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Jewish Traditions & Practices

When a person is sitting shiva, providing consolation is probably the most important thing that one can do for a mourner. When someone experiences a tragic misfortune, the essential thing the person wants to know is that he is not alone in coping with the calamity. We at E-Shiva are of the opinion that in helping the mourner, we too are providing consolation. It is our hope that in this section entitled “Jewish Traditions and Practices”, mourners will find support and some measure of comfort because they are following the right path in the memory and in honor of their beloved one.



Frequently Asked Questions

Jewish Death, Burial Customs and Mourning Traditions

Click on the question for the answer to come up.

Step 1: Final Moments of Life and When Death Occurs

Question: What does one do for a dying person in the final moments of life and immediately after?

  1. When death is imminent call the Rabbi.
  2. Do not leave the dying person alone.
  3. Say Psalms to give the dying person comfort.
  4. Help the person who is about to die say the “Vidui”, a confessional declaration.
  5. In a person’s final moments he should say the “Shema”; it is an affirmation of Jewish identity and connection.
  6. When the person does pass, say: “Baruch Dayan ha-Emet”, “Praised is the True Judge”.
  7. Close his eyes and mouth; straighten his limbs and cover him with a sheet.
  8. The deceased should not be left alone.

Step 2: Preparation of the Body

Question: How is the body of the deceased cared for?

  1. From the time of death until burial the body of the deceased is not left unattended. A person always stays with the deceased. This person is called a “Shomer”, and while being with the deceased, the Shomer will read Psalms, and do nothing else, no eating, drinking or idle talking, etc.
  2. Additionally, the community’s burial society, known as the “Chevra Kadisha”, ritually clean, prepare and dress the body of the deceased for burial, a process called “Taharah”. Mortuary practices, such as embalming or the applying of cosmetics and the like, are strictly forbidden. Unless there is no choice under the law, autopsies are never performed. 3. Since in Jewish Law, burial usually takes place within 24 hours of a person’s passing; refrigeration is hardly necessary. Burial may be delayed if close relatives have to travel long distances to get to the funeral or if the death takes place on the Sabbath or a Yom Tov, but burial should not be put off.

Step 3: Memorial Service

Question: What happens after the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, has carried out its responsibilities?

  1. The deceased is placed in a wooden casket in a respectful manner. Soil from the land of Israel is sprinkled. The casket, itself, is closed using wooden pegs; there are no nails. In Israel, where caskets are not used, the burial shroud, and in the case of a man, a prayer shawl with its fringes removed, serves to cover the body.
  2. A shomer stays with the casket.

Question: Where does the Memorial Service take place?

  1. A Memorial Service takes place at the discretion of the deceased close relatives, the “mourners”. If a Memorial Service does take place, it is usually held at the funeral home or at the synagogue. While the casket is in plain view of the attendees, it is closed; there is no exception. According to local custom, eulogies are presented, Psalms and prayers are recited. Instrumental music and flowers are inappropriate.
  2. Pallbearers, who have been previously appointed by the mourners, help move the casket into a waiting hearse, for transport to the cemetery. In Jewish Law, the deceased is buried in the ground; cremation is not a choice.

Step 4: Funeral Service

Question: What takes place at the cemetery?

  1. Usually just prior to the funeral service, mourners for parents, a spouse, children, or siblings traditionally participate in a ritual called “Keriah”. This is the custom to tear a portion of clothing such as a lapel, pocket, or collar. Traditionally, children of the deceased make a visible tear on the left side over the heart. All other mourners make a tear on the right side which need not be visible. The torn garment is worn for the duration of the “shiva”, the 7-day initial mourning period
  2. The pallbearers followed by the officiating Rabbi and the mourners conduct the coffin to the grave site. During this time the Rabbi recites Psalm 91, and the pallbearers customarily stop several times while carrying the coffin to the gravesite.
  3. The officiating person or Rabbi speaks words of comfort. Prayers are recited and the coffin is fully lowered into the ground by employees of the cemetery.
  4. It is customary for individual family members of the deceased to place an inverted shovelful of soil on the coffin. Once done, the shovel is not passed on to the next person. Instead, the shovel is put back into the mound of dirt. Others attendees are asked to place similar shovelfuls on the coffin until the coffin is fully covered.
  5. If there are ten Jewish men present, the “Mourners' Kaddish” is then recited by the bereaved.
  6. Flowers are not appropriate. A tangible expression of condolence may be made by contributing to a charity that was favored by the deceased or the mourning family.
  7. Those in attendance form two rows between which the mourners pass to receive the traditional expressions of consolation: “Ha-makom y’nachem et-chem b-tokh sh’ar avay-lay tzi-yon vi-rusha-la-yim”, “May the Almighty comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”.
  8. It is customary to wash your hands ritually after leaving the cemetery or before entering the house of mourning.

