How Jewish people honor the memories of their loved ones.
When someone of the Jewish faith dies, often the proper response is “May their memory be a blessing.” This means that it is up to those who are still alive to keep the goodness of the deceased going. Good can still be done after death because the person’s influence will continue on to inform how the living operate.
In this way, death is an individual act, but it’s also a public affair. Even the mourning is public. From funeral rites to sitting shiva, death is time for the community to come together to honor those they’ve lost. Much like its Abrahamic sibling, Islam, death becomes a chance for the living to reflect. To mourn is to honor. A proper Jewish burial is significant because it celebrates the deceased in the style of their ancestors. We’ll explore how Jewish communities honor their loved ones from death to burial.
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- Jewish denominations
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There are a number of Jewish denominations and groups, such as Hasidic Judaism, Reconstructionist and communities of Ethiopian Jews. While there’s a lot of history out there we’re going to focus on the largest three - Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.
Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish denomination, as approx. 37% of American Jews identify as reform (Pew Research, 2020). It was born out of cultural realities in France and Germany in the early 19th century. Rabbis noted that Jewish communities often made cultural changes, establishing new traditions and leaving old ones that didn’t work anymore. Today, Reform Judaism emphasizes individual study of religious texts rather than strict adherence to religious laws.
Conservative Judaism is an attempt to conserve Jewish traditions within the US. Brought about in the early 19th century. Conservative Judaism is seen as a midpoint between Reform and Orthodox. It accepts secular study of religious texts. It also maintains a traditional line on certain matters, such as keeping kosher. Kosher is a set of rules concerning what can be eaten.
Orthodox Judaism is not a singular movement but a collection of movements with similar principles. Even the term “Orthodox” is rather recent, as there’s no such thing as historical orthodoxy. Orthodox Jewish communities view themselves as continuations of the Jewish nation at Mt Sinai. They follow a traditional understanding of Jewish law. This includes strict adherence of the Sabbath and kosher laws. Types of Orthodox Jewish communities include Hasidic Judaism, Shephardic Haredim and the Litvaks of Lithuania.
Jewish denominations by size
Now that we’ve looked at some of the Jewish denominations, let's look at how Jewish people say goodbye to their loved ones.
Typically, Jewish funerals are brief affairs. It’s customary to bury a loved one immediately after death. According to Jewish law, cremations and embalming are not allowed. It’s believed the body will be resurrected. Reform Jews don’t believe in this, believing the soul itself to be immortal. Due to the differences among the denominations, this walkthrough follows Jewish tradition. It's observed more heavily by Orthodox and Conservative Jews. Reform Jews do not always follow the ritual practices.
When someone dies, their body must be washed and purified with water so that they can meet G-d with dignity. This process is called Taharah. Once purified, the body is wrapped in simple, white shrouds called tachrichim. Jewelry and other adornments are not allowed. Once wrapped, the body is placed into a simple pine casket. The emphasis of the pine casket and tachrichim is so there’s no distinction between the rich and poor.
Families will gather for a funeral at the synagogue, cemetery, or funeral home. There are no fancy foods or flowers, as flowers are for more joyous occasions. The funeral is for honoring the deceased rather than comforting the grieving.
Before the funeral, the immediate relatives of the deceased tear garments to symbolize their mourning. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis will sometimes recite a prayer, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, the true Judge.” Reform Jews do not do this. For reform funerals, the rabbi will tear up the garment. Then the rabbi hands pieces of torn, black ribbon to the immediate family to show their grief.
During the ceremony, the rabbi will recite psalms followed by a eulogy for the deceased. Then, a memorial prayer called El Maleh Rachamim is delivered. The casket is wheeled out of the room by the Chevra Kadisha. The mourners follow behind the casket.
Jewish law says that a Jew must be buried amongst Jews within a kosher grave. A grave is kosher when a simple casket is placed directly into the ground and covered with earth until a small mound is formed.
Once at the cemetery, it’s customary for those carrying the casket to stop seven times to recite Psalm 91. They lower the casket into the grave, and the immediate family drops handfuls of dirt into the grave. Once that’s done, the rabbi will recite both Psalm 91 and the El Maleh Rachamim again.
Mourners will also recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, itself a call out to G-d. It’s a cultural tradition that has been going on for more than 2,000 years. The mourner’s kaddish is recited at the funeral and after the burial. It is also recited during shiva, daily for 11 months after the funeral, and on the one-year anniversary of the burial.
After the burial: the shiva
Once the casket has been buried, it is tradition for the family to sit shiva. Shiva is a Hebrew word meaning “seven.” This is the formal seven-day mourning period for the immediate family of the deceased. During this period, mourners traditionally avoid activities such as leaving the house, working, bathing for anything other than hygiene, and haircuts, among others.
While observing shiva, mourners cover mirrors and cannot sit on regular chairs, couches or seats. They can only sit on low boxes, stools, or chairs, to symbolize their mourning. Friends and family who visit provide food and comfort for those that are grieving. They offer support as the grieving cannot be expected to handle such mundane matters.
Jewish tradition cites mourning as a great gift that the living can give to the deceased. It’s believed that one properly mourned can get into Heaven easier. It's also a time for reflecting on the nature of life and death, and one’s relationship with G-d.
Judaism is an amazing religion with a millennia of changes, additions, and traditions to look back on. The tradition of shiva was said to be set forth by Moses, who established it as Jewish law. Throughout the years, Jews had embodied these rich traditions in spite of hardships. They’ve also done them with respect, love, and care for the people who came before them.