Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Death and Mourning


The Talmud in Tractate Berachot 17a states: “When Rabbi Yochanan finished the Book of Job, he used to say: ‘The end of man is to die, and the end of beast is to be slaughtered, and all are doomed to die. Happy is he who has been brought up in the Torah, and whose labor was in the Torah, and who has given pleasure to his Creator, and who grew up with a good name.’ ”

Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in his book “Basic Judaism,” p. 160, states: “Death cannot be and is not the end of life. Man transcends death in many naturalistic fashions. He may be immortal biologically through his children, in thought through survival of his memory, in influence by virtue of the continuance of his personality as a force among those who come after him, and ideally through his identification with the timeless things of the spirit. When Judaism speaks of immortality, it has all these in mind, but its primary meaning is that a person contains, independent of the flesh and surviving it, his consciousness and moral capacity, her essential personality – a soul.”

Life is sacred.

Its beginning and end are mysteries.

Both birth and death touch the fringe of the Divine and, therefore, have religious rites attached to them.

“The soul is yours, and the body works for you.” Hence our concern when the mortal body reaches its end.

1) On hearing of the death of a person, one should say: “Baruch dayan emet,” affirming an awareness that God’s governing of the universe includes death as well as life. Death does not negate Divine providence, but it is rather an illustration of God’s Being. Judaism has surrounded death with practices that include tender regard for the dying, deep concern for the family, and an affirmation of basic religious principles.

2) The principle of kavod ha-mayt is important in modern day situations such as autopsy, embalming, cremation, exhumation, transplantation of parts of the human body, and viewing the body prior to the funeral.

3) The period between death and burial is called aninut, and the person who is mourning is called an onen. The onen is exempt from all religious obligations such as tefillot and putting on tefillin, and is forbidden to indulge in luxuries like wine and meat.

Why? Haosek b’mitzva patur min hamitzva. Since the bereaved is involved in the commandment of taking care of the needs of the deceased, nothing should distract him, and it is a breach of kavod ha-mayt not to attend to the deceased.

Since today societies and funeral homes care for the needs of the deceased, such exemptions are not necessary, and the performance of religious precepts is to be encouraged.

4) Reverence of the body is shown by the purification of the body which is usually done by members of the Hevra Kadisha. The washing is done accompanied by the recitation of psalms, and warm water is used. All parts of the body are washed. This process is called tahara.

5) A person whose body has been mutilated should not be washed, but should be buried without tahara and in the blood-stained clothes he wears.

6) Dressing up the deceased in fine clothes is frowned upon, and plain shrouds, tachrichin, should be encouraged. According to the Talmud, this custom was established so that the poor not be embarrassed and so that no display of wealth be shown.

7) Burial in the ground is in conformity with the verse in Genesis 3:19: Ki affar ata, v’al affar tashuv. The prevailing custom is to employ an aron – coffin. Just as with the shrouds, the coffin is to be simple boards.

8) Tradition frowns upon viewing the body or leaving the coffin open. (Compare the Jewish tradition with other funeral practices, especially those of public officials.)

9) The general rule is that the burial should be done as soon as possible and not be delayed. Waiting for family – sons, daughters – is permitted and should be done, especially since the delay is minimal with rapid means of travel and communication.

10) In conformity with the ancient tradition, see Samuel II 1:10: “One should rip his garment on hearing of the death of a dear one.” Today this is limited to those relatives who are required to mourn.

11) Distinction is made between father and mother on one side and other relatives on the other. The rip in the garment for parents is on the left side, closest to the heart (Why??), while for others it is on the right side. (What difference does the rip make to the community?) This rip is called kriyah.

12) Today a custom is to cut into a necktie or a sweater, or a shirt pocket, or the neck area of a blouse. Often a ribbon is attached to the garment. (Do you think we should keep this approach or return to the former idea of ripping the garment itself? Why?)

13) The funeral service does not have a prescribed format.

14) A hesped, eulogy, is usually given, but the Talmud warns: “Just as the dead shall be called to account, so shall the eulogizers be called to account,” to prevent over praise as well as understatement for the deceased.

15) After the coffin is placed in the grave, members of the family should put shovelfuls of earth over the coffin. (What is the reason for the family’s participation in this facet of mourning? Think psychologically...)

16) On returning to one’s house, hands should be washed before entering.

17) Suicides are not to be mourned for in the traditional manner. (What questions does this bring up for the family’s needs and desires? What is the definition of a suicide? What should we do today? YOU be the rabbi.)

The Mourning Itself

Step by Step

Shiva-Shloshim – Shana First Year – Yom Hazikaron (Yahrzeit)

18) In Pirke Avot, the rabbis say that a bereaved cannot be reached because of the shock at the time of death. Only later, after the funeral and after a realization begins to set in, can the mourner be consoled, spoken to, and slowly brought back to the previous pattern of life. Pirke Avot 4:18.

19) A week-long period is dictated for consolation of the mourner – shiva.

20) Shiva is obligatory on father and mother, daughter and son, sister and brother, husband and wife.

21) Shiva begins immediately after burial for seven days. The Talmud in Moed Katan presents the principle that part of a day is not like a full day – miktzat hayom k’kulo. Therefore, the last day is not a full day. Usually only a short period after Shaharit is required.

22) Covering of all mirrors in the house has been a custom. (Why? Could you suggest – or guess – superstitious reasons for this? Should the custom be continued?)

