Death and Mourning within Judaism

This article is not yet finished, and is posted so that in the event that I never finish it, that it may be available to others who can refine it and make use of it. Being unfinished, it may contain repeated information and rituals which I was in the process of comparing, combining, and distilling. It may also contain information of interpretations and rituals that I ultimately in whole or in part disagree with and was in the process of removing. It may also be missing key information and rituals that I deem to be important and was in the process of adding. The formatting of the document may also be poorly arranged. These are the drawbacks to an unfinished document.

On mount Sinai YHVH gave Moses His Instruction (Torah) for how He wants us to live our lives in according to Yah’s Way. The Torah is highly detailed and instructs us on every aspect of our lives. One part of our lives which we all shall experience is the loss of loved ones due to death, and indeed one day we too shall die. YHVH did not leave these things out of his Instruction to us, and just as it tell’s us His Way for us to live our lives, that same Instruction tells us His Way of handling death. As it tells us to live with a focus singularly on God and what He wants of us. So, too, does its instructions regarding death show a singular focus toward God. It tells us of ways to show reverence for mankind and respect for the dead.

This reverence for God and man can be seen in the Jewish tradition’s prohibition of cremation, the disposal of the dead by incinerating the body. This prohibition of the mutilation and destruction of a body expresses the reverence for the fact that we were created in God’s image. The highly structured Jewish mourning observances speak eloquently of and gives profound insights into God’s love for us and how he wishes for us to care for each other, both those who have died and those who are still living.

Below are the Jewish traditions surrounding death.

Meeting with clergy — before or soon after the death of a loved one, the family should call the clergy. They will help with the contacting of the Chevra Kadisha who will assist with making the arrangements. The clergy will then set up a meeting with the family to begin discussing the funeral service and the family will share information about the loved one. This is an important part of the grieving process, as the discussion of the loved one’s life is often cathartic. This discussion also gives the clergy a chance to truly understand the life involved and the person’s impact on others, so that a fitting eulogy (hesped) can be prepared and the family can begin a healthy grieving process.

Chevra Kadisha – Sacred Burial Society
Honouring the dead is considered amongst the truest acts of kindness, because it is done out of love with no hope of being repaid.

The tradition of having a Chevra Kadisha goes back more than 2,000 years. Throughout the world, as Jewish communities were formed, a Chevra Kadisha was one of the first groups to be organized in each community. It is considered a great honour to be a member, and its work is considered holy. The Chevra Kadisha assists the family with the preparation and burial of the deceased in accordance with law and tradition. The three major aspects of the work are:

Shmira – Watch / Guard / Vigil
Once a person passes away, a vigil, called Shmira, is maintained over the body, so that the deceased person is never left alone from the time of their death until their burial; this is to comfort the neshama (soul) of the person. The person or people who keep watch over the body of a deceased person, is called Shomrim (Watchmen / Guards). Chevra Kadisha often assist in providing this service. Historically, shmira was to prevent the desecration of the body prior to burial, guarding against rodents or scavengers. Today, shmira is practised out of respect for the dead, and it serves as a comfort for the surviving loved ones.

According to Midrash (the interpretive tradition), the soul hovers over the body for three days after death. The human soul is somewhat lost and confused between death and burial, and it stays in the general vicinity of the deceased until the body is interred. Traditionally, the shomrim sit, meditate and read aloud comforting psalms and prayers. This serves as a comfort for both the transitioning spirit of the departed and to the shomrim themselves. Performing shmira is considered a mitzvah. The body may be covered or in a closed casket, but there should be someone present in the room at all times. In some cases, this may extend to the next room, provided that the door to the room of the deceased is open.

Tahara – Purification

the preparation of a deceased’s body, including the washing and dressing of the body, accompanied by prayers seeking forgiveness for the deceased and asking for eternal peace.

Tachrichim – Shrouds

wrapping of the body in a shroud and tallit. The shroud has no pockets, signifying that no material possessions go along on the final journey. The garments are modelled on the uniform that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wore into the Holy Temple once a year on Yom Kippur.

Kriah – Tearing
A Hebrew word meaning “tearing” Is the act of tearing one’s clothing or cutting a black ribbon worn on one’s garments. This rending is a striking expression of the grief felt at the loss of a loved one. Kriah is an ancient tradition, when Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead, he tore his garments; in II Samuel 1:11, upon hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan, King David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and ripped them; and in Job, after the death of his children, he stood up and ripped his clothes in grief.

