Death and MourningDEATH AND MOURNING


Traditional Judaism does not see death itself as a tragedy, but only the natural and expected end of life. Death after a long life, full of vitality and good deeds is just part of life, according to the Talmud.

Actually the pious Jew has in mind all through his/her life in this world, the "next world." Orthodox Judaism views this life as a "corridor or bridge " that leads to the next level, to an other world. The believe in the Olam Aba, the afterlife, is part of the tradition. "All of Israel has part in the next world." (Mishna Sanhedrin 11:1)

Still, for the family and friends, the better the individual the greater the loss and the deeper the sadness. Therefore, Halakhic observances of death and mourning address themselves primarily to comforting the mourners while maintaining a dignifying memory of the deceased.

The dead must be clothed in white robes, called takhrikhim, after been carefully washed and cleansed. The male dead is rapped in a Praying Shall (Talit) whose fringes (tzitzit) have been made invalid, to symbolize that the commandments are not incumbent upon him anymore.

Embalming is forbidden because the blood has to be discarded in that process and Jewish Law demands the entire body to be buried together. Cremation is also forbidden because, "For dust you are and to dust you should return" (Genesis 3:19), is understood to mean that the corpse must be buried in the earth. When cremation takes place for some reason, the family is not required to observe the Shiva period (seven days of mourning, --see below).

Burial must take place as soon as possible after the death. We do not bury the dead on Shabbat or Festivals. Waiting is only allowed for the honor of the death , which means if there is someone coming to the funeral from far away. Caring for the dead is a big Mitzvah and the most pious of the community are the ones who have that task. The organized group that does that job is called the Hevra Kadisha, or Sacred Society.

Tearing a garment that one is wearing is the Orthodox way to show grief. It is an ancient way of showing mourning amongst the Jews. The torn garment is used all week long --during the shiva period. According to Halakha, cutting a small black ribbon is not a valid substitution for the torn garment or kriah. When tearing the garment one says the brakha (benediction) Barukh Dayan Emet, blessed be the true Judge.

Jewish Law provides for 3 mourning periods after the burial. The first is known as the Shiva(seven) and refers to the first week after the burial. Halakha commands that only father, mother, sister, brother, son and daughter, husband wife, observe the Shiva.

The Shiva takes place usually in the home of the deceased but it is not mandatory. The members of a family can observe shiva in any convenient place together or separately.

Shiva Practices
-Mourners sit in the floor or on low stools or sofas without cushions. From this special sitting arrangements we say that one "sits shiva".

•Mourners do not wear shoes made of leather. Walking with socks or stockings is customary, but slippers of canvas can also be used. •Male mourners refrain from shaving or cutting their hair; female mourners do not use cosmetics. Mourners may not go to work. •Mourners avoid having pleasures such as bathing for comfort. Only a fast shower is allowed for cleanliness. No sex, no new clothes, no Torah study, except for books and chapters dedicated to mourning or which speak of grief and anguish, such as Lamentations or Job.

A minyan – 10 male Jews 13 years or older—pray 3 times a day until the seventh day following the morning service, at which time the shiva is officially over.

On Shabat, the public mourning practices are suspended, but resume after the Shabbat is over, and Shabbat counts as one of the 7 days.

Should one of the Biblical festivals interrupt the shiva , the remainder of the shiva is not resumed after the festival. Purim or Hanuka are not Biblical, so they do not terminate the shiva. Should the funeral take place during Passover or Succot , the shiva starts after the festival.

If there is a delay in learning about the death of a family member, the mourner begins to observe shiva as soon as he/she hears the news. If the family is already in the middle of shiva in the city were the death occured, he/she may join them and finish shiva with them. If one cannot join them one sits shiva alone, and the day he/she heard the news counts as the first day of shiva.

If the news are received thirty days after the death, shiva is not observed. One sits only on the floor an hour and removes his/her shoes for a symbolic observance.

