Jewish Death and Dying

The following are blessings, traditions and mitzvot (obligations) when there has been a death in the community.

At Shir Tikvah, the K’vod haMeyt (honoring the dead) committee helps care for the dead and mourners of our community. Our members are buried in a dedicated section of Riverview Cemetery. For more information please contact Charlie Rosenblum. Anyone wishing to contribute to the K’vod haMeyt fund in honor of a loved one should contact the Shir Tikvah office.

At the Moment of Death
When someone dies, those who hear the news traditionally recite the blessing:

ברוך אתה יהוה אלהינו מלך העולם דיין האמת
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam dayan ha’emet
Blessed are You Adonai our God, Power of the Universe, True Judge

Those who are most affected will probably only be able to gasp out the abbreviated version:

ברוך דיין האמת
Baruch Dayan HaEmet
Blessed is the True Judge

This is a statement of acceptance, not thanks. We affirm that this is the way the world works. People live and then they die. So will we.

Aninut (Pre-burial Stage of Mourning)

The bereaved are in the most intense state of mourning between the death and the funeral/burial. They have no obligations under Jewish law at this time.

Obligations of the Community

1. From the moment when a person dies, Jewish tradition provides that they are not alone.

Our ancestors believed that the soul hovered near the body between death and burial. It is a mitzvah (obligation), therefore, to take part in keeping the dead company until the burial. Volunteers take turns sitting by the body and reading psalms; this is called shemirah (guarding).

2. It is a mitzvah to help to prepare the body for internment.

A specially trained group called the Hevra Kadisha, the “holy circle”, performs taharah (washes) and dresses the body. Men attend men, women attend women. Traditionally the body is wrapped in plain linen shrouds. Death is something to which we all come equally; human equality is emphasized in a number of Jewish mitzvot related to death and burial.

3. All should be buried in plain shrouds, in a plain wooden coffin, with a simple ceremony.

Rabban Gamaliel II lived in a time when the custom was to make funerals very ostentatious, and the costs of burial grew so great that some people who could not afford to keep up would simply abandon the bodies of their dead. Gamaliel II, who was the leader of his community, prescribed a simple style of burial for himself – he was carried out in inexpensive linen shrouds. Therefore, all the people followed his example.

The Funeral
It is a mitzvah to keep the cost of funeral and burial low so that all may be buried in an equally respectable manner.

It is a mitzvah to bury the dead quickly. This is derived from the Torah: “His body shall not remain overnight…You shall surely bury him the same day.” (Deut. 21.23).

In the Talmud, this concept is developed:
If the relative keeps the body overnight to honor the deceased – to have his death made known in nearby towns, to bring professional women mourners for him, or to procure for him a coffin and shrouds – he violates no precept, for all he does is done for the honor of the deceased. (BT Sanhedrin 46b-47a)

It is a mitzvah to delay burial so as to allow for the donation of organs which may help to save another’s life or improve the quality of that life. In some cases it may also be a mitzvah to donate one’s body for scientific research, but the emotional costs to the mourners who must delay the closure of the burial for a year or more should be taken into consideration.

Embalming the dead is usually not necessary unless burial must be delayed.

Requirements of kvod hameyt prescribe only those embalming techniques which leave the body intact.

It is a mitzvah to be sensitive to the needs of the mourners, and to support them in their grief.

R. Simeon ben Eleazar said: do not try to comfort your friend while the body of your friend’s loved one yet lies unburied. (Mishnah Avot 4.18)

Attending a funeral is part of the mitzvah of halvayat hameyt, a mitzvah so so important that it is impossible to measure its importance. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that one may interrupt the study of Torah to attend a funeral procession. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: A man who sees a body on the way to burial and does not accompany it blasphemes his Creator.

Viewing the body is considered a breach of Jewish law since it cannot be an equally positive experience in all cases. Some people’s deaths leave them looking terrible, and so as not to upset their mourners, it was ruled that all dead shall be covered. In cases where someone needs to see a loved one in order to achieve a sense of psychological closure, a private visit with the dead is recommended, but the dead should never be made a public display.

