Author Archives: Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Rabbi Maurice Lamm

About Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.

How Not to Comfort Mourners

Reprinted with permission from Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief (Jewish Publication Society).

When comforting a mourner, we often draw upon familiar expressions that we ourselves have heard others say in such situations. But unex­plained, such expressions often convey messages that leave the mourner puzzled or upset. Be careful when using them.

“What The Mind Cannot Do, Time Will Do”

When we have difficulty accepting a serious blow, we tend to cast our problem into the future and to take no action in the present. We ratio­nalize this avoidance with gems of old wisdom: “What the mind can­not do, time will do”; “All in good time”; “Time will heal”; “Just give it time”; “Time heals all wounds.” The trouble is that it doesn’t. Time tends to cover up problems, not deal with them; to bury them, not make them disappear; to soothe over them, not solve them.

No doubt it is true that with the passage of time the piercing pain of grief will be blunted. But the future is little consolation to mourners. What the effects of time will be is only conjecture at present. Grief must be handled today. A promise that eventually everything will be all right is a therapeutic evasion practiced regularly when there is no immedi­ate answer. But it is an empty promise.

Twentieth-century ethicist Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler said that grief will not just float away and consolation will not arrive spontaneously, given enough time. The days by themselves will not magically bring healing; only God can truly heal. Ha’makom yenahem [May God comfort].

“God Took Him Before He Could Sin”

The idea that a child taken by God is without sin is an ancient truth in the Jewish religion, since a person is considered sinless until he or she has attained the age of maturity (13 for a boy and 12 for a girl). Although such a teaching does not make the death of a child any easier to accept, it may somewhat lighten the mourner’s suffering. Contrarily, it might be taken as a puny excuse for a child’s death, or worse, as a jus­tification that since the child did not sin, his or her death is not so bad. A visitor to the house of mourning must be sensitive to this and choose his or her words carefully.

Jewish Words of Comfort

Reprinted with permission from Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief (Jewish Publication Society).

Jewish tradition understands the quandary of those who want to com­fort mourners but cannot articulate words of comfort, so it provides a formulaic religious response to what is essentially an inexpressible emo­tion. Thus, consolers are able to express their sentiments in a soothing and spiritual way without fear that they might become tongue-tied in the face of irretrievable tragedy.

The Crown Jewel Of Jewish Consolation

“May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem (Ha’makom yenahem etkhem betokh she’ar avelei Tziyonvi’Yerushalayim).

This traditional farewell of mourners instituted by Judaism is carefully constructed and profound. It conveys positive feeling with layers of ever-deepening meaning, even for those who don’t understand the lit­eral Hebrew or who can hardly remember the words or even pronounce them correctly.

This formula also relies on God to take primary responsibility for consoling the mourners–to comfort is human, to console divine. Mourners might find it hard to fully accept a human being’s personal words, but they may feel more readily consoled by an invoca­tion of God’s participation in mourning. The ideas embedded in this phrase are a summary of the religious and spiritual devices the tradition uses to bring the mourner some consolation.


In this blessing, God is referred to by a specific and little-known name, “Ha’makom,” which translates simply as “The Place.” God is referred to as “place” because space affirms stability, solid ground, rootednessthe opposite of ethereal. A “space” term is used instead of a “time” term such as the Tetragrammaton–the four-letter word for God’s name, which signifies eternitybecause mourners need to inhabit the here and now.

Modesty (Tz’ni’ut)

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage (Jonathan David).

Modesty is the foundation of Jewish values and is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the Jewish family. It is popularly thought to apply primarily to women, but it is a desirable quality in men as well. Although the term is generally used for relations between men and women, it is meant to apply to people in all situations.bodies quiz 

Tz’ni’ut means modesty, simplicity, a touch of bashfulness, and reserve. But perhaps above these, it signifies privacy. It is the hallmark of Jewish marriage, and the rabbis refer to it as the specific quality to look for in the ideal mate.

