Life, Death and Mourning
Almost any Jewish law can be broken to save a human life
Euthanasia is prohibited, but refusing extraordinary measures is allowed
Mourning practices show respect for the dead and comfort the living
Jewish graves are marked with tombstones
Tombstones are traditionally unveiled 12 months after burial
In Judaism, life is valued above almost all else. The
Talmud notes that all people are descended from a
single person, thus taking a single life is like destroying an entire world,
and saving a single life is like saving an entire world.
Of the 613 commandments, only the prohibitions
against murder, idolatry, incest and adultery are so important that they cannot
be violated to save a life. Judaism not only permits, but often requires
a person to violate the commandments if necessary to save a life. A person who
is extremely ill, for example, or a woman in labor, is not permitted to fast on
Yom Kippur, because fasting at such a time
would endanger the person's life. Doctors are permitted to answer emergency
calls on Shabbat, even though this may violate
many Shabbat prohibitions. Abortions where
necessary to save the life of a mother are mandatory (the unborn are not
considered human life in Jewish law, thus the mother's human life overrides).
Because life is so valuable, we are not permitted to do anything that may
hasten death, not even to prevent suffering. Euthanasia, suicide and assisted
suicide are strictly forbidden by Jewish law. The
Talmud states that you may not even move a dying
person's arms if that would shorten his life.
However, where death is imminent and certain, and the patient is suffering,
Jewish law does permit one to cease artificially prolonging life. Thus, in
certain circumstances, Jewish law permits "pulling the plug" or refusing
extraordinary means of prolonging life.
In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or
through unfortunate circumstances. Death is a natural process. Our deaths, like
our lives, have meaning and are all part of G-d's
plan. In addition, we have a firm belief in an
afterlife, a world to come, where those who
have lived a worthy life will be rewarded.
Mourning practices in Judaism are extensive, but they are not an expression of
fear or distaste for death. Jewish practices relating to death and mourning
have two purposes: to show respect for the dead (kavod ha-met), and to comfort
the living (nihum avelim), who will miss the deceased.
Care for the Dead
After a person dies, the eyes are closed, the body is laid on the floor and
covered, and candles are lit next to the body. The body is never left alone
until after burial, as a sign of respect. The people who sit with the dead body
are called shomerim, from the root Shin-Mem-Reish,
meaning "guards" or "keepers".
Respect for the dead body is a matter of paramount importance. For example, the
shomerim may not eat, drink, or perform a commandment in the presence of the
dead. To do so would be considered mocking the dead, because the dead can no
longer do these things.
Most communities have an organization to care for the dead, known as the chevra
kaddisha (the holy society). These people are volunteers. Their work is
considered extremely meritorious, because they are performing a service for
someone who can never repay them.
Autopsies in general are discouraged as desecration of the body. They are
permitted, however, where it may save a life or where local law requires it.
When autopsies must be performed, they should be minimally intrusive.
The presence of a dead body is considered a source of ritual impurity. For this
reason, a kohein may not be in the presence of a
corpse. People who have been in the presence of a body wash their hands before
entering a home. This is done to symbolically remove spiritual impurity, not
physical uncleanness: it applies regardless of whether you have physically
touched the body.
In preparation for the burial, the body is thoroughly cleaned and wrapped in a
simple, plain linen shroud. The Sages decreed that both the dress of the body
and the coffin should be simple, so that a poor person would not receive less
honor in death than a rich person. The body is wrapped in a
tallit with its
tzitzit rendered invalid. The body is not
embalmed, and no organs or fluids may be removed. According to some sources,
organ donation is permitted, because the subsequent burial of the donee will
satisfy the requirement of burying the entire body.
The body must not be cremated. It must be buried in the earth. Coffins are not
required, but if they are used, they must have holes drilled in them so the
body comes in contact with the earth.
The body is never displayed at funerals; open casket ceremonies are forbidden
by Jewish law. According to Jewish law, exposing a body is considered
disrespectful, because it allows not only friends, but also enemies to view the
dead, mocking their helpless state.
Jewish mourning practices can be broken into several periods of decreasing
intensity. These mourning periods allow the full expression of grief, while
discouraging excesses of grief and allowing the mourner to gradually return to
a normal life.
