Rabbi Betsy Forester's Thoughts on Death & Mourning

Helping people face the death of a loved one is one of the rabbi’s most sacred and honored duties.  The entire congregation understands that most everything else that is going on takes a back seat to this sacred duty, and wants Rabbi Forester to prioritize her time in this way.

Our traditions around caring for our dead and their mourners contain much wisdom in the ways they both honor our loved ones and support the healing process of our mourners.  Often, those not familiar with a traditional Jewish funeral service tell me how much they appreciate the earnest and beautiful funeral service that we conduct.  The rules and guidelines around death and mourning are some of our most necessary yet least understood mitzvot. 

The Hebrew word for funeral, לוויה, essentially means to accompany, and that word is a good place to begin to understand the core values inherent in a Jewish funeral.  We do our best to treat the body of the deceased with the same respect and honor we would if they were still alive as we accompany them to their final resting place. 

Our local Chevrah Kadisha—made up of volunteers from across the Madison Jewish community—takes upon itself the sacred task of Taharah, preparing our dead for burial.  They wash and dress the body with the utmost respect and love.  It is a special group of people who accept this responsibility, fulfilling what our tradition refers to as a Hesed Shel Emet, a true act of loving kindness, as the recipient can never repay the debt.  They are always looking for more members, so if you are interested, please let the rabbi know and she will direct you appropriately.

For the primary mourners, the period between a person’s death and their burial is referred to as Aninut.  Our tradition defines the seven primary mourners as mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter and spouse.  They are the ones who say Kaddish and observe the mourning periods of Shiva (seven days from burial), Sh’loshim (thirty days from burial) or the special months of reciting Kaddish (11 months for a parent, 1 month for other primary mourners).  While our tradition defines a set of primary mourners, it does not presume to define what one can or cannot or should or should not feel.  During the period of Aninut, these primary mourners and their close relatives focus on making the arrangements for the funeral to the exclusion of most anything else.  Jewish tradition recognizes this importance and exempts primary mourners from positive time-bound mitzvot, like praying three times each day, so that their focus can remain upon this most sacred task.

At the cemetery, all those present are welcome and encouraged to participate in the mitzvah of Chesed Shel Emet by helping to fill the grave with earth. Our community takes on this responsibility to show our love for the departed and to support the mourners. We do our best to complete the burial together, to the best of our ability. Following the burial, the communal focus shifts from caring for the body of the departed to caring for the mourners. Mourners kaddish is recited, and guests form two lines for the primary mourners to pass through, as the traditional words of comfort are offered: “HaMakaom y’nacheim et-chem b’toch sh’ar aveilei tziyon vi’rushalayim” (May God comfort you together with all of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem).

Shiva begins immediately upon the mourners’ return home from the funeral. The purpose of shiva, which comes from the Hebrew word for seven, is to provide a protective environment for mourning. The rabbis of the Talmud, writing nearly two thousand years ago, recognized that shiva is a complex time.  Mourning tends to come in waves of emotion made up of joyful memories which are confronted by the ever growing sad and aching realization of permanent loss. The traditional shiva lasts seven days under normal circumstances, and we recommend that mourners give themselves the full week to grieve and permit the community to care for them.

While we often say, “so and so is sitting shiva for their relative”, we should not take that to be literally true.  We do show respect for our relative when we sit shiva, as we share the best memories of the departed with each other, but we sit shiva primarily for our own emotional and spiritual well-being.  We can’t avoid the pain of this type of loss.  When we ignore it, we do so at our own peril, as the emotional energy from the loss will redouble and find its way to expression in our life in other ways.

The first two rituals of shiva are washing our hands upon leaving the cemetery/arriving home and eating the Se’udat Hav’ra’ah (meal of consolation) upon arriving home.  Most Jewish funerals take place towards the first part of the day (Jerusalem has a unique custom of burying the dead at night) to show the importance of the task since we do not put it off for other tasks, and also because it is hard to have the impending funeral hanging over us for a long period of the day.  We wash our hands to symbolically remove the impurity of death from our hands and bodies.  Since the destruction of the Holy Temple, we no longer hold by ancient notions of impurity relating to contact with death, but we retain this ritual. As Rabbi Maurice Lamb explains it in his book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p.95 (a good source for further reading): “The impurity, which is a spiritual-legal conceit and is not a matter of physical or hygienic cleanliness, underscores Judaism’s constant emphasis on life and the value of living.”

The se’udat hav’ra’ah traditionally includes both bread and hard-boiled eggs, which symbolize both the origins of life and its cyclical nature.  This meal is a ceremonial beginning to the shiva.  Its purpose is to affirm life in the face of death and to demonstrate our primary response to the suffering of a mourner, which is care and presence.  It is the responsibility of one’s close friends and extended family to arrange for the meal of consolation—not as a social hour, but as a sign of love and caring as we hold their needs in our hands. Community members serve the mourners and do not partake of the meal unless specifically directed to do so by the mourners. Likewise, it is not necessary to serve any refreshments to visitors at a shiva home. If refreshments are offered, they should be minimal. All of our loving attention should be reserved for the mourners.

We care for our mourners in a number of ways.  The principle to follow is that we bring what they need to them.  In particular, we bring them food—physical sustenance; we bring them minyan—a spiritual response; and we bring them our presence—to help fill the void and accompany them through this time.  We can derive from this principle that the facets of shiva are not meant to be a burden to the mourners.  In fact, quite the opposite.  We are meant to be there to serve their needs. Typically we enter the home without knocking and we do not expect the mourners to rise or greet us or to serve us. Instead, we ask what we can bring to them where they are seated.

One of the hardest ways to fulfill this mitzvah is in being present with the mourner.  We want so much to say the right thing, but we do not know what it is.  And that is ok.  There is no right thing to say; there is, however, a right thing to do.  After greeting them with the traditional words of comfort (see above—this can also be said upon leave-taking), or a brief expression of sympathy like “I am so sorry,” allow the mourner to lead the conversation where they need it to go.  If that is small talk, so be it; don’t try to force a serious, emotional conversation upon them.  It might be that they do want a serious conversation, and what they want and need then is not an answer, but just a willing ear. Often, mourners simply need to retell the events of the illness and death of their loved one in order to help them process the change in their lives. Regardless, your role as a visitor is listen, take your cue from the mourners, and don’t try to solve issues they may raise.  They might be just as uncomfortable trying to make conversation as you are, and you can ease some of that feeling by letting them know that they do not have to say anything at all.  You are there to be present for them and if they want to sit quietly, that is perfectly fine.

Our community is blessed to be able and eager to support one another in our times of grief. We do not wish to be together “only for simchas (happy times).” We know that we need each other at difficult times, too, and it is our privilege to do what we can to help.