obliged to rend their clothes, called K’riah, as a visible sign of grief. Sons and daughters tear the garment on the left-hand side (the side of the heart) for a parent: for all other relatives the garment is torn on the right-hand side.
The following blessing is recited at the time of K’riah:
“Baruch Atah HaShem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam Dayan HaEmet”
(“Blessed are you, O Lord our G-d, Kind of the Universe, the true Judge”)
A Kohen – a person of priestly descent – is forbidden to contaminate himself with the dead. The contamination consists in more than coming into actual physical contact with the dead. In Jewish law human remains, devoid of their eternal soul, constitute the highest degree of ritual contamination, which fills the whole space of the room in which the corpse lies.
Hence on all occasions a Kohen, other than for the funeral of an immediate relative, is not allowed to approach a dead body or enter a house in which there is a dead body, or be present in the Hall during the funeral, or come too close to a grave.
Most cemeteries make special arrangements adjacent to the Hall for Kohanim who wish to pay their respects to the dead.
The coffin is borne into the Ohel for the first part of the Burial Service. Forgiveness is asked of the deceased, and appropriate sacred Verses are recited.
During the procession to the grave Psalm 91, which asserts that G-d will accompany us beyond this mortal life, is chanted. Several stops are made during this sad journey as a sign of our reluctance to part with the deceased.
At the graveside, after the coffin has been lowered, the Zidduk HaDin (Acknowledgement of Divine Judgement) is recited. Towards the end of this prayer it says “The Lord gave and Lord has taken away: Blessed be the Name of the Lord:.
When filling in the grave the custom is to use the back of the spade. The male mourners are fist asked to place three spades of earth onto the coffin and then all the males present help to fill in the grave. Each person should place the spade back on the earth, instead of passing it on. We do not hand troubles to each other.
Where appropriate a Eulogy, in which the qualities of the deceased are elaborated, is then delivered, followed by a special Prayer for the Soul of the deceased, after which Kaddish is recited. Kaddish consists of praising Al-mighty G-d and is recited as an act of filial piety to show that the children of the deceased have been brought up properly, and also is a declaration of the acceptance of the Divine Will in taking the person away from this earth. (See appendix for text and transliteration).
The Memorial Prayer is then chanted, during which the synagogues and organisations wishing to donate charity in memory of the deceased person are mentioned.
As the mourners leave the grave a “Shurah” (two parallel lines) is made by all those present. The mourners walk through the middle and everyone comforts then by saying:
“HaMakom yenachem etchem b’toch sh’ar avelei Tsion Verushalayim”
(“May G-d comfort you amongst the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem”)
On their return home, the mourners are enjoined to eat a special meal caller “Seudat Havra-ah’ – “the Meal of healing” – supplied by friends or neighbours, which by tradition consists of rolls and eggs which are round, symbolising a hoped-for change of fortune.
“Shiva” means seven, and is the name given to the period of strict mourning, which the immediate family observes at home. It is preferable that the Shiva be held in the house where the departed lived and died and where his or her memory is still fresh, but circumstances may not always render this possible, and for family reasons it is often held in the home of one of the children of the deceased.
The outward signs of mourning, in addition to the torn garment, are the removal of one’s leather footwear which is changed for slippers (not leather ones), sitting down on a low stool or cushion, and the covering of all mirrors – which are indicative of human vanity – in the house.
The mourners must, of course, remain in the house during the whole period of the Shiva and refrain from work or toil of any kind. Ablutions should be confined to washing one’s hands and face. Men are prohibited to shave and marital relations are not indulged.
Daily Prayers, both morning and evening, should be held at the Shiva house so that the mourners will have the opportunity of reciting Kaddish. For this purpose a Minyan is required, and it is praiseworthy for members of the wider family, friends and neighbours to come regularly to the Shiva house to ensure the Minyan. When no Minyan is available, the mourners should leave the Shiva house to attend the nearest synagogue, then return immediately.
In addition to attending prayers at the Shiva house, one should give thought to the mourners sitting out the long dreary hours in-between services. Friends and sympathisers visiting the mourners during the hours of the day, spending some time with them, and genuinely comforting them, are performing a really good deed.
The comforting of mourners should not be turned into a social occasion, and the custom which obtains in some cases to offer hospitality in the form of refreshments to those who come to comfort the mourner, natural though it is, is contrary to the whole sorrowful spirit of mourning, and is to be discouraged.
A candle has to be kept burning during the whole week of Shiva and provisions made, normally by the use of a Yahrzeit candle, to ensure that it burns during the whole of the Sabbath. The candle symbolises the immortal soul of the deceased, in accordance with the verse:
“The soul of a human being is the light of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27)
In addition, whenever Prayers are being held during the Shiva week, two candles should be lit.
It is not permitted to study Torah which is regarded as a source of pleasure, but it is permitted to read the sad parts of the Bible such as the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job and those parts of the Talmud dealing with the subject of mourning and any guides on the Jewish laws of mourning.
