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Death and Mourning

Death is part of life.  Experiencing the loss of a loved one is unspeakably painful, a unique yet universal experience.  The Judaic approach to death and mourning may feel awkward to those unfamiliar with its ways.  However, when viewed from the perspective of the bereaved we see the embodiment of “compassionate expectations” as the community shelters mourners during the initial period of intense grief and then facilitates their steps of returning to everyday life.  The practical and emotional needs of the bereaved are paramount; community behavior defers to the mourners. 

This journey begins with the last days of the person about to encounter death.  As with many cultures and faiths, the parting words of a dying person carry special weight and import. 

Deathbed:  the person nearing death voices a final prayer acknowledging HaShem’s sovereignty and accepting HaShem’s imminent decision between life and death.  The prayer concludes with,

“Father of orphans and Justice of widows,

protect my cherished family whose souls are bound with mine.

Into Your hand I entrust my spirit.

May You redeem me, L-rd, G-d of truth.  Amen and amen.

“The L-rd is King, the L-rd was King, and the L-rd will be King for ever and ever. (3 x)

“Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and all time. (3 x)

“The L-rd, He is G-d.  (7 x)

“Listen, Yisra’el:  the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.”

 

Much of this is familiar; we see snippets from Yeshua’s final words, from the Torah service, from Moshe’s final words, from the Yom Kippur service, and from the Sh’ma.  It is good and proper for us to be reminded each time we recite these words that they will one day be our own final words.

Aninut:  Normally lasting one to two days, this is the period between a person’s death and burial.  Family members are occupied with funeral arrangements; they are overwhelmed by grief.  During this time, the community refrains from condolence calls or visits.  Contact with the family should be practical and specific, not social.

Levaya HaMot:  The formal funeral service begins with a familiar reading from Pirkei Avot 3:1 which includes the admonition for all present to, “Know where you came from, where you are going, and before whom you will have to give an account and reckoning.”  T’hillim 91, so often a source of comfort, is recited to comfort mourners as they make their way to the gravesite.  Various portions of Tanaḥ follow; then (provided a minyan is present) Kaddish Eḥar Hakvurah is read.  Eloquent and comforting, this beautiful Kaddish interweaves glimpses of the Messianic Age into the words so familiar from our daily services (wording unique to this kaddish are in italics):

Magnified and sanctified may His great name be, in the world that will in future be renewed, reviving the dead and raising them up to eternal life.

He will rebuild the city of Jerusalem and in it re-establish His Temple.

He will remove alien worship from the earth and restore to its place the worship of Heaven.

Then the Holy One, blessed be He, will reign in His sovereignty and splendor.

May it be in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel, swiftly and soon – and say Amen.  May His great name be blessed for ever and all time.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, raised and honored, uplifted and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond any blessing, song, praise and consolation uttered in the world – and say: Amen.

May there be great peace from heaven, and life for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.

May He who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.

 

Shiva:  The seven (“sheva”) days after burial is the time for condolence visits and calls.  In keeping with “compassionate expectations” the general notion is that the grief will start to ebb a bit after the initial three days – although the entire first week understandably remains a heart-rending time for the bereaved.  Within the Shiva house all indications of vanity and wealth are set aside:  mirrors are covered, seating is limited to the floor or low stools.  The mourners do not leave the house or attend to personal comfort or adornment.  They eat plain meals.  A memorial candle burns for the week.

Shiva visits might initially seem encumbered by an abundance of protocol; upon further examination, however, the tender deference to the mourners’ comfort is apparent.  Consider the following from the perspective of someone negotiating the fog – the numbing intensity – of the first week after losing a loved one:

  • Shiva Visits:  Knock quietly upon arrival and let yourself in.  Do not expect greetings nor give greetings to others and remove your shoes at the door.  Do not mention the deceased to the mourner, rather, let the mourner initiate such conversations while being ready to share memories of the deceased.  Avoid idle conversation and nervous chatter.  Remember, it’s okay to not talk; you are there to comfort the mourner, whether the protocol feels alien to you is irrelevant.  If possible, help by providing simple meals and taking on basic chores.
  • Kaddish Yatom: Kaddish Yatom, commonly known as Mourner’s Kaddish, is recited daily by the mourner for essentially the first year, although the exact ending point varies; usually eleven months.  It is a kindness to help with assuring daily minyans during this first week.

