Understanding Some of the Unique Customs of Judaism

Jewish law and tradition take a distinctly unique approach to death, funerals and burials, based in significant part on the Torah, which encourages members of the Jewish faith to embrace life while accepting the reality and inevitability of death. Over thousands of years, specific practices have evolved–here are some of the most important ones.

The Requirement of Prompt Burial

Under Jewish practice, the body should be buried as soon as possible, and preferably within 24 hours, if at all possible. Because it is considered disrespectful to leave a body unburied, this is considered to be one of the most important ways to honor a loved one who has died.

The Preparation of the Body

Another extremely important part of the Jewish funeral and burial process is the ritual cleansing and dressing of the body by the Chevra Kadisha, or burial society. Chevra Kadisha are customarily associated with a specific synagogue and perform the Tahara, or purification, of the body, thoroughly cleansing it and then dressing it in the tachrichim, a shroud of white muslin or linen. Once the body is dressed, it is placed in the casket, and the casket is closed. Open caskets are never a part of a Jewish funeral or burial service. According to law and tradition, only male Chevra Kadisha prepare the bodies of men and only female Chevra Kadisha prepare the bodies of women.

The Use of a Simple Wooden Casket

Members of the Jewish faith are customarily buried in a simple pine casket, free of nails or other metals. The use of the pine box signifies the Jewish belief that all are equal in death, but it also complies with the strong Jewish belief that we are created from dust and to dust we shall return. It’s not unusual for the casket to have holes drilled in it to facilitate the decomposition of the body.

The Memorial Service

The memorial service or funeral may take place at the cemetery, but is more typically held at a synagogue or funeral chapel. Often, because of the importance of immediate burial, the funeral or memorial service will take place within a couple days after interment. There is no visitation by family or friends within the presence of the body before the funeral.

Dress at the memorial service is conservative and respectful. Men are expected to wear a coat and tie, as well as a yarmulke (which is typically available at the funeral home or synagogue). Women are not required to wear a yarmulke, but should avoid revealing attire, such as short sleeves or open-toed shoes.

The rabbi customarily opens the service by cutting a black ribbon, which symbolizes the departure of the deceased from loved ones. The service typically includes chanting or recitation of the Hebrew prayer for the dead, known as the El Malei Rachamim (“God Full of Mercy”). Psalms and poems from the Hebrew Bible are often read, and mourners may recite a Kaddish, an Aramaic prayer that honors all who have died. There’s almost always a eulogy at a Jewish funeral, delivered either by the rabbi or by a friend/family member.

It’s unusual, though not forbidden, to have music at a Jewish funeral. When there is, it’s customary to notify all mourners in advance.

The Burial

One of the unique traditions within Judaism is for friends and family members to participate in the burial. In modern times, that tradition typically involves mourners pouring a shovel of soil on the casket. Another tradition has mourners stop seven times as the coffin is carried from the hearse to the grave. As they stop, Psalm 91 is recited.

At the end of the burial service, non-family members form two lines and the family members pass by them. As they do, they recite the traditional condolence “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” In addition, all mourners may wash their hands in a symbolic cleansing as they leave the cemetery.

Gutterman’s—Serving the Jewish Community for More than 125 Years

At Gutterman’s, with funeral chapels in New York and Florida, we have provided comprehensive funeral and burial services to members of the Jewish faith for five generations. We understand the unique customs of the different denominations within Judaism, and will carefully guide you through the process. We offer assistance in all matters related to funerals, memorial services and burial, from the arrangement of the funeral or memorial service to preparation for sitting Shiva, the drafting and submission of an obituary, the selection of a casket or monument, and the creation of a Yahrzeit calendar.

For answers to any questions you may have about a Jewish funeral or burial, or for experienced and compassionate guidance in your time of loss, contact us online or call us at one of the numbers listed below to schedule a meeting. We will take your call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.