  1. A Memorial Service takes place at the discretion of the deceased close relatives, the “mourners”. If a Memorial Service does take place, it is usually held at the funeral home or at the synagogue. While the casket is in plain view of the attendees, it is closed; there is no exception. According to local custom, eulogies are presented, Psalms and prayers are recited. Instrumental music and flowers are inappropriate.
  2. Pallbearers, who have been previously appointed by the mourners, help move the casket into a waiting hearse, for transport to the cemetery. In Jewish Law, the deceased is buried in the ground; cremation is not a choice.

Step 5: After the Burial and the Leaving of the Cemetery

Question: What is the “Shiva” house?

  1. Prior to the burial, a home is designated as the location where the mourners will “sit shiva”, where they will begin the seven day mourning period. This location is announced to the community at the Memorial Service and at the Cemetery Service. It is the place where one comes to in order offer condolence to the family. It is the Shiva house.
  2. The Shiva house requires preparation. A pitcher of water and towels are left outside of the house for people to wash their hands when returning from the cemetery. Mirrors are covered. During Shiva, the mourners are required to sit on low stools or on cushions placed on the floor; these should be made ready. Because prayer services will be held at the Shiva house, prayer books should be obtained in advance.
  3. Friends, neighbors and the community provide food and meals for the mourners during the Shiva period. There is a traditional meal of consolation for the mourners upon their return from the cemetery. It is usually a dairy and meal and includes round foods such as hard boiled eggs, lentils or bagels.

Question: How does a visitor to the Shiva house conduct himself when making a Shiva call?

  1. Usually the door has been left open, and you just step in. If the mourner (or mourners) sees fit to recognize you, he will do so. It is up to the mourner to make contact with the visitor. It is not a social outing or a mere formality. The purpose is to console the mourners, and to support them with one’s presence. It is appropriate for visitors to bring kosher food for the mourners. However, you should not expect refreshments to be provided for you, and it is inappropriate to socialize during a condolence visit. You have to be attentive to the mourner, and if he is inclined to speak, you are obligated to listen.
  2. When leaving the Shiva house it is appropriate to say: “Ha-makom y’nachem et-chem b-tokh sh’ar avay-lay tzi-yon vi-rusha-la-yim”, “May the Almighty comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”.

Step 6: Periods of Mourning

Question: What are the various stages of mourning?

  1. A person that is a spouse or parent or child or sibling of the deceased is considered a mourner. When the mourner learns of the death of his close relative, he enters the first stage of mourning, which is called “Aninut”. This first stage of Jewish mourning is the time between death and burial. Aninut is typically the most intense period of mourning and is designed to help the mourner acknowledge and accept the pain and loss. Those in Aninut are considered an” Onen” or bereaved person until the actual burial at which time the Onen officially becomes an”Avel” or mourner. The main obligation of an Onen is to arrange for the proper Jewish burial of the deceased.
  2. Shiva is the second stage of Jewish mourning. Shiva begins after the burial and extends to the morning of the seventh day. During this time, the mourner takes an almost complete break from the routines and involvements of everyday life. The Avel has time to focus exclusively on the memory of the departed. It is a time of intense grief. During the period of Shiva, mourners do not wear leather shoes or apply cosmetics; they do not shave; and they remain at home. If a minyan can be made available, mourners often participate in the afternoon and evening services in the shiva home. When Shiva is over, it is customary for the mourner to take a short walk around the neighborhood, as a way of taking a first step back into the world.
  3. “Sheloshim” is the third stage of Jewish mourning. Sheloshim consists of the thirty days following burial and includes the seven days of Shiva. The period from the end of Shiva to the end of Sheloshim is one of transition from deep bereavement to resuming life’s normal routine. This is the time when mourners gradually return to work or school and begin living their lives without their loved one. Mourners attend Synagogue services daily to recite the Mourners' Kaddish.
  4. When a mourner has lost a parent there is an additional stage of Jewish mourning. This additional stage which is also a final stage is called “Avelut”. This period lasts for an additional eleven months after Sheloshim. During Avelut, mourners avoid parties, celebrations, theater and concerts. After the Avelut period is complete, the family of the deceased is not permitted to continue formal mourning.

