In Time of Mourning

"These are the words of Kohelet, son of David, King in Jerusalem; Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, all is vain, What is the benefit of Man's work? For a generation comes, and a generation goes…" ~ Ecclesiastics 1:1-4

In the confusion that lies between night and day, in the sadness that engulfs us in the distinction between light and darkness, is the pain and anguish of the mourner to be found. At this moment of loss, your entire world is turned upside down, and little makes sense other than the pain of a death. A terrible sense of confusion grabs hold, and you wonder how will you get past this moment? What we understand is that our loss is permanent. What is gone will never come back to us.

While we all know that all things die, that nothing lasts forever; this understanding does little to ease our suffering. While we know that the very fact that we are mortal is what gives us purpose and focus in life, this doesn't comfort us.

Of course, our tradition lives up to what we need at these moments. In fact, at moments of death, people come to rely upon their faith in a far greater way than at any other time in their lives. In the days, weeks and months that follow the loss of a loved one, many people will immerse themselves in the practice of our customs as a way of giving honour not only to their loved one, but also to give comfort to themselves. Yes, Judaism is filled with ways to do this. We say our Kaddishes, we sit Shiva, observe Sheloshim and Avelut Shenati (year-long mourning for a parent). There is Yizkor, and a Yahrzeit. But what do they mean, and, how are they meant to be observed?

Those seeking the comfort that an eternal tradition can give them also need to know how to properly observe these hallowed and ancient laws. We can think back and be comforted to know that our ancestors felt the same things, and still they survived. You can be reassured to know that those who came before you have all lost; mothers, fathers, children, siblings and spouses, and they turned to the immense power of the Jewish faith to guide them through the darkness that every mourner feels.

At these moments you are confronted with a litany of choices. Which funeral home? What kind of casket? What time for the service? Where will the shiva be held? What times for services? Questions and the need for answers are the call of the day.

Beyond the shiva is a host of additional questions that have not only been asked of me by many, many congregants but common mistakes that many people make. I hope to correct this and to prepare an easy guide to help people make some very important decisions that they will live with for the remainder of their lives.Truly, the souls of our loved ones and their memories, are eternally entrusted to us.

With such a precious commodity, there is no room for a mistake. When we were born, our parents were our caretakers. We married and our spouse loved and cared for us. We lived with our brothers and sisters, nurturing one another. But now, we must care for their eternity. This is not an easy task, but the weight of three millennia of Jewish law is behind you. 
I wish to share with you a famous Talmudic dictum. It is oft quoted, but rightly so. Rabbi Meir said, " It is far better to go to the House of Mourning than a House of Celebration for this is the end of all people…(Kohelet 7)" So the living will place their hearts to their end…" Tal. Bavli Moed Katan 28:b. It is, as we say, so very true, that death only pains the living.

Aninut - Before the Burial

From the moment that you hear of a death, a number of emotions are set into place. There is an incredible sense of disbelief, and a feeling of helplessness. Yet, precisely at this moment we are confronted with some decisions of great importance.

The care and preparation of the deceased is a serious task in Judaism — one that should never be taken lightly. Under Jewish Law, those people that you are obligated to ritually mourn are: mother, father, spouse, child, brother, sister, as well as half-brothers and half-sisters. To help you make your decisions, an Onen (the status of the mourner in Jewish Law prior to the burial) is relieved of a great number of Jewish obligations.

Among the types of decisions that will be required of you will be to decide what kind of casket to use. Judaism encourages that the simplest casket money can buy is the greatest honour we can give to our deceased. This custom dates back to the time of the Talmud, where people purchased very expensive coffins, eventually the dead were not being buried because the poor became embarrassed by their inability to honour their dead.

The famed Talmudic scholar, Rabban Gamliel, decreed that he, a great leader of his time, be buried in as plain a casket as possible, and the simplest linen shrouds money could buy (Tal Bavli Ketuvot 8:b). Thus, for over 2,000 years following Rabban Gamliel we have done exactly that. The greatest honour we can bestow upon our dead is to celebrate their life, not their passing.

The casket should be plain on the inside, without any lining whatsoever. However, the casket should be sturdy enough to stand up to the procession and burial. Vaults are also discouraged, but if one must be used due to city ordinances or other necessities, make sure that it is not made of any metal, but of cement. For the cement, which is essentially earth, will disintegrate with time.

Prior to the funeral the Chevra Kadisha (Holy Brotherhood), the Jewish Burial Society, will prepare the body of your loved one for their final journey from this world. With great love and care, the Burial Society will wash and cleanse the body of the deceased. They will take great care not to expose the body so that it is completely naked. Men will tend to the men, and the Women's Burial Society will tend to the women. They will not turn the body face down. All this to show our great respect to the body of our loved one. The burial shrouds (tachrichin) will then be placed on and finally the Tallit that a person (male over the age of 13), wore in his lifetime will envelope him. Then, in a triumphant act of Jewish kindness, the leader of the group will announce, "Dear Sir/Madam; We have done nothing but give you honour and respect." He then pauses, "Yet, if we have failed, or done anything wrong, we beg your forgiveness". The coffin is then closed.