It is a mitzvah to give a hesped, to speak of the dead at the funeral. The use of myrtles as decoration at a funeral is mentioned in the Talmud, but flowers are discouraged by tradition lest the practice lead to ostentation. It is a mitzvah to give Tzedakah in honor of the dead.

The Burial
Respectful burial is a mitzvah incumbent upon the entire community in which a death takes place. Even a kohen (descendent of the priestly class) who is required to keep himself ritually pure and therefore may not come in contact with the dead, is obligated to ritually defile himself in order to tend to the needs of the dead if he comes upon an unburied body.

The purpose of burial is to return the body to the dust from which it came. A coffin is not traditionally used, but in places where it is used, it should be simple wood. Where grave liners are legally required, it is possible to ask for “kosher” liners, which include holes drilled in them so that there is no blocking of at least a small direct relationship between the dead and the earth.

In ancient days in the land of Israel burial took place in caves carved out of stone. After one year the bones would be collected and placed in an ossuary, hence the term “gathered to the ancestors”. When we went into exile, suddenly the ground and hills in which we buried our dead was no longer the Land of Israel; it was the land of non- Jewish peoples among whom we lived, often not easily. A Jewish cemetery became a small piece of Jewishly consecrated ground; one traditional practice is to put some earth from Israel into the grave of a Jew buried outside of Israel. Forced to live separately, we developed a custom of separate burial, among our own. The Jewish cemetery is considered holy, and in Hebrew is sometimes called a beit hayim, house of life, or beit olam, eternal home. Both of these names reflect traditional Jewish beliefs related to life after death. In premodern times, respect for Jewish dead required burial in a Jewish cemetery where the grave would not be vandalized or robbed.

In our own day, many cemeteries maintained by synagogues still do not permit the burial of non-Jews due to traditional separatism. A congregation which welcomes non- Jewish partners and spouses, however, does not maintain the ban on the burial of non-Jews, although usually there will be no non-Jewish burial rites in a Jewish cemetery.

Due to beliefs about the afterlife (and possibly to differentiate ourselves from the customs of other ancient peoples), cremation was often considered contrary to Jewish law. In modern times some people have felt that cremation was also too reminiscent of the fate of many of our people who died in the Shoah, the Holocaust. However, some survivors feel that out of respect for and solidarity with their family members who were murdered, they want to be cremated. It is a mitzvah to respect their wishes. Cremation may also be understood as an environmental and economic mitzvah, especially in areas in which the living do not have enough room, or where prices for body burial are unethically high.

The Shivah
After the funeral the mourners return to the home for the seven-day period known as sitting shivah, so called because they sit on low stools or on the ground as a sign of mourning. The word shivah simply means “seven”. It is a mitzvah to visit them, to bring them food, to talk with them or to be silent with them as they need, and to arrange prayer services in their home each evening so that they can say the mourner’s Kaddish.

Mourners’ Minyan
It is a mitzvah to gather in the home of the mourner after the burial. Often this happens immediately, and sometimes, if the burial takes place elsewhere, Shir Tikvah members will gather during the shiva period, or when appropriate, at the end of the sheloshim period. Usually the minyan takes place in the early evening.

The mitzvot of consoling the mourner are as follows:

1. Participating in the prayer minyan, the quorum necessary to recite the evening prayers. This allows mourners to recite Kaddish (the prayer for the dead)

2. Bringing food for the mourners, since they may be too distracted by grief to cook or remember to eat. Mark the dish if you want it back (better to bring one you don’t).

3. Sharing in the Meal of Consolation after the prayers.

4. You do not have to know the mourner in order to fulfill these mitzvot; you are part of the same congregational family and that is what matters.

5. Making a donation to a Shir Tikvah tzedakah (tribute) fund in memory of the deceased. Our office will notify the mourner of your gift.

