Processing Grief: Jewish Mourning Customs

Dear Josep,

Today is the 17th of Tammuz. Well actually it’s the 18th, but that’s what we call this fast, which was delayed by a day because of Shabbat. It marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, the period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

But before I talk about symbolic mourning, I should first talk about actual mourning. So, um, yes, this is gonna be a downer. Pour yourself a glass of wine, ’cause I can’t–I’m fasting. ūüėõ

As you know, my grandmother passed away at the end of March. My family is very blessed in that¬†this was our¬†first experience of needing to figure out the laws of mourning–aveilut–and how my mother was supposed to observe them. The¬†shiva¬†(explained below) was cut short because of Passover, and my mother’s family is not the slightest bit religious, so the matter presented a number of¬†issues.

But as a general rule, the customs around death and mourning in Judaism are designed to lead the mourners through a gradual process of grief and healing, and many report that this is helpful to them. I have to say that because of the circumstances surrounding my grandmother’s death (as I elaborated in that entry), the lack of context I had for really grieving for her was really difficult, I’d say even traumatic for me.

Anyway. Here’s how it goes:

Burial

In Jewish law, we bury our dead as soon as possible. The reason for this is¬†kavod hamet–“honoring the dead.” According to Jewish beliefs, it causes the disembodied soul¬†a lot of anguish and shame¬†to see its former body lying there exposed. In general, covering something is a sign of respect in our culture.

This is also the reason there is a lot of sensitivity around archaeology and the discovery of ancient Jewish cemeteries; we prefer to leave bones where they are and not expose them unnecessarily, and if there is a need to exhume them, this must be handled with utmost care and they must be reburied as soon as possible.

Jews are traditionally buried wrapped only in simple linen cloth. Coffins are not usually used, and if they are, the body is still completely wrapped in a shroud, again, out of respect for the dead. Men are usually buried with their tallit (prayer shawl–see Prayer, Part II).

There are a number of prayers that are standard for funerals. It is customary to read Psalms, and the rabbi or leader of the funeral recites¬†E-l Maleh Rahamim, “God, Full of Mercy”, the prayer for the dead.

The close family members also perform¬†kriya, a symbolic rending of one’s clothes to express their grief.

Kaddish

I have briefly mentioned Kaddish before, and here is the place to elaborate. Kaddish is a prayer in Aramaic. It appears during the prayer services in a number of forms, most of them recited by the hazzan, the¬†prayer leader¬†(it can only be recited in the presence of a¬†minyan, a quorum of ten men). Sometimes, however, it is recited by anyone in the congregation who has lost a parent over the past year. This is known as the Mourner’s Kaddish.

So what is this prayer and why is it something that mourners traditionally recite?

Here’s a translation of the Ashkenazi version of the Mourner’s Kaddish:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name (congregation answers: amen)

Throughout the world which He has created according to His will; may He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, quickly and soon;
and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen. May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.)

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He. (congragation answers: Blessed be He.)

Beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are spoken in the world; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen.)

May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen.)

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen)

A beautiful prayer, for sure. But what does all this praising God have to do with mourning?

I heard two interesting answers to this question. The first one is that when someone dies, they are unable to continue to perpetuate the good and Godliness that they were able to in their lifetime,¬†and when their loved ones say¬†Kaddish, a very holy prayer about the might and glory of God, they “fill in” some of¬†the vacuum of goodness that that person left behind.

We have a concept called¬†ilui neshama, the “raising of a soul”. We believe that we, the people who were affected by the departed, can continue to perpetuate his or her good in the world, by doing good deeds in his or her merit. We believe that this assists the soul in its¬†process of “spiritual cleansing” that occurs in the afterlife. Reciting Kaddish is one very important way to “raise a loved one’s soul”. People also teach or study Torah classes, put together charities, and other things like that in memory of someone for this purpose.

I think there is a very profound idea there about the effect we have on other people and how that effect we have on them, in turn, affects us and our spiritual “health”. The living loved ones can carry on the legacy and positive influence of a soul that has departed.

Another explanation for why the Kaddish is recited under these circumstances,¬†is one that my mother heard from her meditation teacher and rabbi (she calls him her “Meditation Rebbe”), Rabbi James Jacobson-Meisels. He talks about the line, “beyond all blessings and hymns…” The word for “beyond” (or more accurately, “above”) in Aramaic is “l’ayla,” and during the holiest time of the year, the Ten Days of Repentance, we repeat this word during Kaddish: “l’ayla u’l’ayla,” “above and beyond.” Rabbi James teaches that the Kaddish is about God’s vastness and greatness and holiness and kindness, above and beyond anything we can imagine or describe; beyond all blessings and hymns that are spoken… we have no words for the greatness of God and His love. In the context of this greatness, Rabbi James teaches, what is my grief, and what is my sadness? A small blip in the general experience of God’s universe. Maybe, he says, the Kaddish is recited to help give us that perspective.