When a close relative (parent, sibling, spouse or child) first hears of the
death of a relative, it is traditional to express the initial grief by tearing
one's clothing. The tear is made over the heart if the deceased is a parent, or
over the right side of the chest for other relatives. This tearing of the
clothing is referred to as keriyah (lit. "tearing"). The mourner recites the
G-d as "the true Judge," an acceptance of G-d's
taking of the life of a relative.
From the time of death to the burial, the mourner's sole responsibility is
caring for the deceased and preparing for the burial. This period is known as
aninut. During this time, the mourners are exempt from all positive
commandments ("thou shalts"), because the preparations take first priority.
This period usually lasts a day or two; Judaism requires prompt burial.
During this aninut period, the family should be left alone and allowed the full
expression of grief. Condolence calls or visits should not be made during this time.
After the burial, a close relative, near neighbor or friend prepares the first
meal for the mourners, the se'udat havra'ah (meal of condolence). This meal
traditionally consists of eggs (a symbol of life) and bread. The meal is for
the family only, not for visitors. After this time, condolence calls are permitted.
The next period of mourning is known as shiva (seven, because it lasts seven
days). Shiva is observed by parents, children, spouses and siblings of the
deceased, preferably all together in the deceased's home. Shiva begins on the
day of burial and continues until the morning of the seventh day after burial.
Mourners sit on low stools or the floor instead of chairs, do not wear leather
shoes, do not shave or cut their hair, do not wear cosmetics, do not work, and
do not do things for comfort or pleasure, such as bathe, have sex, put on fresh
clothing, or study Torah (except Torah related to
mourning and grief). Mourners wear the clothes that they tore at the time of
learning of the death or at the funeral. Mirrors in the house are covered.
Prayer services are held where the shiva is held, with friends, neighbors and
relatives making up the minyan (10 people
required for certain prayers).
If a festival occurs during the mourning period, the mourning is terminated,
but if the burial occurs during a festival, the mourning is delayed until after
the festival. The Shabbat that occurs during the
shiva period counts toward the seven days of shiva, and does not end the
mourning period. Public mourning practices (such as wearing the torn clothes,
not wearing shoes) are suspended during this period, but private mourning continues.
The next period of mourning is known as shloshim (thirty, because it lasts
until the 30th day after burial). During that period, the mourners do not
attend parties or celebrations, do not shave or cut their hair, and do not
listen to music.
The final period of formal mourning is avelut, which is observed only for a
parent. This period lasts for twelve months after the burial. During that time,
mourners avoid parties, celebrations, theater and concerts. For eleven months
of that period, starting at the time of burial, the son of the deceased recites
the mourner's Kaddish every day.
After the avelut period is complete, the family of the deceased is not
permitted to continue formal mourning; however, there are a few continuing
acknowledgments of the decedent. Every year, on the anniversary of the death,
family members observe the deceased's Yahrzeit
(Yiddish, lit. "anniversary"). On the Yahrzeit,
sons recite Kaddish and take an aliyah
(bless the Torah reading) in synagogue if
possible, and all mourners light a candle in honor of the decedent that burns
for 24 hours. In addition, during services on Yom
Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of
Shavu'ot, after the haftarah reading in
synagogue, close relatives recite the mourner's prayer, Yizkor ("May He
remember...") in synagogue. Yahrzeit candles are also lit on those days.
When visiting a mourner, a guest should not try to express grief with standard,
shallow platitudes. The guest should allow the mourner to initiate
conversations. One should not divert the conversation from talking about the
deceased; to do so would limit the mourner's ability to fully express grief,
which is the purpose of the mourning period. On the contrary, the caller should
encourage conversation about the deceased.
When leaving a house of mourning, it is traditional for the guest to say, "May
the Lord comfort you with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."
Kaddish is commonly known as a mourner's prayer, but in fact, variations on the
Kaddish prayer are routinely recited at many other times, and the prayer itself
has nothing to do with death or mourning. The prayer begins "May His great Name
grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He
give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days ..." and
continues in much that vein. The real mourner's prayer is El Molai Rachamim,
which is recited at grave sites and during funerals.
Why, then, is Kaddish recited by mourners?
