Death and Mourning: Sources from the Babylonian Talmud

On attending to mourners, anticipating dying, accepting death, and appropriate burial rites.

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These translations of talmudic passages are reprinted and adapted with permission from Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Insights and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).

Imitating God by Comforting Mourners

Rabbi Chama son of Rabbi Chanina said: "What is the meaning of the verse: 'You shall walk after Adonai your God' (Deuteronomy 13:5)? The meaning is to walk after the attributes of the Holy One…The Holy One comforted mourners, as it is written, 'And it came to pass after the death of Abraham that God blessed Isaac his son' (Genesis 25:11), so you should comfort mourners. The Holy One buried the dead, as it is written, 'And [God] buried [Moses] in the valley' (Deuteronomy 34:6), so you should bury the dead." (Sotah 14a)

Rich and Poor, Equal in Death

At one time, funerals [among the Jewish people] were more diffi­cult [because they were more costly] for the relatives [of the deceased] than the death itself, so much so that they would leave [the body] and flee. Then Rabban Gamliel came and behaved simply with regard to himself, [insisting] that they would bring his body out in linen garments. Then everyone followed his example and brought out bodies in linen gar­ments. Rav Papa said: "Now it is the practice to bring out bodies in rough cloth worth only a zuz." (Ketubot8b)

Praying for Healing—And Letting Go

When Rabbi [Judah] was dying, the [other] rabbis declared a public fast and offered prayers that God have mercy on him [i.e., spare his life] .... [His] maid went up to the roof and prayed: "The angels want Rabbi [to join them in heaven] and the people want him to remain with them. May it be the will of God that the people overpower the angels." However, when she saw how often he had to use the bathroom, each time painfully taking off his tefillin (phylacteries) and putting them on again [for it was the custom at that time to wear tefillin throughout the day], she prayed: "May it be the will of God that the angels overpow­er the people." As the rabbis continued to pray, she took a jar and threw it off the roof. They stopped praying [because they were startled by the noise], and the soul of Rabbi [Judah] departed. (Ketubot104a)

Approach Death—And Each New Day--Having Repented

Rabbi Eliezer said: "Repent one day before your death." His students asked him: "Does one know the day of one's death?" That is all the more reason to repent today lest one dies tomorrow. Therefore, all one's days shall be filled with repen­tance. (Shabbat 153a)

One Rabbi Imagines the World to Come

A favorite saying of [the great teacher] Rav: "The world to come is not like this world. In the world to come there is no eating or drinking or procreation or business or jealousy or hatred or competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and enjoy the brightness of the Shechinah [the Divine presence]." (Brachot 17a) 

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