Sitting Shiva

“Shiva” means “seven”. (Remember Shavuot, shavua, sheva? “Sheva” is the feminine form; “shiv’a” is the masculine form.) This refers to the custom of spending seven days in intense mourning following the burial of a close family member. It is called “sitting” shiva, because part of the custom is to sit on low benches, stools, or the floor (as opposed to chairs or couches), and to stay in the “shiva house”¬†for the duration of the shiva. (Ideally, the shiva should take place in the house of the deceased, and all members of the immediate family should try to stay there for the week; but if this is problematic, the home of one of the mourners is fine, and the other mourners can come sit there most of the day and then go home to sleep.)

Ideally, the mourners should not have to leave the house at any time during the shiva. I’m sure you are familiar with how painful and difficult it is to “put on your public face” and walk out of the house when you are dealing with something very difficult. We don’t want the mourners to have to do this. The community must come together and run their errands for them.¬†Their friends, neighbors and other family members do the shopping, cooking and cleaning for them. (When there is a shiva house in our community, someone sets up a Google Doc excel sheet to schedule meals to bring to the mourner’s home during the week. Almost every time I’ve tried to sign up it was completely full by the time I got to it.) This custom compels the community to embrace and support the mourner.

Other customs for mourners include: covering the mirrors (to symbolize turning inwards and away from physicality), not shaving or cutting hair, refraining from eating meat or drinking wine, refraining from marital relations, not wearing leather shoes, and not washing for pleasure.

Making a Shiva Call

It is not only customary, but a mitzvah, for members of the community to come to the shiva house and pay a visit to comfort the mourners. Nichum aveilim, comforting mourners, is a very important mitzvah in Judaism. It can be a very difficult one, too. A few years ago, the husband of a friend from our community died very suddenly and tragically. He was a young guy in his early thirties, with a successful baking¬†business and three young kids. The enormity of the tragedy was just unfathomable. As a young mother myself, with three young kids, and a husband more or less his age, I was deeply affected by this death, and I knew that if I went to the shiva I would just fall apart. But I knew that I should go anyway. I sat on one of the benches opposite my friend, and just cried and cried. When time came to go, I went over to her, and I was so overcome with sadness I could hardly force out, in a voice so strained it came out a most inelegant squeak, “I have no words. Only tears” before dissolving into sobs again. I felt awful because I was the only one crying at the time, and I feared that my deep sadness just reopened the wounds for everyone there. But the shiva is exactly the time and the place to fall apart, and I hope that my expression of grief at least gave some legitimacy to the inexpressible feelings of others who were there. In any case, my friend, who seemed completely drained of tears at that point, asked me if I remembered when he had brought us food they had cooked us when R2 was born. I told her that I remembered, and kissed her hands, and rose to leave and compose myself.

When visiting a shiva house, there are some important rules about protocol. The most important one is that you must not speak to the mourner unless he or she specifically expresses a desire to speak to you.¬†Someone who is grieving should have the liberty to choose if and when he or she wants to speak, and about what. Often, the conversation at a shiva involves speaking about the person who passed away, telling stories about him or her, passing around pictures and sharing memories. This helps the mourners process the loss. But if they prefer to sit in total silence–they should be able to do that, and still experience the love and support of the community. There are no words to comfort someone who has just experienced a loss.

When leaving a shiva house, it is customary to approach the mourner, and recite the following traditional statement: “May the Omnipresent comfort you among¬†the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This expresses our sense of family and collective mourning and loss.

When the shiva is over, the comforters who are with the mourners at the time accompany them on their first symbolic walk out of the house. This is the gradual transition back to normal life, and we don’t want the mourners to have to do this alone.

The Shloshim

After the shiva, there is a period of lighter mourning. It is called the “shloshim”, the “thirty”, because it usually lasts thirty days (including the seven days of shiva). They still do not shave or cut their hair during this time, and avoid social events, especially ones during which music is played. The purpose of this is also to ease the mourner out of mourning and back into normal life. It is expected that during this period someone who has experienced a loss will still have periods of intense grief, and the circle of family and friends should be supportive of this.

When mourning for a parent, the period of lighter mourning lasts a year. There are a number of explanations for this, and I think it makes sense that the mourning for the person who gave you life, and your expression of gratitude towards him or her and carrying on his or her legacy, should be more intense and last longer than mourning for another family member. Kaddish is recited through that year.

Annual Remembrances

Every year on the date of the loved one’s death, there is a custom to visit the grave site, light a candle, and recite prayers.

Yehrtzeit candle. More on those in "A Nation of Pyromaniacs"
A memorial¬†candle. More on those in “A Nation of Pyromaniacs”

In Yiddish, this is called the¬†yehrzeit. My grandmother’s first¬†yehrzeit will be on the 11th of Nisan, which will fall on April 19th next year.

There is also a special prayer, called Yizkor¬†(“He will remember”)¬†to commemorate the dead during prayer services on Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavuot. Usually, members of the congregation who don’t have someone to pray for during this prayer leave the synagogue while it is recited. This was the first year that my mom said the prayer, and it was very soon after the loss, so it was pretty tough. But she told me she had a friend there to hold her hand and hug her and get her through it.

*sigh* Heavy stuff. It’s a tough time of year for the Jews. In the next post, I will finally address the significance of the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and Tisha B’Av.

May we know only joy and good news.

Love,

Daniella

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