Life Cycles - Death
III - Bereavement & Mourning part I
Jewish tradition recognizes that immediately following a death, the bereaved often enters an initial period of shock. Our sages tell us, "Do not comfort a person when his dead lie before him" (Pirkey Avot 4:18). The bereaved should be left alone to the extent that he or she desires, and must be freed of all responsibilities - religious and otherwise - in order to attend to the funeral arrangements. Recitation of the Kaddish * does not begin until the burial.
This prayer contains no reference to death and, in origin, was not associated with death. Historically, the Kaddish was recited upon the completion of a period of study, when students would declare "Magnified and sanctified be God's great name" in recognition of the opportunity to study, and in thanks for it. When a teacher died, his students would honor him by studying his works and then reciting Kaddish. This was the prayer's first association with death.
Now, Kaddish has become a prayer of affirmation. Despite the painful blow which the mourner has been dealt, belief in God is affirmed. Our sages required that Kaddish be recited in the presence of a Minyan* (group of 10 adult Jews) in order to emphasize the supportive role of the community. As the community shares in the loss, so too must it help provide consolation to the mourner.
According to Jewish Law, the following are obligated to mourn: Son, Daughter, Father, Mother, Husband, Brother, Half-Brother, Wife, Sister, and Half-Sister of the deceased. Girls under the age of 12 and boys under the age of 13 are exempted from mourning.
Keriah* (Rending of Clothing)
Keriah is a traditional sign of mourning. Beth Torah's practices allow for the wearing of a Keriah button as a substitute for the traditional rending of garments. The small black Keriah button carries an attached black cloth tail, which is cut as a substitute for tearing of actual clothes. Keriah buttons are provided by the funeral home, and are worn during the period of Sheloshim - for 30 days.
The Keriah service takes place just before the start of the funeral service. At this time the mourners recite a benediction in which they say "Dayan H'emet," an acknowledgement that God is the True Judge. Then the Keriah buttons are pinned in place. Sons and daughters of the deceased wear their buttons on the left side of the body, above the heart. All other mourners wear the button at the same height on the right side of the body.
This seven-day period, which commences immediately after burial, is the most intensive time of mourning. It concludes on the morning of the seventh day after the burial. Mourners do not "sit Shiva" on the Sabbath, but do resume all public mourning practices following Shabbat. The Shiva period ends early when any Jewish Festival (except Chanukah or Purim) begins within seven days of the burial.
Returning from the Cemetery
The mourners, as well as all others who have been at the cemetery, wash their hands before entering the Shiva residence (House of Mourning) to symbolize separation of death from life. A bowl of water and towels on the porch or at the front doorway of the Shiva residence should be provided for this purpose.
Because light is a symbol of the soul, a Shiva candle is lit in the House of Mourning upon return from the burial, and is burned continuously for seven days. The Funeral home will furnish this special candle, which should be set in a prominent place in the home.
Meal of Condolence
The first meal that the mourners eat after returning from the cemetery is prepared by friends and relatives, and marks the beginning of the Shiva period. This meal should include hard-boiled eggs, for eggs symbolically represent both life and hope. Neither wine nor meat should be served during Shiva, except on Shabbat or Yom Tov, because these foods symbolize the celebration of well-being.
The discoveries of modern psychiatry remind us once again of the intuitive wisdom our ancient teachers of Judaism so often had concerning human nature and its needs. They recognized centuries ago how essential it is to express grief rather than repress it; how important it is to talk about one's loss with friends and relatives; and how imperative it is for mourners to move step by step from the inactivity that follows bereavement back to normal activity.
During the Shiva period, mourners have the obligation to recite Kaddish. They may request that an evening Minyan Service be held at the Shiva residence; if so, the Ritual Committee will aid in assuring the presence of a Minyan and will provide a prayer leader, prayer books and kipot*.
The front door of the House of Mourning should be left unlocked so that visitors may enter without ringing the doorbell. A sign may be posted on the door asking visitors not to ring the bell.
It is not proper for mourners to serve guests during the Shiva, or to partake in festive meals. In general, mourners refrain from normal daily activities such as going to work or school, and do not attend to matters of personal business. If the mourner must work for financial reasons, a return to work is permitted after the second day of Shiva.
Mourners give visible expression to their feelings of grief by interrupting certain activities and taking part in a variety of others. Through these traditional ways of mourning, the bereaved exhibits a temporary lack of self-concern, as the loss of the loved one is considered paramount.