Jewish Attitudes Toward Death

A brief summary of traditional Jewish views of death--including its tragedy and its inevitability.

Excerpted with permission  from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.

The Jewish religion encour­ages neither a morbid preoccupation with death nor any refusal to acknowledge the fact of human mortality. Judaism teaches that life on earth is a divine gift to be cherished in itself, not only as a prelude to the World to Come. Death is seen as a tragic, though inevitable, event.

There are many tales of Jewish pietists weeping on their deathbed because it is only in the here and now that the precepts of the Torah can be carried out. As the talmudic Rabbis put it: “This World is the place in which the mitzvot are performed. The World to Come is the place of reward for keeping them,” implying that the devout Jew should think more of the joy of living as a servant of God than dwell on the rewards for righteous living which are best left to God Himself.

Yet, while positive euthanasia is condemned in Jewish law, some Jewish thinkers hold that it is permitted to pray for the death of a person suffering from an incurable and extremely pain­ful disease. Moreover, the 18th-century Kabbalist Hayyim Ibn Atar writes that a good Jew should not be afraid to die or be angry when his time comes but should surrender his soul willingly in confidence that it is about to enter into eternal life.

When death does come, the corpse has to be treated with respect as the vehicle of the soul while the deceased was still alive on earth. A whole series of regulations have developed around the arrangements neces­sary for the dead to be given a decent burial. Some of these regulations belong in the area of folklore and superstition but since they are recorded in the Shulhan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law, they have acquired the dignity of law to be observed by faithful Jews and they are followed today very scrupulously, at least by Orthodox Jews.

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