What is unique to Jewish mourning customs?
Distinctive bereavement traditions of the Jewish faith.
The Unique Traditions of the Jewish Faith in Times of Bereavement
In Judaism, though there may be minor differences among the different traditions, there are common mourning practices, many of which come from the Torah. The mourning practices have two central functions—to pay proper respect to the deceased and to comfort the survivors.
According to Jewish faith and belief, the soul (referred to as the “neshama”) is the essence of the person—the body is simply a physical container of the thoughts, deeds, relationships and experiences of a person. Unlike the physical body, the neshama does not die, but hovers around the body, refusing to leave until the body is buried. Accordingly, it is Jewish custom to bury the body as soon as possible—some traditions require that the body be interred within 24 hours of death.
In addition, from the moment of death until the moment of burial, the body is never left alone. A watcher, known as a shomer/shomayr, must keep a vigil with the body at all times. During the Shmira (time of watching), the shomers customarily recite verses from the book of Psalms, which is believed to provide comfort to the neshama.
Immediate Response When Learning of a Death
Under Jewish tradition, when you learn of a death, you respond with the following blessing: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, the Judge of Truth.” Some people, upon being informed of a death, will engage in ritual “kriah,” where they make a small tear in their clothing. Such tearing is typically symbolic, a small rip that signifies the “hole” created by the loss. Kriah may also be performed at the funeral service, and may be done to a ribbon attached to the clothing, rather than actual garments being worn.
Preparation of the Body for Burial
To show the proper respect to the body of the deceased, it must be ritually cleansed and shrouded before burial. This act is performed by members of a chevra kadisha, or “holy society,” often affiliated with the deceased’s synagogue. Under Jewish law, only men prepare the body of another man and only women prepare the body of a female.
The preparation of the body has three steps:
- The washing, or rechitzah
- The purification, or tahara
- The dressing, or halbashah
During the preparation of the body, prayers are regularly given and there are readings from the Torah. Members of the chevra kadisha will carefully wash the body and remove all jewelry. Though one of the objectives is to make the body as presentable as possible (out of respect), the use of cosmetics or makeup is contrary to Jewish law and tradition. In addition, facial hair is not removed. After the cleansing, the body is purified, often through immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath. The purification may also be done by pouring water over the body.
After the purification, the body is dried and the traditional burial clothing, or tachrichim, is put on the body. According to Jewish tradition, when the neshama faces judgment day, it’s only the person’s good deeds that matter. For that reason, all people of Jewish faith are dressed the same for burial, in a white linen shroud. The tachrichim also includes packaged sets of white burial garments for men and women, which typically include a hood, belt, tunic and pants. The tachrichim are all hand sewn and have no buttons, zippers or other fasteners, and have no pockets. The tachrichim are only used in traditional burials. If you opt for a non-traditional burial, you will customarily be buried in your own clothing.
A Jewish man may also be buried with his tallit, or prayer shawl. If so, the tallit with have one of its fringes clipped to signify that he no longer must abide by the religious obligations imposed on the living.
The Casket and Burial
The maxim “for dust you are and to dust you shall return” is a central tenet of the Jewish faith, informing mourning and burial practices. There is, therefore, no attempt to preserve the body—embalming is typically not done. Additionally, the casket is chosen with the specific objective of hastening the body’s return to the earth. Metal caskets are forbidden—simple wooden caskets are required. Often, the caskets have holes drilled in the bottom to facilitate the body’s return to dust. The caskets are typically not held together by nails or screws, either.
In the Jewish faith, it is considered disrespectful and undignified to view a body in the casket, so the coffin will remain closed once the deceased is placed inside.
The Aveilut, or Period of Mourning
There are different periods of mourning, beginning on the date of burial, and based on who has died. A mourner retains that status for 12 months for a parent, but for 30 days for all other relatives.
- Shiva—This seven day mourning period is observed for all relatives. All mourners gather in one home and receive visitors. They do not leave the shiva home, don’t change their clothing, and refrain from wearing jewelry, perfume or makeup. They will typically sit on low stools, to symbolize that they’ve been “brought low” by their grief. Visitors customarily refrain from greeting the mourners, and customarily assume all responsibility for cooking and cleaning in the shiva home. Mirrors may also be covered so that mourners don’t worry about personal appearance.
- Shloshim—This 30 day period also starts on the date of burial, and is observed for all relatives except parents. After the first seven days, many of the restrictions imposed during shiva are lifted. Mourners may change their clothes, leave the shiva home, return to work, and sit on regular chairs. Some restrictions still apply, though. New, freshly laundered or ironed clothing may not be worn. A bath or shower must be taken as quickly as possible, and a mourner may not clip nails, trim facial hair or get a haircut.
- Shneim asar chodesh—This 12-month period of mourning is observed for deceased parents, starting on the date of death. The mourner is allowed to engage in most normal activities, but will typically recite the mourner’s kaddish for the 11 months after the Shloshim has ended.
Let Us Help You in Your Time of Mourning
At Gutterman’s, we provide comprehensive and compassionate funeral home services to individuals and families in New York and Florida. For assistance in your time of loss, or to learn about the ways that we can be of service to you, call our offices at one of the numbers provided below. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist you.