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Guide to Mourning

Jewish Death and Mourning Customs

To live is to die. To love is to know the pain of losing those we love. Nothing can truly prepare us for death; the purpose of this guide is to give an overview of the Jewish laws and customs as they are practiced at Beacon Hebrew Alliance; if you have any questions about anything in this guide, please be in touch with Rabbi Brent Spodek at brent@beaconhebrewalliance.org.

This document was revised on May 18, 2023.

From Death to Burial

The Jewish tradition emphasizes burying the deceased as soon as possible after death (1). Funerals can be at the 1 graveside or at a funeral home. Most funeral homes are familiar with Jewish mourning rituals; BHA has a long-standing relationship with both Libby’s Funeral Home (845.831.0179) and Riverside Funeral Home (845.831.0380).

Washing and Guarding

In the Jewish tradition, the deceased are accompanied from the time of death until burial by shomrim, who read Psalms or other appropriate texts in a room adjacent to the deceased, in order to cultivate an attitude of respect, compassion and focus. The mitzvah of shmira, or accompaniment, can be performed by anyone who wishes to honor the deceased.

Taharah is the practice of lovingly washing and preparing the body of the deceased for burial. This very ancient and important mitzvah is performed by members of BHA’s Chevra Kadisha, or burial society, who have been trained for this purpose. After washing, the chevra dresses the deceased in traditional Jewish burial garments and places the deceased in a plain wooden casket.

The purpose of these rituals is to provide kavod hameit, honor to the dead, and nichum aveilim, comfort to the mourners. The Jewish tradition does not support embalming or cremating the dead; rather, we return to the earth from which we came.

There are no set fees for these services, but it is customary to donate to the synagogue to support these efforts. The suggested donation is $500. No member of BHA is ever denied these or other funeral services for financial reasons.

Burial

Burial in the BHA cemetery on 234 Osbourne Hill Road in Fishkill is open to members of the synagogue including mishpoche members. For fees for burial, reservations for plots, and details or to get in touch with our Cemtery Chair, Jeff Gross,  please visit our BHA Cemetery page. No members of BHA are turned away from our cemetery for financial reasons.

If you would like for Rabbi Spodek to officiate at the funeral, please be in touch with him (845.831.2012 x1) and then Libby’s or a different funeral home of your choosing to set the time for the funeral. There is no formal fee for Rabbi Spodek to officiate at a funeral for a member of BHA or their immediate family; however it is customary to make a voluntary contribution of $1000 to the Rabbi Discretionary Fund at BHA. Fees for non-member funerals are $1000; non-members with further questions should speak directly with Rabbi Spodek.

While the preference is for burial to be as soon possible, there are circumstances in which a delay is appropriate, particularly if close family members need to make travel arrangements. A delay of more than three days is very unusual and should be avoided

Once the date and time have been set, you should then talk with Rabbi Spodek about the eulogy and who should speak at the funeral. In general, the practice at BHA is for eulogies to be given by people who actually knew the deceased, which is not always our clergy. Any feelings you have about who should or should not speak at the funeral should be communicated clearly to our clergy. When you speak with them, it will be useful to have the following information about your loved one: Their date and place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, membership in organizations, military service or noteworthy achievements and a list of survivors in the immediate family.

When a member of our synagogue is in mourning, the general practice at BHA is to send an email to the congregation announcing the death and sharing funeral and shiva information as appropriate. If you would like to do something other than that, please be sure to let Rabbi Spodek know.

Jewish burial and mourning practices are deliberately simple. By very strong and ancient tradition, Jews are (2) buried in simple, unadorned pine wood caskets. Occasionally, members are honored by having geniza, or holy, documents buried with them. If you would like for your loved one to be honored in this way, please let our clergy know.

If you have suffered a miscarriage or other pregnancy loss, the clergy of BHA are available to support you in honoring this loss via counseling, ritual, prayer, or burial and connecting you to additional resources.

Funeral & Burial

Funeral

A few minutes before the community formally gathers for the funeral, our clergy will gather the family together for kriah, which is the tearing of a garment or ribbon, as a symbol of grief and mourning. Mourners stand, and before the cut is made, say the words of Job, "The Lord has given and the Lord has taken, blessed be the Name of the Lord."

The funeral service itself is brief, and the hesped, or eulogy, is at the center. The funeral generally concludes with El maleh rahamim, which expresses our hope for the immortal soul of the departed.

