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On Death and Mourning

"Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and withers; and like a shadow flees and does not remain" Job 14:1-2

Judaism teaches that death is an inevitable consequence of living and that the dead are to be treated with dignity and respect. The tradition also provides a framework for expressing grief through fixed periods of mourning, which also serve as a limit to excessive displays of grief.

In Genesis, (Chapter 23) we learn how our Patriarch Abraham, with much ceremony and at great expense, secures a burial place for Sarah, his deceased wife. This is the first biblical reference to burial. Abraham's determination to honor his dead with proper burial becomes a basic tenet of Judaism, the responsibility of the spouse or children of the decedent. The mitzvah of a proper burial is a sacred task and was made obligatory upon every person in the Jewish community in the case of a met mitzvah (a dead person who had no family, and whose burial was a commandment and the responsibility of everyone).
Our tradition has accumulated numerous mitzvot and customs regarding death and mourning; this is not meant to be an exhaustive study of a complex subject. Many of the traditional practices are not observed by Reform Jews, although others are. Consultation with the rabbi as to the appropriate observance is always recommended. The rabbi is an important resource at this time, not just to figure out what is appropriate, but to help determine which rituals will offer the greatest comfort and be the most meaningful.


The tradition, upon hearing of the death of a family member, was to recite the following blessing, also associated with hearing bad news:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu me-lech ha-o-lam, Da-yan ha-emet.
Blessed is the Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, the true judge.

The blessing is called Tzidduk ha-Din, to justify the righteousness of the judgment, and was apparently intended to affirm faith in God at a time when grief might lead anyone to blaspheme and to question the inevitable course of life and death represented by what was considered the just will of God.

To show reverence for the dead, the corpse is not to be left alone prior to burial. A watcher or guardian, called a shomer, is often hired to keep a vigil until burial, reciting psalms during the watch. In many communities, particularly with an orthodox population, there are Jewish burial societies (Chevra Kaddisha) devoted to burying the dead according to the traditions of Jewish law. Taharah, the washing and cleansing of the entire body of the deceased, is an ancient custom shared by other cultures, and one that evokes reverence and care for the condition of the deceased's body in its journey to its next stage. These practices are not stressed in Reform Judaism.They are among the many traditions that do exist and to observe them or not at a time when clear thought is not always possible, may require the advice of the rabbi. Judaism does discourage embalming. God tells Adam "For dust you are and to dust you shall return"(Genesis 3:19). Consequently, burial became the only method of disposing of the body allowed by tradition. Reform Judaism accepts cremation, but earth burial remains the most universal Jewish practice.

In our time, funeral homes have taken over functions that were formerly a family responsibility or that of the local Jewish burial society. Because these are business establishments who deal with families when they are truly vulnerable, it is important to understand that Judaism teaches equality in death: "The small and great are there and the slave is free of his master"(Job 3:19). Expensive coffins, magnificent tombs, and garish floral displays have no place in these teachings. One of the greatest of the Sages, Rabban Gamliel, gave orders that he be buried in plain linen garments to discourage the display of wealth and prestige in the Jewish community, and to show compassion for the poor. Traditional linen burial shrouds (Tachrichim)or now, the deceased's own clothing, perhaps a tallith worn during life, should be used. Coffins should be simple, relatively inexpensive, and of plain wood , not massive boxes of rare woods or metal.

The Talmud and the codes of law require the tearing or rending of the upper part of the mourner's outer garment when the deceased is a parent, spouse, child, or sibling, which are the traditional relatives one is required to mourn and say Kaddish for. This ancient sign of grief is called Keriah. It is frequently done these days by the symbolic cutting of a piece of black ribbon provided by the funeral director and attached to the mourner's garment. The actual rending of a garment or its symbolic alternative is not required by Reform Judaism and should be a personal decision. Since it identifies one as a mourner and individuals might feel obligated to observe the custom, one should know that it is described many times in the Bible as what was done on hearing of the death of a loved one, a sign of intense grief. Keriah was required of all who were present at death, because, it was said, the death of a Jew was comparable to the burning of a Torah scroll.