The classical symbol of tz’ni’ut is the veil. It bespeaks privacy, a person apart; Isaiah (3:18) calls it tif’eret (“glory”). The Assyrians ruled that a harlot may not wear a veil, to imply that she is on public exhibit (Code of Hammurabi). The veil was instinctively donned by Rebecca as soon as she observed her future husband in the distance (Genesis 24:65). That is one reason why the ceremony immediately prior to the wedding celebration is the bedeken, or the veiling of the bride by the groom, who blesses the bride with the ancient words spoken to Rebecca.

The principle of tz’ni’ut rejects all nudity, not only in public, but also before family members at home. (Thus one must not pray or recite the Sh’ma prayer while one is naked or standing in the presence of a naked person.) The rejection of nudity recalls Adam and Eve who, after committing the first sin, realized they were naked and instinctively felt ashamed and hid (Genesis 2:25). The same attitude reappears when Noah curses Ham, who saw his father exposed (Genesis 9:21-27).

Tz’ni’ut also implies modesty in dress. Traditionally covered parts of the body should not be exposed, although one can dress stylishly. This attitude issues from a very highly refined sense of shame, an emotion often denigrated today in the name of freedom. Not only did the Bible prohibit removing all clothing, it did not permit wearing any garments belonging to the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5), as this might lead to unnatural lusts, lascivious thoughts, and a freer intermingling between the sexes.

Marriage & Community

As with many lifecycle and other ritual events in Judaism, community is a vital aspect of marriage, despite the inherently private relationship that a wedding celebrates. In the following article, Rabbi Lamm offers a traditional view of the role of community in marriage. Reprinted from The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage by permission of Jonathan David Publishers.

Marriage is Basic Unit of Jewish Community

The non-Jewish practice of celibacy reflects a philosophy of withdrawal from the real world. Jewish marriage is the decision to confront the challenge of the real world. The Jew, when he marries, enters not only marriage, but the world–the world of the Jewish community, of concern for the survival of the Jewish people, and of care and responsibility for total strangers. As a man-wife unit, the married couple has a new voice.

Historically, the family-oriented Jewish community, which experienced very few divorces and virtually no abandonments, gave little consideration to the opinions of single people. When God became a partner at the wedding, and a new Jewish home was created, an overriding significance was added. In some communities this is still demonstrated by the groom’s donning, for the first time, a tallit (prayer shawl).

The requirement of a minyan at the wedding (the quorum of 10 that is the smallest unit of the Jewish social structure) is an important indication of the social significance of marriage.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes how Maimonides differentiates three friendship categories (haver, companion, associations) within marriage. First is haver le’davar, a utilitarian association that depends on reciprocal usefulness. When the usefulness disappears, the bond of "love" dissolves (batel davar, batel ahavah). Second, is haver le’daagah, someone with whom to share sorrows, troubles, and also joys. We need this in order to lighten our load. Joys are multiplied and sorrows are divided when they are shared. Third is haver le’deah, a joint dedication to common goals. Both dream of realizing great ideals, with a readiness to sacrifice for their attainment.

Marriage must at least partake of the first and second friendship levels, the physical and psychological aspects of joint partnership. But if the partners are truly haverim and their union is hibbur (a joint partnership), they form a community of commitment.

Marital Love Creates the Jewish Future

Love seeks eternity, sanctity, rootedness in a transcendent power. True lovers cannot endure in a hastily-put-together arrangement. Love will not be fulfilled until it reaches that ultimate moment, the total commitment of marriage.

Love is a sacred trust. The description of the relationship of bride and groom preserved in the blessing at the wedding service is reim ahuvim (beloved friends).

The secular sanction of a civil marriage is not sufficient to motivate love to rise to its highest level; it needs the sanctification of an almighty and eternal God. Love so desanctified cannot long withstand the daily frustrations, angers, and hurts. To flourish, love needs an intimation that it originates in the plan of the Creator; that the world could not exist without it; and that an all-knowing God delights in it.

Marriage is the natural home of love. Here it can grow and enrich itself, and leave something worthy in its wake. Love that is not able to express itself in the cares of married life is frustrated love. "It is not good that man should be alone," says Rabbi Jacob Zevi Meklenburg, "means that man’s inner capacity for goodness can never be realized unless he has someone upon whom to shower his affections." Mature love is expressed through giving, and through giving comes even greater love.