Shloshim Practices
Shloshim means 30, and it refers to the thirtieth day after shiva . The burial day is counted as the first day of the thirty. During those 30 days Halakha indicates that mourners refrain of lessening to music, no shaving or cutting hair during the entire month is allowed . This concludes the mourning for all the relatives but the mother and father, son and daughter.

Lasts eleven months. During this year Orthodox practice is to avoid joys events, and kadish is recited daily by males only . After the year of the death though, it is forbidden to continue any practice of public mourning or restrain that indicates grief.

Comforting the Mourner
The Halakha explains that the mourner should be allowed to give full expression to her/his grief until after the burial. Only then does the requirement to comfort the mourner starts . (Only the closest family assisting with burial procedures are to be with the mourners before the burial).

Following the burial, the mourners first meal should not consist of their own food. It should be prepared for them by friends and neighbors, or relatives. This practice is based on a passage of Ezekiel 24:17 . Hence, it is a Mitzvah to prepare that fist meal called "Meal of comfort". This meal usually starts with a hard boiled egg, to symbolize the roundness of the world, and the circular continuity of life –the possibility of renewal and joy after despair. The meal should not have a party-like atmosphere, it is a meal to be eaten in silence and in contemplation of the mourners, It is not a meal for visitors.

If the family returns from the cemetery on the eve of the Shabat, the meal is not served. It is served though, on the intermediary days of Succot and Pasover.

When entering a Shiva, Orthodox practice is, not to greet the ones inside. . Tradition indicates that the visitor does not start the conversation, only the mourners. It is appropriate to talk about the deceased , to reminisce, and talk about his/her qualities. The Rabbis understood very well the psychology of grief and did not want people to spend the shiva visit talking about trivialities, which is less comforting for the mourners than talking about the deceased.

Special Rules for the Kohen
The descendants of the priestly tribe are forbidden to come into contact with the death, in order not to be defiled (Lev. 21:14) Practically, the prohibition means that the Kohen can not be in the same room, no matter how large the room, with a corpse. If the room connects directly to other rooms the prohibition includes those rooms also.

Even on the open the Kohen can not approach a grave to closely (apro. 6 feet or 4 amot) . He can approach a corpse in the outdoors keeping 15 inches distance.

Although for a wife, mother, father, son, daughter, brother, and unmarried sister, it is permissible and even a duty for a Kohen to defile himself, and assist to the entire burial ritual. According to Jewish Law , these restrictions only apply to male Kohen not to wives or daughters or sisters of a Kohen.

According to Orthodoxy, only males recite the kadish in the prayers three times a day for an eleven month-period, with a Minyan (ten or more males 13 and older). One stands-up to recite that prayer in Arameic. The Kadish is not a prayer for the death, such as El Male Rakhamim or Yizkor, it is only a prayer of praise to G’d that shows deep faith even in times of grief. This prayer is one of the oldest in Jewish liturgy, dating to the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

If a female, daughter, sister or wife, wants to recite the Kadish she may rise to do so, although she is under no obligation, and some Rabbis will disagree strongly, there is no Jiyuv (obligation) nor Isur = prohibition. It used to be customary that when the deceased had no sons, the female—daughter or wife-- would pay a Jewish man to say Kadish for her.

A 10 year old can recite Kadish for a deceased parent even though he/she is not bar/bat mitzah.

Still the best way to honor ones deceased parent is by living a righteous life full of good deeds.

The Tombstone
It is an ancient custom among Jews, extending as far back as the patriarchs, to set-up a tombstone at the head of the grave as an act of reverence for the deceased. In Israel the tombstone is set soon after the Shloshim (30 days after burial) and in the rest of the world after the first year. But there is no law regarding that timing., so it is best to set the stone at the earliest convenience.

It is important to make a distinction between setting the stone and the unveiling. The unveiling is a special ritual with a special service, which is a contemporary innovation, not required by Halakha and may be done or not. The tombstone setting is a must, and a private visit to the cemetery afterward will do.

The Yortzait refers to the anniversary of he death. It is set according to the Hebrew calendar. If the burial took place after 3 or 4 days the anniversary observed is the day of burial.