Kriah is usually done before the funeral service begins, and is done while standing, as the act of standing shows strength at a time of grief. Kirah is made on the left side of the clothing over the heart. As the tear or cut is made, the loved ones recite the following blessing:

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam dayan ha’emet.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, the one True Judge.

Some wear the torn garment or ribbon during Shiva (the seven days of mourning), while others continue the practice for Sheloshim (the 30-days of mourning).

The funeral
The Hebrew word for funeral procession is “Levayah” which means “accompaniment” but also indicates “joining” and “bonding.” Even as we mourn a soul’s departure from physical existence, we understand that what binds our souls – the fundamental Divine essence and connection to God – is far more powerful than the changes wrought by death. We and the deceased remain bonded – living souls all. By participating in the levayah we provide comfort to the soul as it undergoes the transition from the Olam Hazeh (this world) to the Olam HaBah (the world to come).

The service — the funeral consists of an opening prayer, plus the recitation of psalms and readings that fit the life of the deceased and are comforting to the mourners. Following this, comes the opportunity to eulogize the deceased and pay proper tribute. This honour is offered to family members and loved ones in consultation with the rabbi.

Burial — if the service is graveside, it concludes with the actual burial of the deceased. If the service is in the funeral chapel, there is a procession to the cemetery. Dating to Biblical times, the preference for Jews has been earth burial. Having family and gathered friends participate in the burial is an important part of the grieving process. Not only does the visceral experience of placing earth on the casket provide a powerful sense of closure that helps with acceptance, it is also the greatest gift one can give their loved one – ensuring that their burial is done properly. We fill the grave until the casket is completely covered.

After the burial ceremony — up until the burial, mourners are supposed to be completely focused on taking care of the loved one who has passed. Therefore, the Kaddish prayer is not recited until after the casket has been lowered and the grave filled or the deceased has been entombed. Upon leaving the gravesite, it is traditional for those in attendance who are not mourners to form a Shura (a double line facing each other), creating an aisle through which the mourners pass to receive words of comfort. This provides the opportunity to express the traditional words of comfort, “May you be comforted amongst all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” along with other words of sympathy as the mourners pass through the double line. There is an expression in Hebrew that translates, “Words from the heart go directly to the heart.”

Returning home — there are many customs that Jews observe regarding returning home from the cemetery, such as: covering the mirrors in the house of mourning; having a pitcher of water outside the house for those returning from the cemetery to wash their hands; and using a different route home from the cemetery. One of the oldest and most important Jewish traditions is that the community provides the first meal upon the family’s return to their home. Eggs, bagels and potatoes are traditionally served to symbolize the continuity of life. This meal of consolation, called the Seudat Hevra’ah, was begun in recognition that, if left to the mourners’ own wills, they might not eat. Another reason for the community to provide the first meal is to set the tone for the period of Shiva. The mourners are not to be hosting a party, nor are they to be concerned with taking care of other people’s needs. Rather, the community is there to take care of them.

Shiva – Seven Days
Shiva means seven, and is the period of mourning immediately following the burial. Tradition dictates that the day of burial counts as the first day of Shiva, which continues for seven days, each day marked with the lighting of a new 24-hour Yahrzeit (Memorial) candle. During Shiva, mourners remain at home and the community comes to comfort them, and remember with fondness the events of the deceased’s life. Mourners often find comfort in hearing fond memories of their loved one, and the presence of friends and family can bring solace to those grieving. One should listen to the mourners and let them lead the conversation. The only time a mourner is supposed to leave the home is to attend religious services, at which the mourner would say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Friends and relatives may also choose to arrange for religious services to be held in the home, this too would provide the immediate family with moments in which to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Sheloshim – 30 Days
The 30 days following Shiva is called Sheloshim, which means thirty in Hebrew. The day of burial counts as the first day. Sheloshim is a period of re-entry into the world of the living for the mourner. This is the time when mourners return to work or school and begin to start living without their loved one.

Unveiling the monument
We are required by tradition to mark the grave of a deceased. Although there is no requirement for an unveiling or dedication service, most families choose to have a ceremony during which the grave marker (headstone or matzevah) is put in place. The most common time for this to take place is close to the first yahrzeit (anniversary of the death), however, any time after sheloshim is acceptable.

Yizkor memorial service
Yizkor is said on Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot (the Biblical festivals) by every person who has lost a loved one.

The annual anniversary of the death of a person is called the yahrzeit and is traditionally observed based on the Hebrew calendar. The yahrzeit is observed by lighting a 24- hour yahrzeit candle, and recalling memories of the loved one just before the Mourner’s Kaddish – ensuring our loved one’s memory is indeed bound up with the bonds of life.