To have a child is a flesh-and-blood connection with the future, and the birthplace of humanity’s future is the home. The future of the whole Jewish people depends upon marriage, the covenantal relationship of husband and wife. Marriage is not simply a private arrangement designed solely for mutual satisfaction; its importance rests in how the couple perceive their bond, the love they demonstrate, and the constellation of virtues they bring to the home. Every marriage covenant must partake of the original covenant. Jewish values thrive not as ephemeral theories, but as they are lived daily. This means that the Jewish couple needs a religiously-oriented home, an investment in the Jewish community, and a concern with the fate of God’s world.

The eternal Jewish future depends on the old Jewish past, which gives ample evidence that Jews who relate to God survive. The words of the betrothal blessing are important in this context: He forbade relations for the betrothed, and permitted it for the married. These are declarations of God who created man and woman and ordained marriage. Given true love and a man and woman who follow religious and ethical precepts, life holds the possibility of being as close to paradise as is possible in this world. But if they violate God’s commands, they must repeat the experience of Adam and Eve in paradise lost. Judaism teaches that every bride and groom must go back to Adam and Eve, and reenact that physical and spiritual drama of community as "one flesh."

Jewish marriage serves many purposes, but the phrase that incorporates all of these purposes is central to the wedding service: "You are hereby sanctified unto Me… " But the covenant requires more than this declaration of sanctity. It is the remainder of the marriage formula that is crucial to Jewish survival: "… according to the laws of Moses and Israel."

The Ketubah Text (Part 2)

The following article explores the second half of the traditional ketubah. The first part of the ketubah describes the groom’s proposal of marriage and the basic funds committed to the marriage from the bride’s family and the groom; click here to read an explanation of the first part of the ketubah. Reprinted from The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage by permission of Jonathan David Publishers.

The Groom, in Turn, Promised an Additional Gift

"… adding on his own, mattan [gift], another 100 silver pieces, kenegdan, making a total of 200 silver pieces."

Tosefet Ketubah: The Mattan. The additional monies, known as tosefet ketubah [addition to the ketubah] or mattan, is the addition to the mohar, called ikkar ketubah, the basic contract. This is the gift that the groom makes and that matches the dowry sum (kenegdan)–100 silver pieces. The total of dowry estimate plus tosefet ketubah comes to 200 silver pieces.

The tosefet ketubah has a parallel history to mohar, although the mohar was legal and compulsory and the tosefet ketubah social and voluntary. Both were designed to protect the woman. The latter was originally a wedding gift to the bride, and turned into a debt which was to be redeemed at the termination of marriage, by death of the husband or divorce. It had the same security advantage as did the mohar (although this was not instituted by Simeon ben Shetach).

And Secured the Promise With a Lien on His Property

"And thus said _______ , the said groom: "I take upon myself, and my heirs after me, the surety of this ketubah, of the dowry, and of the additional sum, so that all this shall be paid from the best part of my property, real and personal, that I now possess or may hereafter acquire. All my property, even the mantle on my shoulders, shall be mortgaged for the security of this ketubah and of the dowry and of the addition made thereto, during my lifetime and after my lifetime from this day forever."

The Surety of This Ketubah. Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach made the ketubah into a note of indebtedness to protect the wife. He also introduced a guarantee that it would not remain merely a promise made in the flush of love, but a contractual obligation. The ketubah therefore includes a lien on the groom’s property to secure the satisfaction of the triple obligation of mohar [the cash gift the groom gives the bride], nedunya [dowry], and tosefet ketubah, or as the ketubah reads, she’tar ketubta da, nedunya den, ve’tosefta da. A lien on the debtor’s property (the groom’s) means that the law considers the property as a sort of mortgage. It is a shibuda de’oraita, a lien that is a biblical mandate, even more than a simple mortgage. The lien of the ketubah obligates the husband personally and it is therefore not only a mortgage on his real estate, but also on "property, the best part… real and personal… the mantle on my shoulders… now… or hereafter… during my lifetime and forever."