After a great loss like the death of a parent, you might expect a person to
lose faith in G-d, or to cry out against G-d's
injustice. Instead, Judaism requires a mourner to stand up every day, publicly
(i.e., in front of a minyan, a quorum of 10 adult
men), and reaffirm faith in G-d despite this loss. To do so inures to the merit
of the deceased in the eyes of G-d, because the deceased must have been a very
good parent to raise a child who could express such faith in the face of
Then why is Kaddish recited for only 11 months, when the mourning period is 12
months? According to Jewish tradition, the soul must spend some time purifying
itself before it can enter the World to Come. The
maximum time required for purification is 12 months, for the most evil person.
To recite Kaddish for 12 months would imply that the parent was the type who
needed 12 months of purification! To avoid this implication, the Sages decreed
that a son should recite Kaddish for only eleven months.
A person is permitted to recite Kaddish for other close relatives as well as
parents, but only if his parents are dead.
See Mourners' Kaddish for the full text of the
law requires that a tombstone be prepared, so that the deceased will not be
forgotten and the grave will not be desecrated. It is customary in some
communities to keep the tombstone veiled, or to delay in putting it up, until
the end of the 12-month mourning period. The idea underlying this custom is
that the dead will not be forgotten when he is being mourned every day. In
communities where this custom is observed, there is generally a formal
unveiling ceremony when the tombstone is revealed.
It is also customary in some communities to place small stones on a gravesite
when visiting it. This custom has become well-known from the movie
List, in which the children of Survivors place stones on the grave of Oscar
Schindler. The custom is not universal, even among traditional Jews, and there
seems to be some doubt as to how it originated. It seems to have superstitious
origins. It's a little like leaving a calling card for the dead person, to let
them know you were there. Stones, unlike flowers, are permanent and do not get
blown away in the wind. Some other sources suggest that it was originally done
because we are required to erect a tombstone, and tombstones that actually
looked like tombstones tended to get desecrated.
What is written on a tombstone? In most cases, it is very straightforward
Hebrew text, similar to what you might see on a tombstone in English. An
illustration of a typical Jewish tombstone is shown above.
At the top is the abbreviation Pei-Nun, which
stands for either "poh nitman" or "poh nikbar", which means "here lies..." The
marks that look like quotation marks are commonly used to indicate an
abbreviation or a number written in letters.
The next line is the name of the decedent, in the form (decedent's name), son
of or daughter of [father's name]. "Son of" is either ben (Beit-Final Nun) or
bar (Beit-Reish). "Daughter of" is bat (Beit-Tav). The tombstone above says
"Esther bat Mordecai" (Elsie, daughter of Morrice). Sometimes, one or both of
the names is preceded by the letter Reish, which simply stands for "Reb" and
means "Mr." The names may also be followed by the title ha-Kohein
(Hei-Kaf-Hei-Final Nun), ha-Levi (Hei-Lamed-Vav-Yod) or ha-Rav
(Hei-Reish-Beit), indicating that the person was a
kohein, a Levite or a
rabbi. See the Hebrew
Alphabet page if you need help in identifying specific letters on a tombstone.
The third line indicates the date of death. This line begins with the
abbreviation Nun-Pei followed by the date, the month, and the year. The date
and year are written in Hebrew numerals, which are letters. The month name is
sometimes preceded by a Beit (meaning "of"). The tombstone above indicates that
the date of death was 18 Shevat 5761. Yod-Cheit = 10+8 = 18. Shin-Beit-Tav is
the month name Shevat. Tav-Shin-Samekh-Alef = 400+300+60+1 = 761 (the 5000 is
assumed). See Hebrew Alphabet -Numerical
Values if you need help in identifying a number. See
Jewish Calendar - Months of the Jewish Year
if you need help identifying months. See Jewish
Calendar - Links to Jewish Calendars if you need help converting a Hebrew
date to a Gregorian date.
The last line is an abbreviation that stands for "tehe nishmatah tzerurah
bitzror hachayim," which means "may her soul be bound in the bond of eternal life."
may also find Jewish symbols on a tombstone, such as a
menorah, a magen
David, a torah scroll, a lion, or the two
tablets of the ten commandments. Most of
these symbols don't tell you anything about the decedent (other than the fact
that he or she was Jewish). However, if you see a picture of hands in a
position like the one at right, this normally indicates that the decedent was a
kohein, because this hand position is used when
the kohanim bless the congregation at certain times of the year.
The definitive book on Jewish mourning practices is Maurice Lamm's
Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. This book is available through most
commercial bookstores, or click the link above to buy it online from amazon.com.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1996-2011), Tracey R Rich
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