Shloshim:  Literally meaning “thirty,” this is the first month following death / burial during which the family gradually reconnects to daily life.  Life’s necessities compel the bereaved back into household and workplace duties; friends and extended family, by remembering to include the bereaved in basic social interactions, draw them back into community.  The resumption of daily activities is part of life and it is good and appropriate and healthy as the bereaved starts to look up and out.

Avelut:  Translated as bereavement, lamenting, or mourning, avelut continues for several months following death / burial, concluding at the unveiling (of the gravestone).  Societal activities fully resume after this period. 

Yahrzeit:  Translated “time of year” (Yiddish), this is the annual observance during which the mourner re-visits their grief.  The tradition is two-fold:  light a Yahrzeit candle (which burns for at least 24 hours) and recite Kaddish Yatom.  A final yet unending “compassionate expectation,” Yahrzeit comforts the mourner with the assurance that they will never be forced to completely forget the deceased.

Compassion without expectations can be crippling to the bereaved, giving tacit permission to cling to their sorrow.  Expectations without compassion can be harsh, further wounding the bereaved by ignoring their pain.  Compassionate expectations give the mourner space to grieve while also reminding them that:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven;

A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to mourn, and a time to dance –“

Kohelet 3:1-2a, 4b

 

Kaddish Yatom

As we proceed through the Shaḥrit service we arrive at a curious junction.  Having just finished reading T’hillim 30 and just before we start the exhilarating and joyous songfest called P’sukei d’Zimrah – we recite Kaddish Yatom, commonly known as Mourners’ Kaddish.  It feels awkward to pause our celebration in order to provide our grieving congregants an opportunity to mourn the loss of their close relatives.  Yet here we are.

The relatives deemed as close (mother, father, spouse, son, daughter, brother, unmarried sister) are found in Vayikra (Leviticus) 21.  As with all kaddish prayers Kaddish Yatom is recited only when a minyan (10 men) is present.  Others may “join” in saying Kaddish Yatom but mourners alone stand during the recitation.  This strict list seems harsh and the rules a bit insensitive to 21st century Western culture.  After all, don’t all of us have a special someone not on that list?  Aren’t we all family?  Don’t we all share in each other’s sorrows?

The Judaic perspective on mourning is one of “compassionate boundaries.”  Those standing have suffered the loss of a close relative.  They will remain vigilant in their obligation to recite kaddish long after well-intentioned acquaintances lose interest.  By remaining seated while mourners stand, the community shows respect for the unique personal sorrow of the bereaved.

The requirement of a minyan offers an opportunity for us to love our neighbors as ourselves; we contribute to the ability of others to say kaddish through our steadfast attendance of services.  It is a strong community when members show compassion toward one another through the thoughtful devotion of helping make the minyan in case any are in mourning.

Kaddish Yatom includes the following additional verbiage:

May there be great peace from heaven and life for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.

May He who makes peace in His high places make peace for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.

Notice that the Mourners’ Kaddish does not mention death while shalom (peace) is mentioned three times.  The word “shalom” is often misunderstood; rather than describing a lack of pain or conflict, the Judaic concept of “shalom” is the rectification of opposites, a dynamic tension resulting in an equilibrium we perceive without comprehending – “the peace of G-d which passeth all understanding” [Phillipians 4:7].