And the Lien Is Fully Valid

"And the surety for all the obligations of this ketubah, dowry and the additional sum has been assumed by _______ the said groom, with the full obligation dictated by all documents of ketubot and additional sums due every daughter of Israel, executed in accordance with the enactment of our sages, of blessed memory. It is not to be regarded as an indecisive contractual obligation nor as a stereotyped form."

Not a Stereotyped Form. To assure the legal effectiveness of the debt and the lien made at a moment of exhilaration and romantic expectation, and to prevent the ketubah from being considered a mere statement of love commitment, with no legal binding force, the sages expressly affirmed, "It is not to be regarded as an asmakhta, an indecisive contractual obligation," a sort of speculation, or as a "stereotyped form," a routine rubber-stamp procedure.

Then Everything Was Sealed

"And we have completed the act of acquisition from _______ son of _______ of the family _______ the said bridegroom, for _______ daughter of _______ of the family _______ this maiden, for all that which is stated and explained above, by an instrument legally fit to establish a transaction. And everything is valid and established."

The Act of Acquisition (Kinyan). In order to seal all of the stipulated obligations, and to assure that the document is not asmakhta (based on speculation), the rabbis required the legal formality of kinyan, the act of acquisition. Because the bride cannot take possession of all the property, the groom affirms it by a symbolic act called kinyan suddar.

Thus, at the wedding, the rabbi or one of the witnesses gives a handkerchief or other article (but not a coin) on behalf of the recipient (the bride) to the groom. The groom then returns it. Then they record in the ketubah, ve’kanina ("and we have completed the act of acquisition"). This symbolic act must be seen clearly by the witnesses, who are the makers of the contract, before they sign to its validity. If the ketubah is calligraphed by a scribe, or printed in advance of the wedding, one letter of the word ve’kanina (or the whole word) is usually omitted so that the ketubah is technically not completed before the kinyan itself is made. If this custom is overlooked, it does not alter the ketubah’s validity, so long as the witnesses in fact witness the kinyan-transfer of the handkerchief.

Everything Is Valid and Established. The sages took precautions that legal documents not be tampered with or added to, and therefore instituted several procedures in concluding the document. First, the last sentence had to briefly summarize the contents; second, the formula ha-kol sharir ve’kayam, ("and everything is valid and established") must appear at the end of that line; and third, the witnesses must sign very close to the last line.

In the ketubah, the summary is "for all that which is stated and explained above, by an instrument legally fit to establish a transaction." The formula follows, "and everything is valid and established." And the witnesses sign immediately thereafter on the next line beneath the formula.

And the Witnesses Attested to It

"Witness _______

Witness _______"

The Witnesses. The witnesses must follow these guidelines, although today the preprinted ketubot usually prevent error. [Traditionally, witnesses must be male, though women serve as witnesses in many non-Orthodox communities today.]

1. The witness must write his first name, son of his father’s first name, whether he is a kohen [of priestly descent] or Levi, preferably also the family name, and follow it with the word ed (witness).

2. It must be in his own handwriting, not that of the scribe.

3. It must be signed as close to the text as possible, so that no words can easily be inserted.

4. The signature should not begin in the middle of the line.

5. Ideally, the two witnesses should sign one name under the other, as they would on a get (bill of divorce).

6. They should not sign before it is fully completed, including, if it is calligraphed, the omitted letter in ve’kanina.

7. They should have read the document, or have had it read to them.

8. They should have witnessed both the kinyan and each other’s signing, as on a get.

The Ketubah Text

This article explains the first half of the traditional ketubah, including the proposal and funds committed to the marriage from the bride’s family and the groom. "Explaining the Ketubah Text (Part 2)" describes the additional gift from the groom, contractual protections for his wife, and how the ketubah is sealed.

In liberal communities the bride and groom often write more egalitarian ketubot that reflect their goals for the marriage–either in place of or in addition to the traditional ketubah. Both liberal and some traditional Jews may include a prenuptial agreement in their ketubah that would require the groom to give the bride a get, or Jewish bill of divorce, should the marriage end. Reprinted from The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage by permission of Jonathan David Publishers.

