Author Archives: Judith Hauptman

Judith Hauptman

About Judith Hauptman

Judith Hauptman is a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A popular lecturer on Judaism and feminism, she is the author of Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice.


Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Yalta is mentioned several times in the Babylonian Talmud but nowhere else in rabbinic literature. She is identified as the wife of Rabbi Nahman, an oft-cited sage who flourished circa 250 C.E. It is possible that her father was an exilarch (Hullin 124a). The scant information we have about her suggests that she had a strong personality. It is reported that she broke four hundred jugs of wine when slighted by a guest whose barbs were directed not only at her but at womankind in general (Berakhot 51b).

When her husband was treated with disrespect by a younger colleague, she told her husband how to protect himself (Kiddushin 70b). Dissatisfied with an answer given her by one rabbi, she sought out another (Niddah 20b). Once, when she told her husband that she wanted to taste the equivalent of meat cooked in milk, he had udders prepared for her, a foodstuff prohibited by many of his colleagues (Hullin 109b). Her husband allowed her to be carried in a litter on the Sabbath (Betzah 25b), again an act prohibited by many colleagues. She seems to have known the art of healing (Gittin 67b). When read together, these sources suggest that Yalta was relatively free-spirited in word and action.

Special Issues in Mourning

This article shares the traditional responses to exceptional situations with respect to mourning customs. Liberal Jews may follow different, more lenient practices. Excerpted with permission from "Death and Mourning: A Time for Weeping, A Time for Healing," in Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

Converts and Mourning

A convert to Judaism, according to Jewish law, no longer has kinship ties to her gentile family. Therefore, if a parent or other relative for whom Jewish law obligates mourning dies, the convert is under no obligation to sit shiva [the first seven days of intensive mourning]. Jewish law, in fact, discourages shiva in a case like this but looks benignly upon a convert who wishes to recite Kaddish [the memorial prayer] in memory of the deceased relative.

Mourning and Marriage

Should a bride or groom suffer the loss of a close relative within 30 days of a scheduled wedding, it is postponed until the conclusion of sheloshim [the first 30 days of mourning] ([Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah,] 392:1). Even if it is a parent who died, a marriage may still take place after sheloshim–that is, during the 12-month mourning period [required for a parent]. No restrictions are placed on the joyousness of the celebration.

The Kohen and Death

A kohen [or descendant of the priestly class], who in the past was and even today is subject to more demanding laws of ritual purity than other Jews, is not allowed to come into contact with a corpse or even be under the same roof, unless it is one of the seven family members for whom he is obligated to mourn. Because of this holiness code, kohanim may not attend funeral ceremonies of anyone other than close family members if the casket is present, nor may they enter a cemetery. Some kohanim remain outside the funeral chapel during the funeral service to show their respect for the deceased. These rules apply only to male kohanim.

Special Issues in Kaddish

The author shares a Conservative perspective on issues surrounding the obligation to say Kaddish. Excerpted with permission from "Death and Mourning: A Time for Weeping, A Time for Healing," in Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

Together with sitting shiva [the seven days of intensive mourning following the burial of a family member], saying Kaddish is the most familiar and widely observed of all Jewish mourning practices. During shiva and afterward, at each of the daily services, mourners recite Kaddish yatom (mourners’ Kaddish). Many mourners try to attend Shaharit services in the morning and Minhah/Maariv in the late afternoon in order not to miss an opportunity to recite this prayer, but many rabbis rule that attending one service a day fulfills the mourner’s obligation. Kaddish may be recited only when a quorum of 10 Jews–a minyan–is present.


Alternatives to Kaddish

When a person finds it difficult or impossible to say Kaddish in the synagogue [or any place that a minyan gathers] at least once a day, certain alternatives are available. A mourner may read each day a chapter from the Torah or the Prophets or study a Mishnah [an early Jewish legal text] or a passage from the Talmud. Such study would also reflect well on the person’s Jewish upbringing and hence on her parents. It is unfortunate that most people are unaware of this option, so that if they find it impossible to attend services, thinking there is no legitimate substitute they do nothing at all.

