Social Action Aspects of Death and Mourning

Giving charity, time, and effort is a traditional and significant way of honoring the memory of one who has died.

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Excerpted with permission from  Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew (Schocken Books).

Tzedakah--righteous giving--is a way to make memory tangi­ble in the world. Giving money to organizations and causes that were important to the deceased keeps their beliefs alive and active. Tzedakah connects the living and the dead in the work of tikkun olam (repairing the world). "By performing [a] mitzvah on someone's behalf, we become that person's feet on earth." (Anne Brener, Mourning and Mitzvah) 

Indeed, Jewish tradition views charity as the strongest force in the universe; even greater than death itself.

"Rabbi Judah used to say: Ten strong things have been cre­ated in the world. The rock of the mountain is hard, but iron cleaves it. Iron is hard, but fire softens it. Fire is pow­erful, but water quenches it. Water is heavy, but clouds bear it. Clouds are thick, but wind scatters them. Wind is strong, but a body resists it. A body is strong, but fear crushes it. Fear is powerful but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep works it off. Death is stronger than all, yet charity delivers from death. As it is written, "Charity delivereth from Death" (Proverbs 10:2)." -- (Bava Batra 10a)

Jewish folk tradition took this proverb literally; according to ancient belief, the dead spent 11 or 12 months being judged or atoning for sins in preparation for entry into Paradise. While in this state of limbo, tzedakah given in the name of the deceased was thought to hasten the redemption of the soul.

Mourners promise to give memorial tzedakah every time they recite the Yizkor prayer. The pledge reminds the bereaved of their obligation to the living, even when weeping for the dead. The rabbis warned against excessive mourning. Helping to repair the world is a way to translate grief into healing and justice, tzedek.

Giving Money

Jewish mourners give money to a wide vari­ety of charities and organizations. Most people make gifts that reflect the values and interests of the person who died. Obvi­ously, a person who volunteered and contributed to a particular organization, such as the United Jewish Appeal, or their syna­gogue, or the American Cancer Society, is honored by donations to "their" cause. By the same token, a passionate reader might be honored by supporting the synagogue library, the local public library, and literacy programs.

Mourners and guests who were moved by the clergy's eulogy or assistance sometimes send a check to the rabbi's discretionary fund, along with a thank-you note.

Twelve Occasions for Memorial Tzedakah

On hearing news of a death

On returning home from a funeral

After paying a Shiva visit

On attending or hearing of an unveiling

On a yahrzeit

On visiting a cemetery

After Yizkor services

Before every Shabbat

Every time you say Kaddish

On the birthday of a loved one who has died

On attending a wedding, bar mitzvah, or Brit

 Whenever a loved one's favorite charity sends a solicitation

(Based on Danny Siegel, "19 Occasions for Giving Tzedakah," Gym Shoes and Irises: Personalized Tzedakah)

Beyond Money

Mourners can keep their loved ones' values and beliefs alive in the world by committing time and effort to a worthy cause. From volunteering in the soup kitchen where she used to work, to welcoming out-of-towners visiting sick relatives in the hospital, to setting up a synagogue bereavement support group, helping others embodies the Jewish idea or principle of gemilut hasadim--acts of lovingkindness. The Talmud has high praise for such efforts: "He who gives a coin to a poor man is rewarded with six blessings. But he who encourages him with friendly words is rewarded with 11" (Bava Batra 9a).

[Jewish] tradition singles out six particular acts as gemilut hasadim: providing clothes for the naked, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, accompanying the dead to the grave, providing for brides, and offering hospitality to strangers.(Sotah 14a, Eruvin 18a, Shabbat 127a-b). These deeds considered especially holy because, according to rabbinic legend God performed them for human beings. In the Midrash, God attended Eve at her wedding to Adam, comforted Isaac as mourned for his father, and buried Moses (Sotah 14a).

Mourners who are attracted to the idea of donating time as mitzvah of remembrance should choose a labor of love and not a penance. If you hate answering phones, don't volunteer for a phonathon, even if it's a cause you hold dear; find another way to serve.

Three of the six acts of gemilut hasadim are particularly resonant for mourners: visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and showing respect for the dead. Bereaved people who found consolation in Jewish tradition and within their communities some­times wish to "return the favor" by getting involved in programs and committees directed toward other mourners, or even starting new programs for unmet needs. For example, a person who fell completely unprepared to mourn Jewishly might help organize adult education programs about the Jewish traditions for death and mourning.

People who volunteer for these kinds of programs usually have firsthand experience of loss. Working with others who under­stand the ongoing process of grief can be a source of fellowship and comfort as well as a real blessing to those in immediate need. [The chapters on "Taking Comfort" and "Bibliography and Resources" in Saying Kaddish, the book from which this article is excerpted, have more information.]

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.