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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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.