It has been the practice that burial should occur within a day after death, though the law codes recognized that this was not always possible. According to the Mishnah, a delay for the honor of the dead, to make proper funeral arrangements and allow for the arrival of family members for instance, is permissible. Funerals are not held on Shabbat and the major Festivals.

As it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to bury the dead, so the rabbis taught that that those who attended to this merited an earthly reward and eternal life in the world to come. Those who attend a funeral are fulfilling the mitzvah of halvayat ha-met, accompanying the dead. There is a custom that family members or those present assist in the filling in of the grave.


The period of mourning begins as soon as the burial is over. On the first day of mourning, as an act of consideration for the needs of the mourners, Jewish tradition mandated that the bereaved were not to eat their own food as their first meal after the funeral. It is a mitzvah for friends and neighbors or for members of the Jewish community, to prepare a meal of condolence (called se-udat havraah) to be provided the mourners on returning from the cemetery. This practice is common to all branches of Judaism and should be considered an important act of sensitivity to another's need.

The mitzvah of nichum avelim, comforting the mourners, is one that all members of this Jewish community should be made aware of. This deed involves visiting a house of mourning to comfort the family by your presence and to join together in prayer. We are a large congregation and not all are well connected to the life of the synagogue community. You are expected to join a minyan to honor the dead and comfort the bereaved. You need not have known the deceased nor the family. What is required is the performance of the mitzvah. Those who visit a house of mourning should neither ring the bell nor knock before entering. The tradition also frowns on frivolous conversation. Visitors were traditionally not supposed to speak with the mourner until spoken to. The paradigm for performing nichum avelim is taken from the Book of Job, when he is joined by his friends as he mourns the loss of his children:"So they sat down with him upon the ground for seven days and seven nights and none spoke a word to him for they saw that his grief was very great" (Job 2:13).

The traditional codes of Jewish law divide the periods of mourning into several stages, prescribing certain practices and requiring the abstaining from certain usual behavior. The period between death and burial is called aninut, a Hebrew word for lament or sorrow. One who is obligated to mourn is exempt from most of the time-bound, ritual mitzvot of the observant Jew, including the recitation of most benedictions, even the Shema; inclusion in a minyan; the study of Torah; and participation in joyous occasions. If Shabbat occurs during this period, the observance of the Shabbat and its mitzvot suspends these abstinence's.

Following the funeral, there are seven days of intense mourning, called Shivah, or "seven". During these seven days, the tradition stated that it was forbidden to wear leather shoes, to work, to bathe, to wear freshly washed garments, to have your hair cut, to attend any festivities, to use warm water to bathe, and to engage in sexual activity. A mourner was forbidden to study Torah and most religious texts: "The precepts of the Eternal are right, rejoicing the heart", and a mourner is not permitted to rejoice. Other customs that evolved during shivah and that are not encouraged by Reform Judaism include covering mirrors and pictures, not shaving, and the sitting on boxes or low stools, among others. The practice of observing shivah for a full seven days is not obligatory in Reform Judaism and should be a personal decision. Reform practice seems to consider three days as the minimum period of mourning and for the holding of minyanim, prayer services, at the home.

Sheloshim, or "thirty", is the next stage. During this time,(it includes the shivah period) a mourner was generally forbidden to join in festive occasions, permitted neither to extend social invitations to others nor to accept them; one could also not marry. If mourning a parent, these prohibitions extended the entire year. A mourner was still forbidden to cut his hair if grieving for a parent "until rebuked by his friends" during these thirty days. The thirty day period was intended to allow life to resume some semblance of normalcy, including the resumption of ritual obligations, though an awareness of the loss and of grief was maintained by the observance of some signs of mourning, specifically the avoidance of social entertainment.

Formal mourning is suspended for Shabbat. In the tradition, the occurrence of a Festival annulled the laws of shivah. If one buried his or her dead and a Festival intervened, shivah was not observed. According to the Shulchan Aruch, a codification of Jewish laws, observing mourning for an hour before Passover (and other Festivals) was counted as seven days, and together with the eight days of the holiday made fifteen days, so that after the Festival one only observed sheloshim for fifteen, not thirty days. Similar exemptions are granted for mourning before Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. If burial occurred during the intermediate days of a Festival, shivah was observed after the conclusion of the holiday.