Burial

At the graveside, the service consists of recitation of tziduk ha-din, a prayer which expresses our acceptance of the unvarying flow of life towards death, followed by the recitation of kaddish and el maleh rachamim.

After the aron is fully lowered into the ground, friends and loved ones shovel earth into the grave to begin the burial. The mourners are not obliged to complete the burial and neither is there any rush. All who wish to bury the deceased should be given the chance to do so. The first shovelful of dirt is done with the back of the shovel to indicate that this is not a chore, but an act of kindness. If there are young children who should take part in this act of kindness, a small pail of dirt and a spade can be made available.

After the burial, everyone other than the mourners form two lines to let the mourners pass between them. As the mourners pass through those lines, their friends and family say these traditional words of comfort to them:

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים

Ha-makom yinakhem et-khem betokh she-ar aveilei tziyon veyerushalayim, May The Ever-present One comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem

The Path of the Mourner

The period of time between death and burial is called anninut and the bereaved is called an onen. The prime responsibility of the onen is to arrange the funeral. During this time, an onen is considered exempt from all other obligations, religious and otherwise. Only relatives or very close friends should visit during this time, primarily to help make arrangements for the funeral and shiva. After the burial, a mourner is known as an avel. One is a mourner of obligation for parents, children, siblings or spouse. However, anyone is allowed to observe the mourning rites.

The length of the formal mourning period varies with the relationship between the mourner and the person who has passed. For everyone other than one’s parents, avelut, the mourning period, ends with shloshim, thirty days after the funeral. For parents, the mourning period lasts a full Hebrew year.

Sometimes, a Jew is mourning for a non-Jew they loved; other times, a non-Jew is mourning a Jew that they loved. Two principles are relevant to these situations; one is kavod ha-met, or respecting the dignity of the deceased; the other is lo ha metim ye-hallel Yah; the deceased do not praise Yah.

The rites and traditions of mourning are for the living, not the deceased. So, if the mourner is Jewish, it appropriate to observe and take comfort from these traditions and practices, even if the deceased is not Jewish. However, if the mourner(s) believe that the non-Jewish deceased would have found practices dishonorable, they should probably be avoided. Please be in touch with Rabbi Spodek with any questions regarding these issues.

Sitting Shiva

Timing

After the funeral, mourners begin a managed return from grief to “normal” life which begins with an intensive seven-day period of mourning known as shiva. At BHA, many of our members sit shiva the full week, while others decide on a shortened shiva schedule.

Shiva, which simply means seven in Hebrew, begins on the day of the funeral and continues for six subsequent days. Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day. Shiva is suspended three hours before sunset on Friday afternoon and is resumed after Shabbat is over. If a major holiday, such as Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanna or Yom Kippur falls during the shiva period, shiva concludes three hours before the eve of the festival.

Practice For Mourners

Traditionally, mourner(s) stay home during the shiva period and refrain from participating in outside activities including work. When we experience a loss, mourners need to step out of everyday activity for a while. Relatives, friends, and members of the community support the mourners by visiting during shiva.

The shiva period begins after burial with a simple meal, the seudat havra'ah, the meal of consolation. There is a custom to rinse one's hands with water before entering the house for the meal as a way of leaving gravesite behind. This meal, traditionally provided by family and friends for the mourners, is not a social event; it is a time to rest and contemplate the day's events and generally only family and close friends should attend so as to avoid a party-like atmosphere. This is traditionally a simple meal, often with hard-boiled eggs, which symbolize the cycle of life. Neither meat nor wine, two symbols of joy, should be served at this meal.

During this seven day period, mourners traditionally do not leave their homes, so public prayer services are held in their homes. The service can be led by anyone who is comfortable leading the service.

There are a number of practices traditionally observed by those sitting shiva.

  • A seven-day candle (provided by BHA or the funeral home) is lit upon returning from the cemetery.
  • Mourners generally refrain from entertainment, such as television, during the week.
  • Mourners generally cover the mirrors in their home, to show that we reduce the importance normally placed on personal vanity.
  • Mourners are encouraged to observe the customs of not wearing shoes and sitting on low stools during shiva, which show that we change the way we live during this time.

Community Response

When members of our community are sitting shiva, it is the responsibility of everyone else in the community to fulfill the mitzvah of nichum avelim, comforting the mourners. We do this by bringing them food, helping with the tasks of life such as caring for children and shoveling the walk and showing up for minyan so that mourners can say kaddish. We strive to be a kehilah kedosha in every way, and among the most important is caring for others in their moments of grief.

