#34 Death & Mourning

#34 Death & Mourning

Bereavement in Judaism (Hebrew: אֲבֵלוּת, aveilut ; mourning) has many customs that have been observed for generations in Jewish life.



#1 WATCH: A Jewish Burial

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#2 What happens before a Jewish burial?

Kevura, or burial, should take place as soon as possible after death. Burial is delayed “for the honor of the deceased,” usually to allow more time for far-flung family to come to the funeral and participate in the other post-burial rituals, but also to hire professionals, or to bury the deceased in a cemetery of their choice. In practice, it is extremely unusual for burial to be delayed more than 72 hours after death.

Upon receiving the news of the passing, the following blessing is recited:

ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, דיין האמת.
Transliteration: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, dayan ha-emet.
Translation: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, the True Judge.”[1]

There is also a custom of rending one’s clothes at the moment one hears news of a passing.

#3 What happens at and during a Jewish burial ceremony?

People will gather at a chapel or synagogue for a funeral ceremony which usually takes between 30-45 minutes. Specific prayers are recited and often a rabbi and family members will participate in the funeral ceremony. The family of the deceased person may wear k’reiah ribbons to show their external feelings of sorrow. During the ceremony, a speech called a eulogy is recited, and it is common for several people to speak at the start of the ceremony at the funeral home, as well as prior to burial at the gravesite.

When there is a chapel ceremony, people next travel and to the gravesite to recite the mourner’s kaddish and to lower the casket into the earth. Near the end of the burial, mourners come forward to fill the grave. Symbolically, this gives the mourners closure as they observe the grave being filled in. One custom is for people present at the funeral to take a spade or shovel and to throw three shovelfuls of dirt into the grave. When someone is finished, they put the shovel back in the ground, rather than handing it to the next person, to avoid passing along their grief to other mourners.

#4 What happens after a Jewish burial? 

When they get home, the mourners refrain for a week from showering or bathing, wearing leather shoes or jewelry, or shaving. In many communities, mirrors in the mourners’ home are covered since they should not be concerned about their personal appearance. It is customary for the mourners to sit on low stools or even the floor, symbolic of the emotional reality of being “brought low” by the grief. The meal of consolation (seudat havra’ah), the first meal eaten on returning from the funeral, traditionally consists of hard-boiled eggs and other round or oblong foods to remind everyone of the circle of life.

#5 WATCH: The Practice of Shiva and Mourning

#6: The Stages of Mourning: 7 days, 30 days, 1 year

The first stage of avelut is shiva (Hebrew: שבעה ; “seven”), a week-long period of grief and mourning. Observance of shiva is referred to by English-speaking Jews as “sitting shiva“. During this period, mourners traditionally gather in one home and receive visitors.

It is considered a great mitzvah (commandment) of kindness and compassion to pay a home visit to the mourners. Traditionally, no greetings are exchanged and visitors wait for the mourners to initiate conversation. The mourner is under no obligation to engage in conversation and may, in fact, completely ignore his/her visitors.

Visitors will traditionally take on the hosting role when attending a Shiva, often bringing food and serving it to the mourning family and other guests. The mourning family will often avoid any cooking or cleaning during the Shiva period; those responsibilities become those of visitors.

There are various customs as to what to say when taking leave of the mourner(s). One of the most common is to say to them: Hamakom y’nachem etkhem b’tokh sha’ar avelei tziyon viyrushalayimThe Omnipresent will comfort you (pl.) among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Depending on their community’s customs, others may also add such wishes as: “You should have no more tza’ar (distress)” or “You should have only simchas (celebrations)” or “we should hear only besorot tovot (good tidings) from each other” or “I wish you a long life”.

The thirty-day period following burial (including shiva)[13] is known as shloshim (Hebrew: שלושים ; “thirty”). During shloshim, a mourner is forbidden to marry or to attend a seudat mitzvah (religious festive meal). Men do not shave or get haircuts during this time. The thirty-day period following burial (including shiva)[13] is known as shloshim (Hebrew: שלושים ; “thirty”). During shloshim, a mourner is forbidden to marry or to attend a seudat mitzvah (religious festive meal). Men do not shave or get haircuts during this time.

Since Judaism teaches that a deceased person can still benefit from the merit of mitzvot (commandments) performed in their memory, it is considered a special privilege to bring merit to the departed by learning Torah in their name. A popular custom is to coordinate a group of people who will jointly study the complete Mishnah during the shloshim period. This is due to the fact that “Mishnah” (משנה) and “Neshamah” (נשמה), soul, have the same (Hebrew) letters.[14]

STAGE #3 Shneim asar chodesh – Twelve months

Those mourning a parent additionally observe a twelve-month period (Hebrew: שנים עשר חודש, shneim asar chodesh ; “twelve months”), counted from the day of death. During this period, most activity returns to normal, although the mourners continue to recite the mourner’s kaddish as part of synagogue services for eleven months. In Orthodox tradition, this was an obligation of the sons (not daughters) as mourners. There remain restrictions on attending festive occasions and large gatherings, especially where live music is performed.

# 7 Review and Response

1. What happens at a Jewish burial ceremony?
2. Why do the mourner’s put earth over the casket after it is lowered into the earth?
3. What happens after the burial ceremony in the home of the bereaved?
4. What do you say to someone when you learn that a family member has died?
5. What is the 7 day period called after death? The 30 day period?
6. What are your questions about death and mourning in the Jewish tradition?

Need some help? We’re here for you. At any time, if you have any questions, please contact one of our teachers so we can help you. Also, at the end of the session, remember to review your responses in your Tamid Workbook so you can get credit for this lesson. Behatzlacha (Hebrew for good luck)! You can reach Sarah at (646)360-0689 or connect@tamidnyc.org