One of the most familiar prayers in the liturgy is the Kaddish, which is recited by mourners at the grave, in memory of the dead at worship during shivah, and for the first year after death for a parent. Some might seek a minyan in order to recite Kaddish daily, or attend the weekly Shabbat worship to fulfill the mitzvah. Kaddish was originally a prayer recited by Talmudic teachers and their students at the end of their studies. Most of the prayer is in Aramaic, originally the vernacular of the Jewish people and now used mostly by those who study Talmud. The prayer does not mention death, rather it glorifies God and looks towards the reign of peace. Its cadences seem to be a mantra of affirmation and faith. The text of the Kaddish will be presented at the end of this essay for those who might need to study it or use it but not have it available.

At one time, it was believed that the souls of the dead, particularly the wicked, spent a year in a place of punishment, called Gehenna. The Kaddish was thought to help these souls ascend to Paradise. Later it became customary to recite Kaddish for only eleven months, so it would not seem that you considered your loved one to deserve the full twelve months of torment. Reform Judaism does not limit Kaddish to eleven months, since it does not accept the belief that this is a prayer of intercession but a blessing of memory.
On the anniversary of the death, whether you use the Hebrew or the secular calendar, it is customary to observe Yahrzeit ("Year's time") by reciting Kaddish with a minyan and lighting a twenty-four hour candle (lit on the eve of the yahrzeit): "The spirit of the human is the lamp of the Eternal"(Proverbs 20:27). At Temple Israel, as at many other synagogues, the names of those whose yahrzeits are being observed are announced from the bimah. During Yom Kippur and the Festivals, Yizkor (Remembrance) prayers are recited in synagogue, providing an opportunity to recall loved ones.
Rabbi Nathan taught that with the surplus of money raised to bury the dead, one may erect a tombstone (called a matzevah). Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel apparently disagreed, declaring that such memorials are not necessary for the righteous, as their actions are their memorials. (Genesis Rabbah 82:10). It is hard to imagine not marking a grave, if only to identify who is buried there. It is a custom for friends and family to assemble at the unveiling of a grave stone, usually a year after death.
Yit-ga-dal ve-yit-ka-dash she-mei ra-ba be-al-ma di-ve-ra chi-re-u-tei, ve-yam-lich mal-chu-tei be-cha-yei-chon u-ve-yo-mei-chon u-ve-cha-yei de-chol beit Yis-ra-eil, ba-a-ga-la u-vi-ze-man ka-riv ve-i-me-ru: a-mein. Ye-hei she-mei ra-ba me-va-rach le-a-lam u-le-al-mei al-ma-ya. Yit-ba-rach ve-yish-ta-bach, ve-yit-pa-ar ve-yit-ro-man ve-yit-na-sei ve-yit-ha-dar ve-yit-a-leh ve-yit-ha-lal she-mei de-ku-de-sha be-rich hu, le-ei-la min kol bi-re-cha-ta ve-shi-ra-ta tush-be-cha-ta ve-ne-che-ma-ta da-a-mi-ran be-al-ma, ve-i-me-ru: a-mein. Ye-hei- she-la-ma ra-ba min she-ma-ya ve-cha-yim a-lei-nu ve-al kol Yis-ra-eil ve-i-me-ru: a-mein. O-seh sha-lom bi-me-ro-mav, hu ya-a-seh sha-lom a-lei-nu ve-al kol Yis-ra-eil, ve-i-me-ru: a-mein.
Let the Glory of God be exalted, let God's great name be hallowed in the world whose creation God willed. May God's rule soon prevail, in our own day, our own lives, and the life of all Israel, and let us say: Amen Let God's great name be blessed for ever and ever. Let the name of the Holy One, blessed is God, be glorified, exalted, and honored, though God is beyond all the praises, songs and adorations that are uttered in this world, and let us say: Amen. May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and all Israel, and let us say: Amen. May the one who makes peace in the high heavens, make peace descend on us and upon all Israel, and let us say: Amen.

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This article was written by Stephen Butterfass for Religious Living on the Web.