Themes in Death and Mourning

Though traditional sources on the laws of mourning are quite detailed and specific, an acquaintance with this legal literature reveals a number of overarching themes and principles.

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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.

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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.