In Orthodoxy, the sons are obligated to say Kaddish that day and should arrange to be called to the Torah that day. It is also customary to light a memorial candle on the eve of the Yortzait to be kept burning 24 hours. This practice is based on Proverbs 20:27 "The spirit of man is the lamp of G’d."

The Yortzait day is especially suitable for performing acts of kindness and giving tzedoka (charity). Orthodox Judaism views this life as a "corridor or bridge " that leads to the next level, to an other world. The believe in the Olam Aba, the afterlife, is part of the tradition. "All of Israel has part in the next world." (Mishna Sanhedrin 11:1)


The customs and rules governing mourning are numerous. Reform Judaism, in accordance with its principle of adjusting and adapting older customs to modern needs, abolished those practices which were no longer helpful or valid, and simplified many others.

•Viduy - As death approaches, it is proper to pray for forgiveness of sins. This is called Viduy, or confession.

•Burial - Reform Jewish practice does not hasten burial. Usually burial takes place on the second or third day after death.

•Embalming - Embalming is universally practiced among Reform Jews.

•Burial Garments - The body of the deceased need not be garbed in a shroud (tachrichim). The body is usually clothed in whatever garments the family chooses.

•Casket - The kind of casket or coffin to be used is entirely a matter of family choice.

•Covering of Mirrors - The practice of covering mirrors and pictures is of superstitious origin and has been discontinued among Reform Jews.

•Mourning - Mourning is observed for parents, husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister. Mourning is not observed for an infant less than thirty days old.

•Shiv'ah - The first week after the death of a dear one is the period of intense mourning. It is proper to absent oneself from usual occupations during the week. The customs of "sitting low" and of not wearing shoes during Shiv'ah have been discontinued.

•Light - As soon as a death occurs, it is customary for a light to be kindled in the home of the deceased. It is kept burning continuously for seven days after the burial. Thereafter a light is kindled each year on the Yahrzeit day in the home of every mourner.

•Funeral Dates - Funerals are not held on the Sabbath, on Rosh Hashanah (which is observed on one day only), on Yom Kippur, on the first day of Pesach or Sukkos, and on Shovuos (observed on one day only).

•Keriah, or Tearing of Garments - Keriah is the ancient practice of tearing the garments as a mark of grief. Recently Orthodox and Conservative Jews in America have substituted the cutting of a black ribbon pinned to theouter garment. These practices have been dispensed with among Reform Jews.

•Autopsy-Post-Mortem Examination - Reform Judaism holds no religious objection to postmortem examinations or autopsies. It is for each family to decide whether or not an autopsy or postmortem examination should be performed. Cremation - Cremation is allowed in Reform Judaism, and the ashes are permitted burial in a Reform Jewish cemetery.

•Flowers - Flowers may be placed on and about the casket, and graves may be beautified with plants, shrubs and flowers.

•Watching the Body - The practice of having someone watch the body until the time of burial is not obligatory.

•Kohen - Reform Judaism does not recognize the validity of claims of any modern Jews to be descended from the ancient priesthood (Kohen, Kohanim). Consequently, there is no valid reason for absenting oneself from any place where a corpse may be, or from cemeteries.

•Passing the Synagogue - It is a common practice among Orthodox and Conservative Jews to have the funeral procession pass the synagogue and community institutions with which the deceased was identified, and for the whole procession to pause in front of these. This is not generally practiced among Reform Jews.

•Minyan for Mourners - Many Reform Jewish families observe the old custom of having kinfolk and friends assemble at the home of the deceased or any other member of the family for evening worship during the week of Shiv'ah. These worship services are held on from one to three nights. Such services are not held on the Sabbath and festivals, when the mourners worship in the synagogue.

•Marriage of the Bereaved - If the marriage of a member of the bereaved family had been planned before the death occurred, it takes place on the scheduled date, but without festivities. If it was not completely arranged, it is postponed until at least a month (Sh'loshim) has passed.