The Date and Place of the Wedding

"On the _______ day of the week, the _______ day of the month _______ in the year _______ since the creation of the world according to the reckoning which we are accustomed to use here in the city of _______ in _______ "


The Date. The law prescribes that the date appear at the beginning in private agreements, but at the end in court agreements. Though the ketubah has the status of a court decree, it is in the nature of a private agreement and so the date is placed first.

The Place. The same rationale is used for the place. A divorce document contains more geographical information (e.g., mention of a neighboring river). The Sephardim [Jews of Spain who, after the Expulsion, emigrated to North Africa and the Middle East] retained this custom, and Rema, in the 16th century, urged that the technicalities of the ketubah follow those of the divorce. But the Talmud simplified the ketubah and the Jews of Europe have followed that tradition.

The Groom, the Bride, & the Proposal

"… _______ son of _______ of the family _______ said to this maiden _______ daughter of _______ of the family _______ "Be thou my wife according to the law of Moses and Israel."

Marriage & God

Reprinted from
The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage
by permission of Jonathan David Publishers.

The marital integrity of the Jewish people was legendary in ancient and medieval times, and Jewish family life is idealized even in these days of upheaval. What qualities make Jewish marriage so stable? 

Marriage Is Part of the Natural Order

Jewish marriage is not designed for the ethical management of the sexual drive, nor is it a concession to human weakness. Jewish marriage makes its appearance within the natural order of creation, not as a law promulgated by Moses nor as a legal sanction, but as a blessing from God. Just as woman was created as a separate being, “a helpmeet opposite” man (Genesis 2:18), the purpose for the creation of marriage is stated in five words: lo tov he-yot ha-adam le’vado–It is not good for man to be alone.

Marriage was created at the beginning, at the same time the principals of marriage were created. It was not an afterthought, designed to control their passions, but part of the natural order of human society. The moment we are born we are destined for marriage. When a newborn child is named, the prayer is le’huppah u’le’maasim tovim (to the marriage canopy and a life of good deeds). Marriage is thus grounded in the primeval relationship of the sexes in order to perpetuate the species and enhance personal growth.

Marriage Repairs Existential Loneliness

wedding rings in grassMarriage is seen as a blessing because it enables us to overcome loneliness. According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Genesis 2:18 reads “he-yotha-adam le’vado rather than “li-he’yot,” which implies not that “it is not good for man to be alone,” but that it is not good for man to be “lonely.” Being “alone” means being physically alone, wanting company, needing assistance; being “lonely” means spiritual solitude, as one can feel lonely even in a crowd.

God seeks to remedy that with the creation of woman as ezer ke’negdo, a helpmeet opposite him. Now if le’vado (alone) means simply needing company or requiring assistance, then woman is ezer, a cook and bottle washer, a real helper. But if le’vado means lonely, then ezer is not just a partner to lighten the burden, she is ke’negdo, part of a spiritual union of two souls. The basic God-created human unit is man and woman, one flesh, completing one another.

The Conversion Process and the Covenant

Reprinted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

The two pivotal "performative" components of the act of conversion–circumcision and immersion–cannot serve as a complete conversion independently for a male convert. Although they constitute different religious symbols and occupy different spiritual moments in the conversion process, they are nonetheless intimately linked, both conceptually and halakhically [according to Jewish law].


Conversion Means Acceptance of Jewish Fate and Destiny

Conceptually, circumcision and immersion respectively represent the two aspects of "entering the covenant" encompassed by the Sinaitic Covenant–the first immediately prior to the Exodus when the Jews were circumcised in preparation for leaving Egypt; the second at Sinai itself when all the Jews collectively were confronted by God. In both instances, the Jews united in a covenant. In Egypt, the Jews united for their self-defense, to protect each other and to come under the protection of God–their common fate, goral. At Sinai, they united in order to become a "priestly people," to accomplish together their God-given role and to achieve a common destiny, ye’ud.