23) A ner, candle, is lit and remains alit for the full shiva. The candle flame is a symbol of the soul. As a flame is attached to the wick, so is the soul attached to the body.

24) As a part of the return to normalcy, a meal is to be prepared for mourners. The Seudat Havra’a, meal of consolation, is for people who often have guilt feelings that they are still alive and the relative is dead. The feeling of loneliness must be countered by friendship and concern for the people around. Eggs, symbolic of the continual circle of life and death never-ending, are served as the basis of the meal.

25) The mourners should sit on low stools or seats or pillows as a sign, not only of their physical but especially of their emotional state.

26) The mourners should remain in the house during the entire seven days. Services and meals should all be in the house in which they sit. (What if there is not enough room in the house for all the people to sleep over?)

27) On Shabbat, the mourner goes to the synagogue, but cannot receive an aliya or act as the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) except if it is his/her profession.

28) There is no mourning on the Shabbat, except what is done in private, in one’s heart and mind. Shabbat counts as one of the seven days.

29) Mourners should make every effort not attend to their business or go to work for the entire seven days.

30) If the financial loss is irreparable, then after the third day it is permitted. Mourning should be observed as much as possible. (What conditions would bring a mourner to work?)

31) A doctor who is a mourner may visit patients if the confidence of the patient is to be maintained, although it is preferred that other doctors cover the responsibilities for the mourner.

32) Participation in festivities, weddings, listening to music is not permitted for mourners.

33) The mourner should wear non-leather shoes during the week. Leather shoes are both a symbol of wealth and come from a living animal which was killed to make the shoes.

34) Anointing (use of cosmetics, perfumes, lotions) is forbidden as a luxury and conscious concern for one’s own body.

35) Haircuts and beard shaving should not occur during the week. They serve as a public display of mourning.

36) Sexual intimacy, one of the physical pleasures, is to be avoided during the shiva.

37) The normal and natural greeting – Shalom, Hello, how are you? – is not to be used because the condition of the mourner does not warrant such a question when the answer is obviously not good.

38) Visiting the mourners is a mitzvah, consoling the mourners – nechum avaylim.

39) Upon completion of the shiva, the mourner is told to go out and walk around. This is the first coming- back into the world, the sun shining back into one’s life.

40) For the next 23 days, the mourner, while returning to work, observes some restrictions as a mourner in shiva. Festive occasions are avoided: weddings, dances, movies, theater. (Would a news or information show on TV be permitted to the mourner to view?) (What about a serious concert, opera? What if you play a musical instrument for a living?)

41) Shaving is to wait until the completion of the 30 days unless business responsibilities dictate a clean-shaven appearance.

42) Mourners may not marry within the 30 days.

43) A mourner for wife and husband must wait a period of the passing of the three pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot – before marrying. (Exception is made when little children are involved who require a mother’s love and a father’s fellowship. What does this exception have to say for Jewish Law’s rigidity, changeability, sensitivity?)

44) Mourning continues by children for their parents for a “full year.” The Kaddish is recited for 11 months. (Why is Kaddish recited for a month less than the mourning period?)

45) The Mishna teaches that the Shabbat counts as part of the shiva and does not cut off the observance of the shiva. The festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot) cut off the mourning period and are not counted among the days of mourning. (Talmud Moed Katan 19a.)

· No observance of mourning on Shabbat – after Shabbat, mourning is resumed.

· If the mourning has begun before Yom Tov, the festival cuts off the remainder of the shiva, as if it had been accomplished.

· Shiva can never be observed without a Shabbat, while it can be with no festival interference. There can never be a full shiva if Shabbat cut off the mourning completely so only the festival is counted as being able to fully cut off the shiva observance.

· The term v’samachta b’hagecha, “and you shall rejoice in your holiday”, is used for festivals, and it is suggested that that is impossible if one must observe mourning. Whereas for Shabbat we are told to fulfill oneg, and you shall delight in the Shabbat, which can be done when private mourning is permitted.

46) The days of Yom Tov do count as part of the shloshim – 30 days. For example: If one begins shiva one day before Pesach, then at the onset of Pesach he would stop shiva (counts as seven even though), not observe mourning on Pesach (counts as eight more) and only have 15 days after Pesach.

47) The festival also cuts off the rest of the shloshim. For example: If one began shiva before Rosh Hashanah, then Rosh Hashanah cuts off the shiva and Yom Kippur cuts off the shloshim.

48) If the death occurs during the intermediate days -- Hol Hamoed – then the entire shiva and the shloshim are pushed off until after the entire holiday, and then a full 30 days are observed. The same applies if the death was on the Yom Tov itself, on the principle that no mourning occurs on the holiday and therefore nothing has been cut off, so all is observed. (A toughy for the rabbis to explain and the mourners to observe.)

49) If one is a far distance from the death and hears of the death after the shloshim, one is required to observe only one hour of mourning. If before the 30 days are completed, then a full shiva must be observed.

50) Each year on the anniversary of the death of the parent or relative, a solemn day of prayer, meditation and the recitation of the Kaddish at the Maariv, Shaharit and Mincha services take place. It is called Yahrzeit and a candle is once again lit.

May we each live full and productive lives. May we appreciate and observe the laws and traditions of Jewish mourning. May we find strength, comfort and consolation in the wisdom of Judaism.

Prepared and summarized by Rabbi Moshe Edelman

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