To quote an unknown author, “It takes sadness to know happiness, noise to appreciate silence, and absence to value presence.”  This is a poignant depiction of shalom, the bittersweet mix of conflicting emotions we experience when a loved one passes away.  We grieve because we love.  The initial collision of emotions transforms over time as the veritable tsunami of grief gradually gives way over the years to occasional waves of sadness.

Eventually we have a mix of fond recollections and pleasant memories infused with a measure of sadness which never ends – and for that we are grateful.  Death is part of life.  Death is natural and expected, part of our nefesh experience; brought to mind every time a man dons his kittel.

We are beckoned to celebrate life while conceding that our own days are numbered.  Far beyond mere poetic verse, Kaddish Yatom reminds us to examine our lives so we honor our departed loved ones through the words and actions we choose each day.  It provokes us to live our lives so that one day our close relatives will desire to honor us.

Few people go their entire lives without experiencing the death of a close relative; such loss is practically inevitable.  As we hear others recite Kaddish Yatom during services we realize that we will one day stand to say Kaddish Yatom for members of our own family.  May this remind us to cherish the years, the days, the moments we still have with our loved ones, ever in praise to our G-d, “O King, who brings death and gives life, and makes salvation grow.”

T’hillim 30

A psalm of David.  A song for the dedication of the House.

At this point in the Shabbat Shaḥrit service we have completed our daily prayers and readings and prepare now to enter into prayers and readings specific to the weekly Shabbat.  Our first reading, T’hillim 30, directs our attention to the jubilant dedication of our Holy Temple.

Imagine the excitement as we awaited the dedication!  For over 400 years we brought sacrifices to temporary structures, always aware that one day HaShem would reveal the location of Ha Makom (“the place where the L-rd your G-d will choose as a dwelling for His Name”).  Then, in a series of supposedly unrelated events, HaMeleḥ David bought a threshing floor so he could build an altar to stay a terrible plague (2 Shmu’el 24).  

That seemingly nondescript threshing floor was Ha Makom, the Temple Mount.  Some time later David declared to HaNavi Natan, “Here, I’m living in a cedar-wood palace; but the ark for the covenant of Ad-nai is kept under a tent!” That same night Natan received a vision and reported back – David is forbidden to build the House, yet due to his great desire to do so HaShem promises that David’s house and throne will last forever (1 Chronicles 17).  David, known as the man after G-d’s own heart, spent his final years gathering supplies and amassing treasures for building a House that he did not live to see. 

2 Chronicles 5 – 7 describe HaMeleḥ Shlomo’s dedication of the House as a majestic seven-day celebration replete with Levitical music, impassioned prayers, and sacrifices in abundance. Coincident with Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret (Tishrei 15 – 21, 22), “on the eighth day they held a solemn assembly, having observed the dedication of the altar for seven days and the festival for seven days.  Then, on the twenty-third day of the seventh month, he sent the people away to their tents full of joy and glad of heart for all the goodness Ad-nai had shown to David, to Shlomo and to Isra’el His people.” (2 Chronicles 7:9-10)

As we read through T’hillim 30, notice how the center section feels like a private struggle in the midst of HaMaleḥ David’s public song.  His inner conflict is familiar to anyone who has embraced a task of great magnitude or eternal consequence – exultation (“I shall never be shaken”) interspersed with despondency (“Can dust thank You?).  This t’hillah, read without the center section, is inspiring and triumphant; the center section, though, is what makes it personal, palpable, real. 

“I will exalt You, L-rd, for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. 

L-rd, my G-d, I cried to You for help and You healed me.  L-rd, You lifted my soul from the grave; You spared me from going down to the pit.  Sing to the L-rd, you His devoted ones, and give thanks to His holy name.  For His anger is for a moment, but His favor for a lifetime.  At night there may be weeping, but in the morning there is joy.

“When I felt secure, I said, “I shall never be shaken.”  L-rd, when You favored me, You made me stand firm as a mountain, but when You hid Your face, I was terrified.  To You, L-rd, I called; I pleaded with my L-rd: “What gain would there be if I died and went down to the grave?  Can dust thank You?  Can it declare Your truth?  Hear, L-rd, and be gracious to me; L-rd, be my help.”