The choice of a chapel or graveside service is entirely a family decision. There is no right or wrong, and by no means should a family put itself into financial hardship to accommodate a chapel service. In fact, many people have found great comfort in the graveside service as being a simple, yet dignified way, to bury their loved one. However, every attempt should be made to make sure that a minyan (ten Jewish men over the age of 13) is present for the burial. With a minyan present, Kaddish can then be said.

Just prior to the funeral, a great Jewish custom will be ready for your observance. The practice of K'riah (literally 'tearing') is a unique practice that has survived amongst our people. While you may have seen many mourners wearing a small, torn black ribbon on their clothing during a funeral this is actually a poor imitation of this great custom.

The black ribbon had its beginnings with the usage of a black armband in non-Jewish funeral services. For ease of use, a ribbon took its place. K'riah, on the other hand, can be fulfilled with the tearing of a garment. Traditionally, it was performed on a jacket, coat or sweater. Today, many people opt to use a tie or scarf. It is this symbol that you will bear for the length of your Shiva. It is a symbol of loss, and permanent scarring to your life at the loss of one so dear to you.

In our peoples' earlier times, the tearing of a garment was a significant act. For how many shirts or jackets did a person own? So with every loss the law permitted a person to tear an undergarment. But for a parent the K'riah ('tear') had to be on the outside. Clear for all to see.

Following the Shiva (seven day mourning period) the tear was allowed to be repaired so the garment could be used again. But Jewish Law forbids the original tear being repaired in such a way as to render it invisible (SA YD 340:39). This is to forever remind us that our losses are permanent. In keeping with the sanctity and joy of these days, the K'riah should not worn on either Shabbat or Yomim Tovim (Jewish holidays).


Now that the burial is prepared and the K'riah performed, we come to the funeral.

The Jewish funeral is one of the simplest in all human culture. It is also one of sensitivity to the deceased, and those mourning the life of the deceased. In ancient cultures the sacrifice of family members, and in some modern cultures, the custom of complicated preparations to the body, elaborate or even festive ceremonies and viewings, as well as burials delayed for days are rituals associated with a burial.

The Jewish way is very different. In its simplicity, we find great meaning. In its swiftness, we find long comfort. In its graceful respect, we rediscover everlasting and eternal lessons of life. Because Judaism is forever intended to be a path of the living, to the living, it is committed to the perpetuation and nurturing of life. "And you shall live by them…" (Leviticus 13:22) commands God. In our treatment of our dead, we discover both the depths of benefit and sensitivity for the living.

For this reason, viewings are frowned upon in Jewish tradition. There are many reasons why we refrain from such observances. First of all, the exposing of the body is considered to be a form of disrespect (Lo Talin Ahd HaBoker). Viewings are also a custom that came from non-Jewish practices. (In fact, Wakes are still very common in Christian culture. Some have the practice of observing Wake for up to three days. Yet some, as I heard from a Cuban Catholic, have a Wake for 3-5 hours prior to the burial). It is also a fitting reminder that the body is considered in Judaism to be a kelipah (a shell) that housed the essence of the person that you so deeply loved.

Once the essence is shed, the body is nothing more to be revered. The lasting and final memory that you have, should not be that of the deceased in their coffin. Their memory deserves a greater tribute than what you will see housed in a casket.

Depending on your chosen venue, the funeral may start at a chapel, synagogue, or may begin and end at the cemetery. Yet, no matter where we begin, some aspects are a constant. A eulogy is always given. A special prayer to consecrate the deceased's soul called Kail Malay is recited. The internment will always follow these items.

From the hearse, the pallbearers will be called to carry the casket to its final resting place. In Israel, the coffin is carried in a procession from the chapel to the grave. Amongst Sephardim, when a great person has passed away, two large candles are lit. One is carried in front of the coffin, the other behind. (Darchei Chesed 59:5). I believe this is a powerful lesson that the light that a person brings to this world is never extinguished even with their physical passing. The strength that a person carries lives on forever through the light, and lives, of his family.

We also try to encourage that Jews be the pallbearers. In a world of dissolving distinctions between peoples and faiths this comes to remind us that we do share a common bond. No matter where a Jew is, it is his own people's responsibility to see to his burial. For if we cannot care for our own dead, what can we do for our living?

On our way to the grave, the procession will pause seven times. This is not only to appear reluctant to bury one so beloved, but also to reflect that the word 'Hevel (vanity)' is mentioned in the Book of Ecclesiastics seven times. As the casket is brought to the grave, it is placed onto a lowering device (In some cemeteries, a lowering device is not used. Rather, as the pallbearers approach the grave, a set of straps is placed beneath the coffin. With these straps the pallbearers will lower the casket into the grave.) A family member, or the rabbi, should be the one to release the lever to lower into the grave. Once again, the involvement of a Jew is a great symbol of the care that we have for our dead.