Exodus is a person-to-person covenant, Sinai a God-people covenant. When Jewish tradition refers to a convert "entering the covenant," it refers to accepting the double goal of the covenant–fate and destiny–of becoming a part of the people by wanting to share the Jewish fate as our ancestors did in Egypt, and of standing in the presence of God to share the Jewish destiny as our ancestors did at Sinai.

Circumcision represents the fate-sharing component of conversion. It returns the person to the soil of pre-Exodus Egypt before the Jews became a distinct people and recalls the beginning of the conversion of the whole people. It embodies the convert’s full-hearted consent to be part of a united global people–its history and its future–and to be willing to suffer when any part of that people suffers, as the mind must cringe when the hand is cut.

Acceptance of the Yoke of the Commandments

The following is a look at the traditional practices regarding a potential convert’s acceptance of the commandments; contemporary practices may differ, depending on the community, denomination, and personal beliefs of individual rabbis who are working with potential converts. Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

The prospective convert’s commitment to practice Judaism must be articulated at two stages in the conversion protocol: in the initial statement of intent to enter the Jewish covenant–prerequisite to the total process–and in the declaration recited at the climax of the conversion ceremony, immediately prior to immersion in the ritual pool.


Joint Commitment to Belief and Action

Because the Jews constitute a covenant-community rather than a faith-community, the decision to convert is a decision not only to believe in the Jewish idea of God, but to act on that belief. When one “enters into the covenant”–the convert’s personal Sinai [the mountain where the Jewish people accepted the covenant]–one accepts the divine mandate requiring distinctive behavior. This is called “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.”

What does this entail as a practical program? First, it necessitates acknowledgment of the authority of Torah, the five books of Moses, and the oral interpretation of that law by the sages of the Talmud and the codes of the halakhah [Jewish law]. These two components are called the “Written Torah” and “Oral Torah” and together they comprise the body of Jewish law.

The rabbis rule that the candidate for conversion may not willfully reject even one of these laws. By this they mean, basically, that the convert may not deny the rabbis’ authority to establish a particular law. Thus, the commitment to practice is referred to as kabbalat ol ha’mitzvot the “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments,” rather than by the more tepid phrase “observance of the mitzvot [commandments].” It is a recognition that, although the laws may sometimes be restrictive, they need to be accepted as authoritative notwithstanding any difficulty in keeping them.

Why Immerse in the Mikveh?

Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

What physical act could a person perform in order to symbolize a radical change of heart, a total commitment? Is there a sign so dramatic, dynamic, and all-encompassing that it could represent the radical change undergone by the convert to Judaism?

Jewish tradition prescribes a profound symbol. It instructs the conversion candidate to place himself or herself in a radically different physical environment–in water rather than air. This leaves the person floating–momentarily suspended without breathing–substituting the usual forward moving nature and purposeful stride that characterize his or her waking movements with an aimlessness, a weightlessness, a detachment from the former environment. Individuality, passion, ego–all are submerged in the metamorphosis from the larval state of the present to a new existence.mayyim hayyim

Ritual immersion is the total submersion of the body in a pool of water. This pool and its water are precisely prescribed by Jewish law. Immersion, tevillah, is the common core component of every [traditional] Jewish conversion process, for male and female, adult and child, ignoramus and scholar. It is sine qua non, and a conversion ceremony without immersion is unacceptable to the traditional religious community and simply not Jewish in character.

This requirement of immersion admits of no compromise, no matter where in the world one finds oneself. (While Conservative rabbis similarly require mikveh [sometimes pronounced mikvah] for conversion, Reform rabbis generally do not, although a tendency to more traditional symbols and a sense that a uniform conversion process is desirable are encouraging greater use of the immersion component even among the Reform.)

Religious Functions of the Mikveh

Several religious functions are served by this powerful symbol of submerging in water. In the days of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the mikveh was used by all Jews who wanted to enter the precincts of the Sanctuary. The law required every person inside the Temple grounds to be in a spiritually pure state appropriate to the pristine spirituality of the Sanctuary itself.

1 2