“You have turned my sorrow into dancing.  You have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may sing to You and not be silent.  L-rd my G-d, for ever will I thank You.” [T’hillim 30]

Through T’hillim 30 we traverse Har haBayit; it surrounds us, eclipsing awareness of everything else as we “enter His gates with thanksgiving, enter His courts with praise.”  We have ascended the Southern steps; as we continue now through the Gates to the Courts we see the House within which the Heiḥol and the Kodesh Kodeshim are located.  Standing at a height of 100 cubits (approximately 150 feet), the House towers over the familiar walls (40 feet) which surround the Old City of Jerusalem.

After the celebration’s finale, after everyone has been sent home, HaShem visited HaMaleḥ Shlomo (2 Chronicles 7).  This is the famous exchange during which HaShem grants Shlomo his world-renowned measure of wisdom.  HaShem’s parting words, so abrupt and unexpected, described the future destruction of our magnificent Temple.

How poignant that HaShem chose to foretell the destruction of His House on the night following one of the grandest celebrations in recorded history.  Yet because of this we relate to T’hillim 30’s mix of grief and joy, of despondency and hope; because of this we can celebrate the Holy Temple, mourn its loss, and anticipate the time when it again will stand during the reign of Mashiaḥ.

Kaddish (Kaddish d’Rabbanan)

Kaddish d’Rabbanan is said after completing a section of study, at the conclusion of a siyyum, and at the closing of a Jewish grave.  This is our first encounter with a Kaddish (there are five versions, see Siddur > Shaḥrit article “Kaddish: Introduction”) in our series on the morning service.

We have just completed studying “Offerings” and “Yishma’el’s 13 Principles” which include readings from the Torah along with pertinent selections from the חז״ל (ḥazal).  Ḥazal, an acronym for the Hebrew “Ḥaḥameinu Ziḥronam Liv’raḥa,” meaning “Our Sages, may their memory be blessed,” refers specifically to the sages of Israel who lived during an 875 year period (250 BCE through 625 CE).

A siyyum is the completion of any unit of Torah study or a tractate of the Mishnah or Talmud.  Followed by a celebratory meal, many people may be familiar with siyyums as a study on minor fast days, as the celebratory meal also ends the fast.

The closing of a Jewish grave is also called an “unveiling.”  Held within the first year after burial, this is a formal unveiling of the tombstone or grave marker; an indicator that the official time of mourning is over.

Kaddish d’Rabbanan includes the following section on behalf of Israel and Israel’s teachers and students, past and present, who engage in Torah study:

“To Israel, to the teachers, their disciples

and their disciples’ disciples,

and to all who engage in the study of Torah,

in this (in Israel add: holy) place or elsewhere,

may there come to them and you great peace,

grace, kindness and compassion,

long life, ample sustenance and deliverance,

from their Father in Heaven – and say:  Amein.”

The concluding line, אבוהון די בשמיא is translated, “[their] Father in Heaven.”  Found in both Kaddish Shalem and Kaddish d’Rabbanan, this hearkens back to the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer.  This is the third occasion of a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer tracing back to prayers in the traditional Siddur.  (See Siddur > Shaḥrit articles “Birkat HaShaḥar,” “Kaddish”).  These may be indications that the Lord’s Prayer is a collection of corporate prayers, each referenced by key words from each selected prayer.

Notice that Kaddish d’Rabbanan reserves all praise to HaShem.  Our requests for provision and blessings on Israel and on those dedicated to Torah study confer somber recognition that Judaic observance, especially Torah study, is all too often a dangerous endeavor.  HaShem is and must ever be our sole and unwavering focus as we prepare to recite T’hillim 30, the psalm leading up to Pesukei d’Zimrah.