A General Outline of Taharah Procedures

  1. Ritual hand-washing
  2. Don protective clothing, including gloves and (optionally) head covering
  3. Light the Yarzeit candle
  4. Open the coffin
  5. Lay out tachrichim, in general order of use:
    a. place sovev in coffin
    b. place tallit in coffin
    c. kittel
    d. face cover
    e. bib
    f. head cover (kippah vs. bonnet)
  6. Recite three prayers in the presence of the deceased:
    a. Prayer for Mechilah (Forgiveness)
    b. Prayer for the Chevra (Ana Hashem)
    c. Prayer for Compassion (“Ribbono Shel Olam”; “Chamol” Prayer)
  7. Gently uncover the metah while reciting the Prayer for Uncovering (Vaya’an Vayomer)
    a. Remove bandages, tubing, or other obstructions
    b. Remove jewellery and save for the family
    c. Remove fingernail polish and clean under fingernails
    d. Blood is buried with the body
  8. Prepare for the Rechitzah (physical washing/cleansing) by placing three buckets of
    clean warm water by the body. Cleanse the met/metah while keeping the body as
    covered as possible.
    a. If enough members of the chevra are present, one member may have been
    assigned to chant selected prayers of praise from the Amidah prior to or during the
    b. Using a cloth and water from the buckets, wash front of body in following order:
    Head and neck (eyes and mouth closed or covered)
    Right upper arm, lower arm, hand
    Right upper trunk, lower trunk
    Private parts
    Right thigh, leg, foot
    Left upper arm, lower arm, hand
    Left upper trunk, lower trunk
    Left thigh, leg, foot
    c. One member makes sure the head stays on the headrest while others turn and
    wash back of body in same order as in b above
    d. Replace the sheet with a dry sheet and discard the other in the appropriate place
    for soiled laundry
  9. Wash hands ritually, with water only (right, left, right, left, right, left) and without a blessing.
  10. Prepare for Taharah by filling three buckets of cool clean water and placing at the head
    a. Read the two teachings for Taharah, either before or during the pouring
    b. Starting at the head, the first pourer empties the first bucket of water in a constant
    stream over the top 1/3rd of the body. Just before the first bucket is empty the
    second pourer empties the second bucket, beginning just where the first pourer
    leaves off, and continuing in a constant stream until 2/3rds of the body have been
    purified. Just before the 2nd body is empty, the third pourer begins pouring until the
    lower third of the body has been purified. No break can occur in the constant
    stream between the 3 buckets of water, or the procedure must be repeated.
    c. Optionally, comb hair.
    d. After Taharah, recite the words “T’horah hi: she is pure” or “Tahor hu: he is pure”
    three times
  11. Dressing in white garments (halbashah)
    a. Recite the prayers for dressing
    b. Dress the metah in the following order:
    Head Cover
    Pants (if open at foot, tie the pant legs closed)
    Belt around kittel with bows in shape of shins
    Tie pants at ankles
    Tie Face cover
  12. Move the body into the prepared coffin (sovev should be in place but if not place it in
    the coffin, and if applicable, also place the tallit in the coffin with one tzitzit remioved):
    a. Wrap the tallit and sovev around the met
    b. Place pottery shards over the eyes and mouth
    c. Sprinkle earth from Eretz Israel over the metah, while reciting the afar prayer
    d. With all of the chevra around the coffin, recite the priestly blessing together
    e. Close the coffin, place magen David at the feet (feet always leave room first)
  13. While still in the presence of the deceased, recite the prayer for mechilah after Taharah
    and the prayer for the Chevra after Taharah.
  14. The chevrah may choose to recite the misheberach prayer.
  15. Before departing the funeral home, the chevra may choose to recite the prayer for
    peace (Oseh Shalom) or they may choose to depart in silence.
    Proposed Prayers for Tahara Training
  16. Prayer for Mechilah (Forgiveness)
    To be recited by the chevra in the presence of the metah (body of the deceased):
    _(first name/Hebrew name if known), bat _________(first names of
    parents/Hebrew names if known) – I ask mechilah for you, for your family and friends, and for
