Rabbi Ben-Gideon's Thoughts on Death & Mourning

From Jerusalem after a terrorist bombing, to New York, Virginia and Madison, helping people face the death of a loved one is one of my most sacred and honored duties.  While honor might seem like a peculiar word to use in discussing what I do with people in mourning, I very much see it this way.  The entire congregation understands that most everything else that is going on takes a back seat to this sacred duty, and wants me to prioritize my time in this way.

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

The Hebrew word for funeral, הלויה, essentially means to accompany, and that word is a good place to begin to understand the core values present 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 me know and I 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), Sheloshim (thirty days from burial) or the special eleven months of saying Kaddish for a parent.  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.  For example, when a spouse’s/partner’s parent becomes like a parent to us over years of love, children-in-law often decide to mourn as if their biological parent had died.  During the period of Aninut, these primary mourners are focused on caring for their loved one by 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.

When the mourners leave the cemetery, shiva begins as the focus changes from the mourners caring for the body of their loved one, to their extended family and friends caring for them in their mourning.  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.

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 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.  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 meal of consolation 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 (some feel self-destructive impulses after a funeral, and eating directly confronts them) 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.

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.

One of the hardest ways to fulfill this mitzvah is in being present with the mourner.  We are often uncomfortable.  We do not know what to say.  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 words like “I am so sorry for your loss,” or another appropriate sentence or two along these lines, 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.  Listen - don’t try to solve.  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 with them and if they want to sit quietly, that is ok too

Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon served as Beth Israel Center's spiritual leader from 2008 until 2017.