Women and Kaddish

The recitation of Kaddish for nearly a year is traditionally viewed as an obligation upon the sons of the deceased, not upon the daughters. However, since Jewish laws of mourning in every other area obligate women in the same way that they obligate men, it follows that women should feel the same duty men feel and recite Kaddish in a synagogue at least once a day. Even in Orthodox synagogues, where women are not counted for the prayer quorum and where they sit separately from men, a woman may recite Kaddish along with the men from her own seat, just as she recites other prayers from her place during the course of the service. A daughter who is Jewishly knowledgeable and committed to regular synagogue attendance honors the memory of the deceased parent just as much as a learned and observant son does.

The Graveside Service

Excerpted with permission from "Death and Mourning: A Time for Weeping, A Time for Healing," in Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

When the hearse reaches the cemetery, the family members and friends again carry or roll the casket to the gravesite, pausing several times on the way, probably as a sign of grief.

The rabbi usually walks ahead reciting Psalm 91, which speaks of God’s sheltering presence; all others follow the casket. After it is lowered into the ground, friends and relatives help shovel earth, either filling the grave completely or just covering the coffin.

At this time, tzidduk hadin, a justification of the divine decree, is read. The mourners then recite the "burial Kaddish" (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 376:4). This special Kaddish has a long opening paragraph that talks about a time in the future when God will resurrect the dead, rebuild the city of Jerusalem and His Temple, and establish His kingdom in the entire world.

Burial, and particularly the act of shoveling the earth into the grave, brings closure. Up until this point it is hard for a mourner to deal with her feelings because the body has not yet been laid to rest, but from this point on she can confront her emotions. It now becomes possible to extend words of comfort to the bereaved family.

Friends form two parallel lines through which the mourners pass and receive condolences as they walk from the gravesite back to the hearse. The family then returns to the place where it will sit shiva [a seven-day intensive period of mourning], usually the home of the deceased. It is customary, before entering the home, to pour water over one’s hands (376:4), a practice reminiscent of Temple times when ritual cleanness and uncleanness was a significant factor in Jewish life and water functioned as a cleansing agent for corpse-induced defilement.

A Year of Mourning for Parents

Excerpted with permission from "Death and Mourning: A Time for Weeping, A Time for Healing," in Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

The only relatives for whom one observes rites of mourning for 12 months are parents, both father and mother.

A text from the Talmud drives home the point that mourning rites for parents are more demanding than those for other relatives. It lists nine ways in which the two sets of practices differ (Mo’ed Katan 22b). The four that are still relevant today are:

1.      [When mourning] for all the others (siblings, spouse, children), he may cut his hair or shave after 30 days have passed; [when mourning] for his parents, he may not do so until his friends scold him [about his appearance].

2.      [When mourning] for all others, he may attend a celebration after 30 days have passed; [when mourning] for his mother and father, not until 12 months have passed.

3.      [When mourning] for all others, he rends [his garment] a tefah (handbreadth); [when mourning] for his father and mother, until he bares his heart.

4.      [When mourning] for all others, he bastes the rip after shiva [the first seven days of mourning] and sews it up after 30 days; [when mourning] for his father and mother, he may baste the rip after 30 days, but may never fully mend it.

What is this lengthy rabbinic statement telling us? That parents are in a different category from everyone else; that just as the Torah singles out parents for special honor in their lifetime, promising long life in exchange for proper performance of this mitzvah [commandment] and threatening death for anyone who curses or strikes parents, similarly the Talmud requires special respect for parents after their death.

I do not think that the Talmud is suggesting that the grief for one’s parents is more intense than the grief for a child who dies but rather that parents who have given unconditional love to their children, who have given birth to them, raised, educated, and transmitted Jewish and human values to them, and who have established them as functioning and productive human beings, deserve the most prolonged and intensive period of mourning. Children are the continuation of their parents in the most real sense, and therefore they are asked to mourn for the longest period of time.

Following the death of a parent one does not attend semahot (religious celebrations) or parties for one year, or 12 months on the Jewish calendar. According to the strictest rabbinic ruling, a mourner is not allowed to listen to music, turn on the radio, watch television, or go to a movie or a concert for 12 months. Other halakhic [Jewish legal] approaches allow most leisure activities as long as they are done in the company of only one or two other people so that the mourner does not experience simhat mere’im, the pleasure of being together with friends.