Our Ritual Committee reaches out to our community and ensuring that we have a minyan. By definition, these calls are made without much lead time and in a small community such as ours, it can sometimes be a challenge to ensure that we have then 10 Jewish adults need to make minyan.

Even when many people have gathered, shiva minyanim are not parties. Tradition teaches that it is customary to enter the house of mourning in silence, to wait for the mourners to begin any conversation and to let them set the tone of that conversation. Some mourners may wish to share memories of the deceased, others may prefer to discuss last night’s baseball game, and others may wish to sit quietly. A visitor’s responsibility is to follow the mourners’ lead. The door of the home should be left unlocked so that visitors can enter without knocking or ringing the doorbell

Mourners are not obligated to have food or drink available for those who come to visit.

Saying Kaddish

When the mourning period is a year, kaddish is recited for eleven months and a day. One can choose, and it is appropriate to do so, to say kaddish for the full year, even if the obligation is only for thirty days. At BHA, both sons and daughters share the obligation to recite kaddish, which can be said any time we are davvening. Even if you are not able to say kaddish every day, it is worthwhile and appropriate to set a regular pattern of saying kaddish every week, for instance. The obligation to say kaddish cannot be transferred to another person. A parent may tell children that it is not “necessary” to say kaddish or a child may feel that a parent “wouldn't have wanted me to say it.” Mourning, however, is for the living, not the dead, and it is the mourner who needs to discern what will be appropriate for him or her.

Shleshoshim

Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day, including the day of the burial. The rest of the month following burial is known as shloshim, which is Hebrew for 30, as in days (3) . During this period, mourners continue to say kaddish daily, and traditionally refrain from festive activities such as going to the movies, theater, dances or parties. However, they do return to their regular activities in business and home.

Shana

Only when one is mourning a parent does the period of formal mourning extend past shloshim into shana, which is a year, understood to be 11 months and one day. For those who are mourning a parent, the mourning practices of shloshim continue for the full year.

Remembering

Unveiling

A formal unveiling of the tombstone or grave marker is not necessary, though Rabbi Spodek is available to facilitate the ceremony for families who desire them. The usual custom is to have the unveiling approximately one year following death.

Yahrzeit

Yahrzeit is observed each year on the date of death according to the Hebrew calendar, which moves relative to the secular calendar. BHA notifies members in advance of the secular date every year, if the Yahrzeit records are in our database. If you would like to ensure that your loved one’s information is in our system, please Go to My Yahrzeits in your BHA Account.

It is customary to attend services on the date of the yaretzheit or as close as possible. Once a month, we invite all who are marking yaretzheit in a given month to join us for Zachor, a special memorial service. Of course, you are welcome to say kaddish at any scheduled service; please remember though, that we are a small community, and do not always have a minyan necessary to say kaddish. If you are coming to say kaddish, please reach out to your friends and family to ensure that we have a minyan for the service at which you plan to participate.

It is also customary to contribute tzedakah to the 1921 Legacy Fund at BHA or to another organization which embodies the values of your loved one in their in memory so that their values might live on after them.

Finally, those who have lost a loved one traditionally light a 24-hour candle on the yaretzheit. The candle is lit the evening Yahrzeit begins. If Yahrzeit falls on Shabbat or Yom Tov, the candle is lit before the Shabbat or holiday candles. Although there is no formal blessing when lighting the candle, a meditation such as the one which follows may be said. It is appropriate, of course, to use your own words and thoughts in addition or in place of this meditation:

Holy One of Blessing, I light this candle on this the Yahrzeit of my dear ___. In loving testimony to his/her life, I pledge to make a tzedakah contribution to help perpetuate the values that were important to him/her. May the light of this candle be a reminder to me of the light my dear ____ brought to my life. May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. Amen.

Yizkor

Yizkor, the memorial service, is recited four times a year: on Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret and the last days of Pesach and Shavuot. It is appropriate to come to the synagogue in memory of loved ones who have died. If 6 you do plan on coming for those services; please plan to stay till the end; it is deeply inappropriate and offensive to abandon services after yizkor.

Memorial Plaques

In the BHA sanctuary, we have memorial tablets with plaques recording the Hebrew and English name of the deceased and the Hebrew date of death. For further information about memorial plaques, please visit our Memorials page.

(1) See Deuteronomy 21:23

(2) For more on simplicity in burial practices, see Moed Katan 27a-b regarding caskets and Ketubot 8b regarding clothing.

(3)The Israelites mourned Moses for 30 days; see Deuteronomy 34:8

 

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784