Upon arrival at the house where the minyan is held:

1. The door will be unlocked and open; come in quietly.

2. If you are bringing food, take it to the kitchen.

3. Find the mourner and stand nearby until you are noticed.

4. When the mourner notices you, say something like “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I don’t know what to say”.

5. Do not offer a hug or kiss unless you know it is appropriate.

6. Offer a memory of the deceased.

7. During the prayers, participate as you are able, or simply sit quietly and respectfully.

8. Talking with your friends at the house of mourning should not be about politics, work or other matters, but only about the deceased.

9. Any topic the mourner brings up is appropriate for you to respond to.)

10. You do not have to take your leave of the mourner when leaving the house, but if you do, wish them strength and comfort.

Sheloshim (First Thirty Days)

The rest of the first thirty (“sheloshim” in Hebrew) days from the day of the funeral and burial are a time of beginning to return to life and life’s pursuits for the mourner. It is a mitzvah to remain sensitive to their needs and supportive of their grieving process.

Rav said: only after twelve months does one begin to forget the dead. (BT Berakhot 58b)

Yarhzeit
The year which is officially regarded as the extent of the mourning period ends with the first yarhzeit, the anniversary of the death. It is marked by the saying of Kaddish in the synagogue (which can be recited as often as the mourner wishes for one full year). It may also be marked by a gathering at the grave for the dedication of the grave marker (which perhaps used to take a full year to engrave; now it is ready much earlier). All mourning restrictions are lifted from the mourner at this time, but we know that mourning in some fashion will continue.

For further reading: Books
  • The Jewish Way in Death and Dying by Maurice Lamm
  • A Plain Pine Box: A Return to Simple Jewish Funerals and Eternal Traditions by Arnold M. Goodman
  •  Jewish Reflections on Death edited by Jack Riemer
  • Mourning and Mitzvah by Ann Brener and Jack Riemer
  • Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier
For further reading: eResources and Articles

iYARZEIT app for iPhones

YAHRZEIT app for Android

Oregon

Hesed  Shel Emet ensures Portlanders are buried with dignity

Oregon’s Death With Dignity Law – An Interview with Rabbi Stone

Around the World

The anti-Zionist Haredim, the Bedouin, and the Islamic Movement all have ‘been engaged in mobilizing the dead, real or imagined, as props in a political campaign against’ the State of Israel. article

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie decries the trend toward having mourners offer a eulogy and other comments at a funeral. article

 

Defining Death

The central body of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. is backing away from using brain death as the indicator of death (saying that it is neutral), and as a result, ‘Orthodox Jews may be denied organ transplants by the medical community since they would not be willing to be donors.’  article

Britain’s Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din issued a statement rejecting brain-stem death as meeting the halachic definition of death. article

But other rabbis, in an online statement, affirm that “brain stem death is a halachically operational definition of death.’ article 1
article 2

Famous Israeli soccer star Avi Cohen was determined to be brain dead, but his organ donor card was not honored after Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis lobbied family members to change their position and not honor Cohen’s wishes. article 1 article 2

Burial

A severe shortage of Ashkenazi gravesites in Jerusalem has forced some local burial societies to adopt high-density burial methods.  These include double burials (2 per grave); niche in a wall burials, and multistory above ground burials. article

The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities has said it ‘strongly objects’ to proposals to ‘double-deck’ graves. article

Kaddish

A woman hires a tutor to learn the prayer, and completes 11 months of saying Kaddish for her mother in not always friendly Orthodox synagogues in Israel. ‘It was a bittersweet moment.’ article

Special Issues in Kaddish: Study in honor of dead; women reciting Kaddish; Kaddish integrating mourners into communities; and hiring someone to say Kaddish. article

Having recited the Kaddish over 1,300 times, says Joshua Metzger, ‘I am tired, drained. The emotion is no longer present each time I utter the words … I no longer pause to seek out an image of my father to be omnipresent during the prayer. The prayer has evolved into a monotone expression, a chore.’ article

Cemeteries

A look at efforts, by students, to restore graves in Belarus. article