The key observance for the extended mourning period is saying Kaddish [the memorial prayer] each day in the synagogue. Although one would expect the obligation to last for 12 months, it lasts only for 11. The explanation for this perplexing rule seems to lie in a tradition which states that the most time a person could possibly spend in the netherworld is 12 months. After that, even the blackest soul has atoned for its evil doings and is permitted to make its way to heaven. The recitation of Kaddish helps guarantee safe passage from the lower realms to the upper. Therefore, if a child recited Kaddish a full 12 months, he might be suggesting that his parents would not leave the netherworld until the end of this period of time–that is, that they were inveterate sinners. The custom thus arose of reciting Kaddish for parents for 11 months only (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 376:4).

Sheloshim, the First 30 Days of Mourning

Following shiva, the primary [seven-day] mourning period, there is a secondary period of mourning called sheloshim, meaning 30, because it lasts for 30 days. Like shiva, one counts from the day of burial, and also like shiva, the last day is not full but ends following Shaharit [morning] services.

Although sheloshim is a period of mourning, it is far less intense than shiva. The mourners resume normal social and professional duties but are still restricted in certain ways. One does not cut one’s hair during this time, a custom dating back to the Bible of letting one’s hair grow wild when in mourning (Leviticus 10:6); this rule applies to both men and women. In addition, men are not to shave for the duration of sheloshim (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 390:1). Another restriction observed for 30 days is not attending social events or even religious celebrations (391:1). However, a mourner may attend the ceremony itself, such as a circumcision, as long as he does not stay for the festive meal that follows. Wearing new clothes during this period of time is also considered inappropriate.

This 30-day period eases the mourner back into normal routines by allowing the resumption of many but not all of one’s regular patterns of social behavior. At the conclusion of the 30 days, a sheloshim memorial service is often held, at which time various Jewish texts are taught in memory of the deceased.

The end of sheloshim marks the end of the period of mourning for all relatives except parents who have passed away. Although many people believe and even behave otherwise, after sheloshim Kaddish is no longer recited for a spouse, sibling, or child. All mourning restrictions are lifted.

Excerpted with permission from “Death and Mourning: A Time for Weeping, A Time for Healing,” in Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

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Themes in Death and Mourning

Excerpted with permission from "Death and Mourning: A Time for Weeping, A Time for Healing," inCelebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

One of the ritual areas about which American Jews are least knowledgeable is death and mourning. Many–perhaps most–Jews celebrate birth, coming of age, and marriage in the context of Jewish tradition. But death is more often observed the American way than the Jewish way. Not only does this abandoning of Jewish practice diminish the dignity and meaning of the rites of closure, it also denies the mourners rich opportunities for consolation.

With hospice care for the terminally ill becoming more common, many people will find themselves present at the moment of death. Overwhelmed by the loss and sorely in need of expressing both grief and love, persons not schooled in Jewish patterns of behavior will not know what to do when death occurs.

But those who are familiar with the rites of mourning do know what initial steps to take to preserve the dignity of the deceased and ease the pain. They would immediately rend their garment and recite the words barukh dayyan emet–blessed is the just judge–a brief statement suggesting that as unjust as the death may seem, Judaism asks one to believe that God has reasons for His actions. They would not leave the corpse alone but remain in the room and begin to recite psalms. For a person who feels confused and bereft upon witnessing the death of a loved one, these time-honored structures serve to comfort.

[The chapter from which this is excerpted] presents an overview of the laws of mourning, sketching in the general contours and even some details. These laws come to us from the Bible, the Talmud, and more recent Jewish codes of law, in particular the Shulhan Arukh, first published in 1565. As specific and situation-oriented as the laws of mourning in these works are, anyone who is steeped in this literature begins to notice that a number of principles predominate.

Easing the Burden of Mourning

The first is halakhah ke-divrei ha-mekel be-evel, that is, in matters of mourning we rule according to the more lenient opinion (Mo’ed Katan 19b) (all references are to the Babylonian Talmud). From the time that an early talmudic master named Samuel formulated this principle, it was invoked whenever there was a conflict of opinion on how to proceed. What it seems to reflect is a sense on the part of the rabbis that dealing with death is so difficult that whatever accommodations can be made to ease the burden of mourning should be made.

Equality in Death and Mourning

A second general principle that emerges from the talmudic material is that death is the great leveler. Whereas elsewhere in Jewish law, particularly in marriage and synagogue ritual, women are treated as subordinate to men, in death they achieve parity. It makes no difference if it was a man or woman, a father or a mother, who died or who mourns: The same rules apply to both sexes. Just as a man is buried, so is a woman buried; in the same way that a man observes rites of mourning, so a woman observes rites of mourning. The final acts of kindness performed for the deceased know no gender differentiation.