It is disconcerting that some Jewish families nowadays do not observe Shiva properly. The word “Shiva” literally means “seven” and it is therefore incorrect merely to hold prayers for one or two evenings.
Indeed Jewish religious law is lenient regarding the week of mourning, in that the day of the funeral counts as one whole day, and the Shiva on the last day is completed by sitting for an hour or so in the early morning e.g. if the funeral takes place on a Monday afternoon, the Shiva terminates the following Sunday morning.
The laws regulating the procedure to be adopted by the mourner during the Sabbath of the week of Shiva can be summed up in one single sentence. Anything which draws public attention to the fact of mourning is forbidden; the private aspects of mourning, however, remain in force. Thus, before going to Synagogue on Friday night, the mourner resumes wearing shoes and he may sit during Shabbat on an ordinary chair instead of a low cushion. The torn garment should not be worn during Shabbat. The only sign that something is amiss is that the mourner does not occupy his usual seat in the synagogue.
It is not considered appropriate for mourners to be present for the joyful part of the Friday Evening Service especially Lecha Dodi. Mourners stand outside the entrance of the Synagogue for the beginning part of the Friday Evening Service, but are welcomed into the Synagogue itself by the Rabbi at the conclusion of Lecha Dodi and the traditional salutation of comfort is bestowed on them.
The end of the Shiva week is marked by a small but impressive ceremony. After the termination of the Mourning Service on the last day of Shiva, the mourners resume their low seats for a while, after which close friends help them to rise, comfort them with the traditional formula, and express the wish that this be the last of their sorrows.
The termination of the Shiva does not bring the mourning to an end; there commences a further stage in the process of the diminution of the intensity of mourning. This is called Shloshim.
“Shloshim” means “30”, i.e days, but the 30 days are counted, as is the Shiva, from the date of the funeral and therefore extend for 23 days after the termination of the Shiva. In addition, like the Shiva “part of the day is reckoned as a whole day”, with the result that the Shloshim terminates after the morning service of the 23rd day after the termination of the Shiva.
Among the restrictions during the Shloshim are that the mourner may not buy new clothes, may not listen to music, and should avoid any festive gatherings. Male mourners are not allowed to shave until after the Shloshim, but if one’s profession or occupation demands a neat appearance, the local Rabbi will give direction.
The incidence of Yom Tov always terminates a Shiva and if the Shiva has been completed before the incidence of Yom Tov, the Festival cancels the Shloshim. If, however, the Shiva was shortened by the incidence of Yom Tov, the number of day of the Shloshim are reduced. This is somewhat complicated – depending on which Yom Tov intervenes – and the family Rabbi should be consulted as to the exact date of the termination of Shloshim.
Whereas a funeral is permitted on Chol Hamoed the sitting of Shiva, which is reduced by a day, is suspended until after the Festival.
The Shloshim however, is counted from the day of the funeral itself.
THE YEAR OF MOURNING
For all relatives for whom mourning is prescribed, apart from parents, the mourning ends with Shloshim. For parents, the mourning is extended for the whole 12 months from the date of death. The restrictions which apply to the mourning for other relatives during the Shloshim apply to the mourning for parents for a whole year.
Thus the respectful son and daughter will refrain from frequenting social gatherings, cinemas and theatres for the duration of the year of mourning. However, should mourners be blessed with a happy occasion, such as the marriage of a child, or a Brit Milah, or Pidyon HaBen, they should enquire of their Rabbi as to the level of joy permitted in participation in the Simcha.
It is fixed custom that sons recite Kaddish daily for a parent for a period of 11 months after their death. According to Jewish belief, the soul is judged for a period of 12 months after the demise, so that if Kaddish were recited for the whole 12 months it would appear that the deceased person was not righteous and thus required the Kaddish to be said for a whole year. The period of 11 months is therefore a delicate sign that the parent did not come within that category.
That the grave of a dear deceased one should be marked by a tombstone goes without saying, but custom differ as to the appropriate occasion for its erection and consecration. According to some it is erected soon after the Shiva, and the end of Shloshim is usually regarded as a suitable date.
The custom of postponing it until the twelfth month, or until the day of the fist Yahrzeit, also has much to commend. In this, one should be guided by circumstances. For instance, when relatives come from afar to attend the funeral, and are prepared to wait over until the tombstone is put up and unveiled, it is obviously advisable to hold the ceremony soon after the Shiva.
The inscription on the Tombstone should bear the name (both in Hebrew and English) of the deceased, the date of death, and usually a brief appropriate Biblical phrase describing the deceased’s main attributes. The formula which consists of the initial letters of the sentence “May his (or her) soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life” is inserted at the foot of the tombstone. It is highly advisable for the family to ask their Rabbit to check the wording and spelling of the inscription prior to the words being engraved.
The tombstones of Kohanim are marked by a carving of the hands as raised in the Priestly Benediction.