    all of Israel, and I ask mechilah from you for any mistakes or indiscretions I may unintentionally
    commit during this service. We will do everything possible to insure that you are treated with
    respect, and that the elements of taharah are properly completed. Everything we are about
    to do is for the sake of your honor.
  17. Prayer for the Chevra (Anah Hashem)
    To be recited by the chevra in the presence of the metah (body of the deceased):
    Source of Kindness and Compassion. Whose ways are ways of mercy and truth, You have
    commanded us to act with loving-kindness and compassion towards the dead; and to
    engage in their proper burial. Grant us the courage and strength to perform this sacred work
    properly – washing and cleansing the met/metah (body of the deceased), dressing her in
    shrouds, and burying her. Guide our hands and hearts as we do this work, and enable us to
    complete it with love. Help us to see You in the face of the deceased, even as we see You in
    the faces of those who share this mitzvah. Source of Life and Death, be with us now and
  18. Prayer for Compassion for the Dead (“Ribbono Shel Olam”; “Chamol” Prayer)
    To be recited by the chevra in the presence of the metah (body of the deceased):
    Life of All Worlds, have compassion for ____(first name/Hebrew name if known),
    bat ______(first names of parents/Hebrew names if known), and of our ancestors
    Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Your dear ones. May her soul
    and spirit rest with those who have gone before, for You give eternal life to those who have
    died, even as You bring death to the living. May it be Your will, God of our ancestors, to
    encircle the departed one with love, for she is Your beloved, the daughter of those who
    sought Your presence.
  19. Prayer for the Uncovering (Vaya’an Vayomer)
    And he (the angel of God) raised his voice and spoke to those who were standing before
    him, saying, “Remove the soiled garments from him (the High Priest).” And he said to him,
    “Behold, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you in fine garments.”
  20. Rechitzah: Washing the Metah (body of the deceased)
    The chevra may choose to recite a prayer or two before washing begins::
    M’chalcheil chayyim b’chesed, You nourish the living with kindness
    M’chayyeih meitim You give life to the dead
    b’rachamim rabim. with great compassion.
    Um’kayyeim emunato lisheinei afar. You fulfill your promises to those who are gone.
    Mi chamocha, baal g’vurot, Who is like You, source of all power,
    Umi domeh lach. And who can be compared to You?
    Melech meimit um’chayyeh, You hold the keys to life and death,
    Umatzmiach y’shuah. And You generate salvation.
    Elohai Elohai – My God
    N’shamah shenatatta bi t’horah hi. the soul You have given me is pure.
    Attah v’ratah, You created it,
    Attah y’tzartah, You shaped it into my very own soul,
    Attah n’factah bi, You breathed it into me,
    V’Attah m’shamm’rah b’kirbi. And You watch over it within me.
    V’Attah atid lit’lah mimeni, One day You will take it from me
    Ul’hachazirah limkorah. to return it to its source.
  21. Talmud Reading/Study (Rabbi Akiva) before or during Taharah purification
    Before pouring water, the chevra may choose to recite this three times:
    “God is the hope, the mikveh of Israel.”
    Traditionally, it was seen as a great honor to the deceased to study (and thus to have one
    member read this aloud) during the water pouring. However, it may not be practical to read
    during the taharah purification, and the chevra may choose to read aloud just before the
    water is poured:
    Rabbi Akiva said: “Happy are you, the community of Israel. Before whom are you cleansed,
    and who cleanses you? Your Father, your God, who is in heaven! As it is said, ‘And I have
    sprinkled pure water upon you, and you should be cleansed from all your impurities and from
    all your falsehoods; I will cleanse you.’ (Ezekiel 36:25) And it is said: ‘Mikveh Yisrael Adonai –
    God is the purifier, the mikveh, the hope of Israel.’ (Jeremiah 17:13). A fountain for gardens, a
    well of living waters and flowing streams from Lebanon.’ (Song of Songs 4:15) Just as the
    mikveh cleanses those who are impure, so does the Holy Blessed One cleanse the
    community of Israel.” (Talmud Jonah: 85)
  22. Prayer after Taharah