•Year of Mourning - Mourning is observed for twelve months in Reform Judaism, not eleven months as in Orthodox and Conservative practice. One should not indulge in any frivolous or gay pursuit during that period. The wearing of black is not required.

•Kaddish - Mourners are required to recite the Kaddish in the Temple for a period of twelve months from the day of burial. Thereafter it is recited on the recurring anniversaries of the death (Yahrzeit). Kaddish is recited by both women and men. Inasmuch as the Kaddish is always recited standing, it is proper for all members of the family of the deceased (grandchildren, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, nephew, niece) to rise during the saying of the Kaddish, for the sorrow or grief of any member of a family is the grief or sorrow of all the members. In many Reform congregations it is customary for the whole congregation to rise when Kaddish is said, the mourners because of their loss, the rest of the congregation out of sympathy with the bereaved in their midst.

•Visiting the Graves - It is not customary to visit the grave of one recently deceased until thirty days have elapsed from the day of burial. It is not proper to visit the cemetery on the Sabbath and festivals. One may visit the cemetery at all other times.

•Monuments - A monument or other memorial marker is placed over the grave of the deceased, usually within the year of mourning. It may be dedicated (unveiled) at any time during the year, at the convenience of the family.

•Mausoleums - The erection and use of a mausoleum is permitted by Reform Judaism.

Yahrzeit - The annual anniversary of the death of a near relative is observed on the date of death (not on the date of burial). Some observe the Yahrzeit in accordance with the Jewish calendar; others do so in accordance with the civil calendar. The Yahrzeit date should be established by agreement among all the members of the family, so that all observe the Yahrzeit at the same time. On the eve preceding the day of the Yahrzeit, a light is kindled in the home of every mourner, and is kept burning for twenty-four hours. It need not be a candle or an oil lamp. Any type of light is permitted, provided it is in addition to whatever lights are used for illumination.

Where no daily services are held in Reform temples, the Yahrzeit-Kaddish is said on the Sabbath following the anniversary date. Some Reform temples do this on the Sabbath nearest the Yahrzeit (sometimes preceding, sometimes following the actual date). Some families wish to have the names of their deceased dear ones mentioned during the Kaddish at the temple service. Where this is desired, the Rabbi should be contacted in advance of the service. It is proper to make gifts to the synagogue or to a charity in observance of Yahrzeit. In most Reform synagogues, the flowers decorating the pulpit are placed there by a family in memory of a dear one. This is done on the Sabbath on which the Yahrzeit is observed. Arrangements for placing flowers in the pulpit are made through the proper channels.

•Yizkor - In Reform Temples, Yizkor, or a memorial service, is held on Yom Kippur afternoon and at the morning service of the Seventh Day of Pesach. (Some Reform congregations have introduced such services also on Sh'mini Atzeres and on Shovuos, when they have no Confirmation service).

•Disinterment - Reform Judaism permits the removal of a body from one grave to another, or to a mausoleum.


Humanistic Jews find most of the Orthodox procedures regarding death and burial offensive. Since the secular vision begins with the recognition that death is real, rituals that seek to deny death would compromise human dignity. And the willingness to confront unpleasant truth is part of that dignity.

The humanistic Jew starts with mortality as an unavoidable and final event. Live is valuable because it does not go on forever. Happiness is an urgent matter because it will not be available after we die. If there is "immortality," it is purely figurative. Only memory survives in the minds of others.

A humanistic Jewish memorial service is an opportunity to teach a humanistic philosophy of life. Both the meditations and the eulogies must serve to remind people that the value of personal life lies in its quality, not in its quantity. And, in the age of the Holocaust, it would be an insult to victims and martyrs to find in death the evidence of a well-ordered universe or the wages of sin.

A humanistic culture does not devote its time and resources to serving the needs of the non-existent dead. It seeks to mobilize the living for the living. Constructive memory is a tribute to the past. It gives people identity and a place in humanity. It does not wallow in useless nostalgia.


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