A special Unveiling Service to consecrate the tombstone is held, during which suitable Psalm are recited and where appropriate a Memorial Address is given. The inscription is read and Kaddish is recited.
The anniversary of the passing of a beloved one is observed as a day of solemnity. The Yahrzeit candle is kindled at sunset and burns for 24 hours throughout the sad anniversary. Some have the custom of fasting on the day of Yahrzeit for a parent: everyone should endeavour to be present at a Minyan and recite Kaddish.
It is advisable to inform one’s Synagogue of the date(s) of Yahrzeit so that an annual reminder may be sent.
There are complications regarding the commemoration of Yahrzeit in a leap year when the death occurred in Admar in an ordinary year and the local Rabbi should be consulted. It is customary to be called to the Reading of the Torah on the Shabbat before the date of Yahrzeit or on the Yahrzeit itself, be it Shabbat, Monday or Thursday. It is also customary to give charity on the day of Yahrzeit in memory of the dead for the benefit of the living.
ON THE HIDDEN BENEFITS OF MOURNING PROPERLY
One of the greatest challenges faced by us is coping with the loss of a close family member. One is filled with intense and contradictory emotions, which can range form a dull, aching sadness to powerful feelings of anger and resentment at G-d or man. There is often a haunting sensation of guilt – of a lifetime of missed opportunities and a childlike fantasy of personal responsibility for the death. When this complex of emotions becomes too much to bear – solace can be sought in denial, in escaping to some unreal dimension in which the loss did not occur, Especially when losing a life partner – one feels as if standing at the brink of an abyss – looking into the future and seeing nothing.
These emotions are often made more difficult by the pressures and expectations of society – to keep a control on one’s feelings, to fulfil certain roles and to get on with life.
For a Jew, the customs, traditions and laws of mourning and funerals are often perceived as yet another burden to be borne, another imposition upon one’s right to one’s own reaction.
If one truly understands the meaning of these customs, however, they can facilitate the expression of any of the above feelings and assist the bereaved on their passage to emotional reintegration.
Stages of Return
The Torah model of mourning takes one through a number of stages. The first – called Aninut – from the moment of hearing of the death until the funeral is marked by a complete withdrawal from societal and religious obligations. A possible anger against G-d is facilitated by a suspension of all positive commandments such as Tefillin or Prayers, while a need to do one last tangible service for the departed is met by busying oneself with the funeral arrangement.
The next stage is the funeral. The tone and atmosphere of a Jewish funeral is balanced between sensitivity and respect for the deceased; and is the vehicle to facilitate the bereaved public mourning. Most importantly – there is a strong attempt to underline the reality of what is happening.
The first stage of a funeral is the Kriah – the tearing of an outer garment. This grants an opportunity for a moment of ritual but very real destructive expression of anger and bitterness. One also wears one’s heart on one’s sleeve. There is no need to disguise one’s broken heart with pleasantries and social niceties. While tearing, one recites a blessing acknowledgement that it is G-d who decides the moment of a person’s death – no man can be responsible in any way.
At this moment the Rabbi usually makes the Hesped, the eulogy. Besides adding to the dignity of the memory of the deceased, the purpose of the eulogy is to encourage the mourners – products of a culture which discourages any public display of emotion – to cry in public. The reward of a eulogy, says the Talmud, is a mournful cry.
Unlike the subtle, gentle moment of interment at a Hollywood funeral, in a Jewish burial the body is abruptly lowered into the grave which in then filled by those present. The dull sound as the fist clod of earth hits the pine coffin reverberates in the consciousness of the bereaved for some time after, discouraging any denial of reality.
The bereaved then recites Kaddish – a heroic reaffirmation of life’s unconditional meaningfulness in the face of despair and the absurdity of death. Those present at the funeral then form two parallel lines – the Shura – for the mourners to pass between. This represents the fact that the community is there for the bereaved – but on the bereaved terms – not imposing in any way.
The funeral is followed by a week in which the bereaved remains at home. This provides a very necessary time-out period to begin to adjust to the new realities of one’s life. It is customary not to attend to one’s personal needs during this week – except for Shabbat. This provides an opportunity for a sanctioned, controlled expression of the need to identify with the deceased. One’s impatience with the trivia of life is acknowledged. It is customary for people to come to comfort the bereaved during this week – always remembering that they come to fulfil the needs of the bereaved and not for a social chit-chat.
Shloshim and the Year
The week of Shiva is followed by a month of less intense mourning and a year marked by a further return to the realities of life. At the end of the year – although one never forgets a loved one, one is encouraged to cease mourning and to have completely returned to the vibrancy of life.
Far from constituting yet another burden the bereaved have to contend with, the fabric of Jewish customs provides a unique opportunity to acknowledge and give expression to a wide range of emotions and needs. This in turn is a powerful factor contributing towards a working through of these feelings and an eventual return to equilibrium.