Repeat: T’horah hi, T’horah hi, T’horah hi (she is pure she is pure, she is pure)
Or (for a Male):
Tahor hu, Tahor hu, Tahor hu (he is pure, he is pure, he is pure)

  1. Prayers before Dressing (Sos Assis)
    The following prayers may be read by the chevra before dressing begins:
    “I greatly delight in God; my soul rejoices in my Source. For God has clothed me in garments
    of deliverance and wrapped me in a cloak of justice. For as the earth brings forth her growth,
    and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so Adonai will cause
    righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations. (Isaiah 61: 10-11) And Adonai
    will guide you continually and satisfy your soul in time of drought, and make strong your
    bones, and you will be like a watered garden and like a spring of water whose waters never
    fail. (Isaiah 58:11)
    “And he shall be attired in a linen headdress.”
    “And linen breeches shall be upon his flesh.”
    “He shall don a holy linen tunic.”
    “And he shall be girded with a linen sash.”
    “These are garments of holiness..” “…and you shall bathe your flesh in water and put them
    on. And may the God of nurturance give you compassion.”
  2. Prayer after moving the metah
    After transferring the metah to the aron (casket), the chevra recites together the priestly
    May God bless you and keep you.
    May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
    May God’s face be lifted unto you and give you peace.
    (Num. 6:24-26)
  3. Prayer for Sprinkling Afar
    After placing pottery shards on the eyes and mouth, soil from Eretz Israel is sprinkled over the
    metah and the following prayer is recited:
    “….For dust you are
    And to dust you shall return.”
    Gen 3:19 Etz Hayim
  4. Mechilah after Taharah
    The chevra members recite the following prayer:
    ____(first name/Hebrew name if known), bat ______(first names of
    parents/Hebrew names if known), we ask mechilah for any indignity that you may have
    suffered at our hands, despite the loving care and concern that we have exercised during
    this tahara.
  5. Prayer for the Chevra upon completing Taharah
    Together, the chevra may choose to recite:
    Creator of the Universe, we have just completed our act of g’milut chesed for __
    (first name of the deceased). We thank You for the strength and courage to perform this
    mitzvah. We appreciate this sacred fellowship and cherish the bond that has brought us
  6. Mi Shebeirach
    Together the chevra may choose to recite:
    Mi shebeirach avoteinu, m’kor habracha l’avoteinu.
    May the source of strength Who blessed the ones before us
    Help us to find the courage to make our lives a blessing.
    And let us say Amen.
    Mishebeirach imoteinu, m’kor habracha l’avoteinu.
    Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leima.
    The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,
    And let us say Amen.
  7. Optional prayer before departing

Oseh Shalom bimromav, May the One who makes peace in the heavens,
Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu, make peace for us,
v’al kol Yisrael, and for all Israel,
v’al kol yoshvei teiveil. And for all who dwell on earth.
V’imru: Amein! And say: Amen!
Aron Coffin, casket.
Chesed Shel Emet The truest act of kindness
Chevra Kadisha Burial Society (literally, holy society)
Halbashah Dressing the deceased in burial garments
K’vod Hamet/ K’vod Hametah Respect for the dead (male/female)
Met/Metah The deceased, the dead body (male/female).
Mechilah Forgiveness, the forgiveness asked of the met/metah by the Chevra Kadisha.
Rechitzah Physical washing for cleansing the body
Shomerim Sitting with the body such that it is never alone.
Tachrichim Shrouds: “All Jews are buried in the same type of garment . . . Nineteen hundred
years ago, Rabbi Gamaliel instituted this practice so that the poor would not be shamed and
the wealthy would not vie with each other in displaying the costliness of their burial clothes.”
(Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning)
Tahara Purification, specifically, the ritual pouring of water before dressing the met for burial.
Also refers to the entire service.

El Maleh Rechamim, Av HaRachamim – God Full of Mercy, Father of Compassion

In this prayer we ask God to remember our loved one and to include them in the “bond of life” in paradise alongside the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and all the departed righteous. We then commit to do charity, for God, and on their behalf. This version of it is recited at the burial, the unveiling, during the Shabbot mincha service prior to the deceased’s Yahrtzeit, and during the yearly Yahrtzeit-Memorial.

Lord All Mighty, Our Father and our King, who dwells on high, God of all creation, God full of mercy,
Remember the soul of [name of loved one] my (our) [what they were to you, example: father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, husband, wive, son, daughter, friend, etc.]
Lord of mercy, shield them in the cover of your wings forever, and bind their soul with the Binding of Eternal Life with you, O God,
and with the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, for whom You are their inheritance.
Grant them eternal rest within the wings of Your Divine Presence,
alongside all of your saints, the enlightened and righteous men and women who shine like the splendour of the heavens, as cedars of Lebanon, and giants of Torah.
let them be an everlasting memory – their righteousness in Your eyes, their sacrifice and their merits, for you and for us; Let us not forget their deeds as we continue to live in charity, in accordance with Your will, and for the memory of their soul.
Most Gracious Father of Compassion, in remembrance of them and for this, let them rest in peace, until the day of resurrection, and may they be welcomed with your saints in paradise.

A variation of this prayer is recited during the Yizkor-Remembrance service, that version can be found here.

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