As the casket decends, the rabbi or hazzan will say the Tzadok HaDin (Righteous Judgement). This is a fascinating Talmudic prayer where we publicly announce our acceptance in God's decree. No matter how painful, or tragic, the death has been to our lives we again confirm our belief that all is in the hands of God. To Him we accept what has been given to us. This is why in some communities the family and other mourners read the Tzadok HaDin along with the rabbi and or hazzan.(SA YD 349:3). However, this was to be said at the time of death by those present. Later on, the innovation included saying the Tzadok HaDin at the cemetery before the closing of the grave. This is the custom that we observe today. The source for this prayer is in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah 18.

We are told as Rabbi Chaninah ben Teradyon, who along with his wife and daughter, were being taken to their deaths by the Romans, he spoke out these words, "The Rock in Whom there is just action…". When he finished his wife added, " A righteous God where there is no mistake…". Finally before they died his daughter added, " Great is this judgement…." These are the very words that compose the core of this prayer. It also composes the very essence of how we perceive death. While the way that we live life is in our hands, by the choices we make and the lifestyle we associate with, both our birth and death are beyond our control. When we are born, and how and when we die are events beyond the reckoning of any mortal. This is deeply symbolized by the following midrashic comment;
"It was learned in the name of Rabbi Meir, 'When a person enters into this world, it is with clutched hands. As if to say this entire world I now enter is waiting for me. I shall inherit it all. Yet, at the end when a person dies, his hands are left wide-open. As if to say, I have reaped nothing…'" (Kohelet Rabbah 7:4).

Such is the realization that death brings to our lives, that so little is in our control. The Tzadok HaDin reaffirms our acceptance of God's control and will. As the final words of the Tzadok HaDin are uttered, the rabbi will turn and offer a final prayer.

Those assembled will now line-up, and will perform a great act of public kindness: the completion of the burial. In Jewish tradition, doing for those who cannot do for themselves is looked upon in wonderful ways. And those who have assembled before the open grave are called upon to complete the burial.

Recent customs of walking away from an open grave, or placing in a few token shovels worth of dirt, are not only contrary to long-standing Jewish custom, but also disturbing to the comfort of the mourner. We may think that the quicker the service goes, the better off the mourners will be. Actually, the mourners' draw a tremendous amount of strength from seeing their loved one set to rest. However, in times of extenuating circumstances there are ways to quicken the filling of the grave (SA YD 375:1 ad loc. T"AZ). All people, both men and women are strongly encouraged to help in the filling of the grave (note the custom of women not to be involved in melachah during the Omer MB). As the shovels are taken it is customary for the first three shovels to be gathered on the backside of the shovel (some do this with their hands) as an example that we do not wish to part from our loved ones quickly (Hadrat Kodesh 44). When we finish shoveling the shovel should not be passed into the hands of the next person, but we place it into the earth. All as a reminder that we take nothing with us as we leave this world (Chachmas Adam 159:30).

After the casket has been entirely covered with earth, the mourners will gather for the saying of the Kaddish. The Kaddish that will be said is of another origin than the typical mourners Kaddish that is chanted in the synagogue. While all Kaddeshim (there are five principal Kaddeshim - Mourners, Reader's Half, Reader's Full, Scholar's, Burial) have a similar root source, the Burial Kaddish has a unique message to be delivered in a time of loss. For the Kaddish is not only an affirmation of life at the saddest moment of human existence, it is also recognition that life has a unique power. It is the power to live with a commitment to Godliness, to pursue charity and kindness. Yet that, even in the face of the abyss of death, we have not, and will never abandon our hope in life.

The Burial Kaddish brings a powerful spirit of hope and deliverance to the mourner. Because the Burial Kaddish is primarily Aramaic (the vernacular of the Jews in Babylonian times, an ancient Yiddish), and most people are unfamiliar with its text, so it is not uncommon for the rabbi or hazzan to say it alone.

Following that, all the mourners will join in saying the familiar Mourners Kaddish. As the last words of the Kaddish flow from the mouths of those mourning, all gathered will form two lines, each one facing the other to allow the mourner(s) to pass between them. As they go, the following will be said in unison:
HaMakom Yinachaim Otcha (Otach for a single female mourner, Etchem for a mixed group of mourners, Etchen for a group of only women mourners)
Bitoch Shaar Availay Tzion Vi Yerushalayim. We ask, "That God should comfort you amongst the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem"

Notice that the word for God that is used is HaMakom, literally "the place". For now, the mourners have nowhere to turn, save for the truest place of comfort. Their comfort is now found in God Himself, the 'Father', and the 'Mother' of all life.
~Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich