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    A Jewish guide to death & bereavement

    This article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD, originally appeared in booklet form published by the Great Synagogue, Sydney, in June 2001.

    For Judaism, life is the supreme value, the great privilege, the precious opportunity. Death is inevitable, and there is an after-life; but for the Jewish tradition it is life on earth that is olam ha’asiyyah, “the world where man achieves things”. Out of this life-affirming attitude a number of consequences flow:

    1. People should not speculate too much about death and the after-life. These matters can be left to God. Our mental and physical energies should be devoted to the here and now, to finding good deeds to do on earth.

    2. Death is not superior to life. Every moment on earth should be savoured. Even when life is full of pressures the answer is not to seek to end it all, but to accept help in handling the realities and working through the crisis. Hence suicide is a sin. It usurps God’s prerogative to judge when to begin a life and when to end it. Indeed there was a time when a suicide was deemed a sinner and buried at the edge of the cemetery, but this rule has long been relaxed and suicides are regarded as having acted out of mental distress and are considered sick and not sinful.

    3. Life must not be shortened, even by a moment. Judaism is adamant that one may not actively hasten death, but it recognises the morality of permitting people to die. The classical view suggests that if there is some external factor which is preventing the departure of the dying person’s soul, that factor may be eliminated. Hence, subject to safeguards, Judaism would approve allowing the life forces to ebb naturally without artificial impediments to dying. The effect is not to shorten a person’s living, but to shorten their dying.

    Judaism has the principle of mitah yafah, a dignified death. Cold, clinical, callous surroundings all militate against a mitah yafah. Relatives and friends should be able to come and go. Pain control should help a patient to continue to relate to them and to the world. In particular, there are things that need to be said by and to the dying person. These include the confession before death. Spiritually and psychologically it enables a person to bring their earthly accounts to a tidy conclusion. It enables them, and their dear ones, to commend their spirit to the care of the Almighty.

    Some have the mistaken view that a dying person should not be allowed to be aware of their condition. Judaism agrees that if it would greatly disturb their peace of mind, they should not be told. But most people would prefer to know so that what needs to be said, to other people as well as to God, can be attempted.

    If, however, the patient is not conscious, the confession is said on their behalf by family or friends. Understandably, many shrink from this moment of truth; for family and friends it is often harder than for the dying person. A counselling approach which could be offered in such cases is to say that this is almost like an insurance policy for the patient. Hopefully, the patient will be granted a miracle, and recover; they will then surely understand and not be angry that these prayers were offered. If death does occur, then their soul will enjoy a double degree of Divine approval because they have dear ones who love them so much.

    The approach of death brings its fears. It is the experience of dying, however, rather than the state of being dead, that may be the greater cause for apprehension. As to death itself, the words of Andre Chenier are specially pertinent: “Fear death? What nonsense! We can only fear something which we can grasp with our minds. Being is imaginable and one may well fear it. Non-being is unimaginable, so how can there be room for fear? Perhaps we live for ever!” The Bible often refers to death as sleep: a magnificent, moving metaphor. We fall asleep, just for a moment; then we wake again, and are in the World To Come.

    The dying person may well fear to leave life behind. So many things one wanted to do, so many things one should have done; so many things one did and regrets. The best time to solve those problems is whilst we are still in the midst of life, by not wasting our fruitful opportunities for worthwhile deeds, by repenting our acts of hurt and folly and moving on to better things. Rabbi Tarfon says, “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”. That principle should provide sufficient encouragement to say, “God, no-one completes their task on earth fully, but I did my best. Please understand.”

    Both patient and family grieve at the loss of each other. A helpful comment is made by Morris Adler: “Sorrow is the obverse side of love. To ask for immunity from sorrow is to ask for more than a special dispensation granted no other. It is to ask that we love not, gain no friends or devotedly serve any cause. To enter into any relationship of deep meaning is to run the risk of sorrow. The contingency of pain is the only condition on which love, friendship and happiness are ever offered to us. This recognition is the hallmark of maturity.”

    Abraham Joshua Heschel calls death “reciprocity on man’s part for God’s gift of life”. Yet he also urges that we understand that the moment of death can be “grim, harsh, cruel”. When the moment comes, he says, “Our first reaction… is consternation. We are stunned and distraught. Slowly our sense of dismay is followed by a sense of mystery. Suddenly a whole life has veiled itself in secrecy. Our speech stops, our understanding fails. In the presence of death there is only silence and a sense of awe”.

    With all the philosophising and counselling, bereavement brings the survivors the need to be angry, the feeling of guilt, the demand to know “why?” In Judaism the approach is not so much to answer and explain, as to provide a framework within which to respond to and handle what has happened. Hence there is a pattern of procedures that commences with death and accompanies and leads the mourners through the various stages of grief – not trying to say what is hard to put into words, but to offer what may be history’s oldest and best form of grief recovery.


    1. Upon death the eyes of the deceased are closed, the arms laid by their side, any tubes and medical equipment are removed, and the body is covered by a plain sheet. A rabbi does not have to be there to carry out last rites, but as soon as possible the Jewish burial society, the Chevra Kadisha, should be informed and they then take charge of funeral arrangements. The Chevra Kadisha is a voluntary organisation which reverently and carefully carries out the traditional Jewish procedures. So seriously does it take its task that once a year its members fast in atonement for any unwitting act of disrespect to the dead.

    2. The traditional Jewish way of disposing of the dead is by burial in the earth. Judaism does not permit cremation. It regards it as an insult to God; the body is His, not ours, and no-one may injure, mutilate, or destroy a body, in life or after death. Orthodox rabbis will not officiate at a cremation, nor will the Chevra Kadisha organise one. The funeral should be as soon as possible after death; delaying funerals is not regarded as respectful except in special cases when, for instance, a relative needs time to arrive from overseas or there is some other pressing emergency.

    3. Generally Judaism does not permit post-mortems. Once again the principle is that the body should be buried as soon as possible and not be mutilated or treated disrespectfully. A post-mortem is countenanced only where the law of the country insists upon it or where it would clearly and materially assist medical science to find a cure for other patients. In all cases a rabbi must be consulted.

    4. Where a Jewish person dies in a place where no synagogue or Jewish community exists, the major synagogue in the nearest capital city should be contacted for advice.

    5. The mourners make a k’riah, a tear in their garments, at the moment of death or prior to the funeral. This symbolises the painful tear which the occasion has made in one’s heart. For a parent the tear is on the left-hand side, and on the right-hand side for other close relatives.

    6. The funeral service consists of prayers, psalms and readings, and when the coffin is lowered the relatives and friends present in turn take a spade and put three spadefuls of earth in the grave. This emphasises the reality, the finality, of death. The spade is not passed directly from one to another, as if to show that such tasks are performed with deep reluctance and resignation.

    7. At the end of the ceremony, and thereafter each day for eleven months, Kaddish (“Sanctification”) is recited at congregational worship. Kaddish is said by sons; if there are no sons, it is recited by a male relative or friend. Women are not obligated but are permitted to say Kaddish. Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but an affirmation, at the moment when it is hardest to utter it, of God’s holiness and greatness, and a prayer that His kingdom may come.

    It has been said of the Kaddish, “To know that when thou diest, the earth falling on thy head will not cover thee entirely; to know, that there remain behind those who, whenever they may be on this wide earth, whether they may be poor or rich, will send this prayer after thee… what more satisfying knowledge canst thou ever hope for?” (L. Kornbert).

    8. Neighbours or friends serve the mourners their first meal on returning home from the funeral. This simple meal contains hard-boiled eggs, reminiscent of the wheel of life that never ceases to turn.

    9. Probably unique to Judaism is the institution of shivah, the first week of mourning when one stays home and finds comfort in the visits of family and friends who join each day in the services held in the house (except for the Sabbath, when mourners attend the synagogue). During the shivah, the mourners sit on low seats or even on the floor; mirrors in the house are covered, as this is not a time to be concerned with one’s personal appearance; and a memorial candle is kept burning. The mourners do not wear leather shoes or shave, since both are ways of looking and feeling physically comfortable and one is too grief-stricken for that.

    10. The period of mourning covers three stages of grief recovery: the shivah; the sh’loshim or first thirty days when one may resume going to work but not attend any form of entertainment; and the avelut, the twelve months observed for a parent when one still does not take part in any form of entertainment. By the end of the year a person is expected to have recovered to a certain point, though things will never be fully the same again. Judaism is not sympathetic to the Queen Victoria syndrome of perpetual grief with its refusal to accept that life has anything left to offer.

    11. A tombstone is erected in memory of the departed to mark their last resting place, though Judaism also encourages living memorials in terms of deeds inspired by the thought of the deceased. There is no strict law as to when to erect the tombstone; in Israel it is usually done after the shivah or sh’loshim, and elsewhere at about the end of the year of mourning.

    12. Each year on the anniversary of death, memorial prayers and Kaddish are said, often accompanied by charitable donations and sometimes by fasting. In the synagogue, memorial prayers are also recited on four of the religious festivals that take place each year. These memorial prayers contain both an occasion for private remembrance and also prayers for martyrs, especially the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

    4,000 years of learning the art of living, and dying, are behind this range of rituals designed to help the mourner work through the pain and grief. In themselves the rituals do not answer the age-old anguished questions that give the bereaved no rest, make them so angry and threaten to destroy their faith. Yet those who have observed this pattern of observances testify that it has helped them to express their grief, accept the reality of their situation, and integrate their bereavement – doubts and questions and all – into a reshaped set of values, views and ways of living.

    A psychiatrist has said, “I consider the Jewish traditional laws and ceremonies surrounding bereavement of such psychological therapeutic value that I would even recommend them to the Christian religion”.

    Related articles by Rabbi Apple:
    When tragedy strikes: Jewish traditions of burial & bereavement
    Death in Judaism
    Articles on Death & Bereavement
    Death & bereavement – Ask the Rabbi

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