The Dignity and Honor of the Deceased

The third general principle is that the main concept underlying all Jewish laws of mourning is kevod ha-met, preserving the dignity and honor of the deceased. Although shivah, the week of mourning, tends to be viewed in contemporary society as affording individuals an opportunity to deal with grief in the communal embrace, the main point of a family observing shivah is to make others take notice of the death.

Were it not for shivah, the world would not miss a beat when someone dies. Putting the family in limbo for an entire week and drawing the community into their lives is a powerful way of making the world mark and mourn the death of their precious relative.

The Influence of Non-Jewish Society

The last general principle to point out about the laws of mourning is that Jewish contact with Gentile society has altered these rules. In a number of instances the medieval commentators say that a particular ancient practice referred to in the Talmud, such as overturning couches in the house of mourning or wrapping the head as a sign of grief, should no longer be followed because it will make Jews a laughingstock in the eyes of the Gentiles or else create the impression that Jews practice magic (Mo’ed Katan 21a, Tosafot, beginning "Aylu devarim").

Customs Emerge Over Time

Thus, mourning practices–which are in essence a commandment between one person and another person and not between a person and God–are shaped and modified by social standards and occasionally even abandoned with the passage of time. Similarly, new customs can emerge that have no basis in rabbinic or biblical teachings. Because bringing closure to relationships with parents and other close relatives is such a sensitive issue, these added practices, despite their tenuous connection to classical Jewish texts, exert an extraordinarily strong grip on people. The custom of covering mirrors during shivah, for example, is obscure in origin and purpose, yet it is scrupulously observed in almost all shivah homes. It is rather easy to provide homiletical interpretations for customs like these, as is often done; but it is also important to distinguish between ancient practices rooted in and required by Jewish law and those that somehow attached themselves to the body of Jewish practice over the years.

Ancient Theology, Contemporary Meanings

A final note: Jewish mourning rites have great appeal today because of their ability to meet the emotional needs of mourners, helping them to cope with and adapt to altered life circumstances. Yet one must recognize that the theological approach of those who framed this set of observances differs from that of many people today. The pervasive theme in almost all prayers relating to death is that God decides the length of a person’s life and that His decision, always a just one, is determined by the person’s moral and religious behavior. As foreign and unacceptable as this idea may be to contemporary sensibilities, it is still possible for the centuries-old prayers and customs to heal the wounds and help the mourner regain balance.

Who Mourns for Whom?

Excerpted with permission from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

Relatives for Whom One Sits Shivah And Says Kaddish

When the Torah talks about the exacting standards of holiness that apply to kohanim (priests) who serve in the Temple [including the obligation to avoid contact with death and dead bodies], it goes on to say that these rules are relaxed if a kohen’s close relative dies: He is instructed to defile himself for his mother, father, son, daughter, brother [including a half-brother on the father’s side], and unmar­ried sister (Leviticus 21:2, 3). This short list makes it fairly obvious that the Torah links mourning with flesh-and-blood relatives, what the text calls she’ero ha-karov.


The rabbis of the Talmud took the Torah’s short list of relatives, expanded it to include one’s spouse, married sisters, and half-siblings [on the mother’s side, and ruled that it is for these relatives and no others that a Jew--kohen, levi, or Israelite–sits shivah (Mo’ed Katan 20b). That is, the only people for whom one is obligated to sit shivah and observe the other rites of mourning are one’s immediate family: parents, siblings, spouse, and children.


Today, given the prevalence of complicated family configurations, attributable in many instances to death, divorce, and remarriage, a vari­ety of questions arises. What if a divorced parent’s second spouse dies: Are step-children required to sit shivah? Does one sit shivah for step­siblings? The rule seems to be that the obligation for mourning still falls only on blood relatives. As for siblings, only those who are blood rela­tives, like half-siblings, are included, but not step-siblings. Similarly, one is not required to observe the mourning rites for step-parents or step-children.

Adoptive Parents and Children

The question of adoptive parents and adopted children is trickier, given the deep emotional attachment between them, identical to that of natural parents and children. In all of these cases Jewish law holds that although there is no absolute obligation to sit shivah and say kad­dish, it certainly is permissible and commendable to do so.