Step 7: Honoring and Remembering the Deceased

Question: How do mourners continue to honor and remember the deceased?

  1. Traditionally the anniversary of a relative’s death, known as the “Yahrzeit”, is celebrated by those who mourned him. The date is calculated according to the Jewish calendar, and is based on the actual day of death and not the burial. The main expressions for honoring the memory of the deceased during Yahrzeit are reciting the Mourners’ Kaddish with a minyin and lighting a special memorial candle the evening before the Yahrzeit. This candle burns for twenty-four hours. In many communities a special meal is sponsored by close relatives of the deceased, during which his name and memories and his good deeds are stated.
  2. Four times a year, publicly recited memorial prayers are said by those who have lost either one or both of their parents. This service is known as “Yizkor”. It is held on Yom Kippur, Sh’mini Atzeret and on the last days of Passover and Shavuot. The Yizkor prayer asks God to remember and grant repose to the souls of the departed.
  3. Jewish law requires that a grave marker, a headstone, be put in place so that the deceased will not be forgotten and the grave not be desecrated. It is customary for the marker to be put in place and for an unveiling ceremony to be held prior to the first anniversary of the relative’s death. The unveiling ceremony consists of the recitation of Psalms, a brief eulogy and the removing of a cloth that has been placed over the headstone. It is also customary, before leaving the gravesite, to place a small stone on the marker to indicate that someone has visited the grave. The custom of leaving a small stone is repeated with each visit to the gravesite.



Introduction to Rabbi Balk


Rabbi Balk is Rabbi Emeritus of the Golf Manor Synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rabbi Balk received his B.A. from Columbia University in Ancient Studies, his M.A. in Religion and Education from Columbia's Teachers College, and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. 

Rabbi Balk has contributed articles to halachic journals, periodicals, and books and has served as scholar-in-residence and guest speaker on the campus of several universities and in numerous congregations. Rabbi Balk's many lectures, which address numerous themes, may be found on the website of Yeshiva University. He has also lectured to rabbinic colleagues at the conventions of the Rabbinical Council of America. 

Rabbi Balk was recently honored  with the Rabbi Jacob and Deborah Rubenstein Memorial Award for Excellence in Rabbinic Leadership in the presence of hundreds of his rabbinic peers and other distinguished guests at the National Convention of the Rabbinical Council of America in New York

 For close to 25 years, Rabbi Balk has served the pastoral needs of the Golf Manor Synagogue. During this time he has counseled, comforted and educated mourners from his congregation and the Cincinnati area on Jewish mourning tradition and burial practices as well as on the subject matter of Jewish death and dying. E-Shiva is proud to have Rabbi Balk provide his advice and counsel to you, the public at large

 



Rabbi Balk's Videos on Jewish Death and Mourning



RABBI BALK IS THE SPIRITUAL ADVISOR AND THE HALACHIC AUTHORITY FOR E-SHIVA. RABBI BALK HAS PREPARED A SERIES OF VIDEO PRESENTATIONS FOR E-SHIVA ON THE SUBJECT MATTER OF JEWISH DEATH, BURIAL CUSTOMS AND MOURNING TRADITIONS.


Last Moments of Life


Life After Death


Preparing the Deceased for Burial


Before Burial


Funeral and Burial


Tearing of a Garment


Mourning Periods


Sitting Shiva


Mourners Kaddish


Making a Shiva Call


Memorializing


K'El Maleh Rachamim


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