Jewish Grief and Mourning

May 28th, 2013

Judaism offers many active expressions of mourning that enable grieving people to acknowledge their loss in tangible ways. Some Christians are finding traditional Jewish mourning rituals to be meaningful as they process their grief and remember their loved ones. These rituals are described in this excerpted article from the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, included with a subscription to the Ministry Matters Premium Library.


Judaism is more than a creed; it is a way of life. And death is a reality of life. Since there are diverse ways in which Jews throughout the ages have viewed life, so there are different approaches by which Jews practice the rites of death. For example, traditional Judaism is opposed to cremation as a denial of belief in bodily resurrection. On the other hand, a prominent liberal rabbi in Cleveland writes, "I have no particular faith in physical resurrection. About one in ten funerals in which I officiate involves cremation." Orthodox rabbis may not permit autopsies, yet almost all Conservative and Reform rabbis do. Thus there is no unanimity of acceptance as to the rites of burial and manners of mourning.

One becomes a mourner (Hebrew, Ovel) upon the death of one of seven relatives: father, mother, spouse, son or daughter, brother or sister (including half-brother or half-sister). A child less than thirteen years old is not obliged to observe the rituals of mourning.

From the moment that Jews learn of the death of a loved one, there are specific religious rites that help to order their life. A most striking expression of grief is the rending of the mourner's clothes (Keriah). In the book of Genesis, when Jacob believed that his son Joseph was killed, the father "rent his garments" (37:34). Today many mourners indicate their anguish by cutting a black ribbon, usually at the funeral chapel or at the cemetery prior to interment. The ceremony is performed standing up, to teach the bereaved to "meet all sorrow standing upright." For a parent, the tear is made on the left side over the heart; for others, it is on the right. Keriah is visible for the week of Shiva.

Shiva ("seven") refers to the first seven days of intensive mourning beginning immediately after the funeral, with the day of burial counted as the first day. One hour of the seventh day is considered a full day. Mourning customs are not observed on Sabbaths and festivals. The bereaved remain at home, receiving a continuous stream of condolence calls. This helps to keep the minds of the bereaved active and their attentions engaged. Also, it is important because the companionship lends the comfort of the loving concern of family and friends.

Even though a minor is exempt from many of the mourning rites, the youngsters should not be arbitrarily dismissed from the family gathering. They should be afforded the chance to face grief and mingle with loved ones. Some enlightened adults have helped children feel they are important by allowing them to share in the family duties, such as answering doorbells and telephones, assisting with chores, and even preparing the Seudat Havra-ah, the meal of consolation. They are given the opportunity to help and be helped.

Immediately upon returning from the cemetery the Shiva candle is kindled and remains burning for the entire seven days. Before his death, the great sage Judah Hànasi instructed that a light should be kept aflame in his home, for "light is the symbol of the divine. The Lord is my light and my salvation."

Following the Shiva comes the Sh-loshim, the thirty days. The mourners resume normal activity but avoid places of entertainment. At the end of thirty days ritualistic mourning is over, except in the case where the deceased was a parent, when mourning continues for an entire year.

The adults might attend the i (daily worship) and the Sabbath services. They read aloud the Kaddish prayer, originally not a liturgy for the dead, but a pledge from the living to dedicate one's life to the God of Life, "Magnified and Sanctified." This is the highest approach to commemorate the memory of a loved one. Each time during the year that the mourners recite the Kaddish, they reinforce both the reality of death and the affirmation of life. They openly display their own needed concern and profound feeling of being a good son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister, or spouse. They participate with others who are also suffering the emotional trauma of bereavement. They belong to the largest company in the world—the company of those who have known anguish and death. This great, universal sense of sorrow helps to unite human hearts and dissolve all other feelings into those of common sympathy and understanding.

The complete mourning period for those whose parents have died concludes twelve months from the day of the death. For other relatives Sh-loshim concludes the bereavement.

Anniversaries of the death (Yahrzeit) are observed annually on the date of death, commencing on the preceding day and concluding on the anniversary day at sunset. Kaddish is recited in the synagogue and the Yahrzeit candle is kindled.

The service of commemoration of the tombstone or plaque is called the "unveiling." The time of the unveiling may be any time after Sh-loshim and usually before the first year of mourning is over. Unveilings are not held on the Sabbath or during festivals. Any member of the family or a close friend may intone the appropriate prayers, usually a few Psalms, the El Molay Rachamim ("God, full of compassion") and the Kaddish. Visitation at the grave may be made as often as one wishes following the initial thirty-day period.

The memorial prayer of Yizkor ("May God remember the soul of my revered") is said four times a year during the synagogue worship: Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot. It is not usually recited during the first year of mourning.

Jewish rituals are community rituals. They are performed by those who share a religious sameness. The traditions create a sense of solidarity, of belongingness—the feeling that one is a member of the group with all the comfort and gratification that such a cohesiveness brings.

Judaism is strict in limiting mourning to the given periods and the customary observances. Excessive grief is taken as want of trust in God. The faith holds it as desirable that with time the havoc wrought by death should help to repair itself. Though no one is ever the same after a bereavement, he or she is expected, when mourning is over, to take up existence for the sake of life itself. The garment that the pious mourner rends can be sewn and worn again. The scar is there, but life must resume its course. The observance of the Jewish laws and customs of mourning helps the mourner face reality, gives honor to the deceased, and guides the bereaved in the reaffirmation of life.


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