Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Comfort of Jewish Mourning Customs

My mother died last week. She lived a long, full, happy, independent life and just a short while ago, celebrated her 88th birthday. A week later, her health deteriorated rapidly. After a visit to the emergency room and hospitalization in a geriatrics hospital, we said goodbye to my mother for the night and she went to sleep, and she was gone.

In Judaism, the custom is to bury the deceased very quickly, the same day if possible. We waited until my sister Debby arrived from New Jersey to join me and my sister Judy in Israel. My parents, as organized as they were in life, had already purchased burial plots. My father died nearly seven years ago. Now, all it took was one phone call and everything was arranged for my mother.

Losing a loved one is never easy. As difficult as a funeral may be, the mourning period afterwards, when the loss is really felt, can even be harder. Thankfully, Judaism has specific mourning customs which make the transition easier for family and friends of the deceased.

First of all, some words about a Jewish burial in Israel. There is no coffin. The deceased is buried in a shroud. There is an organization called Hevrat Kadishe and it prepared the body, dug the grave, and handled the last prayers and burial.

At the start of the ceremony, each of the mourners in the immediate family (son and daughters in this case), had an outer garment cut and torn in a sign of mourning. I wore this torn shirt for an entire week.

In a hall at the cemetery, in a dignified ceremony unusual for Israeli funerals, my sisters and I took turns reading our eulogies. A rabbi who has been a family friend for many years recited psalms and also spoke. And then everyone walked to the gravesite, with men in long black coats carrying my mother's body on a stretcher. Three times the procession stopped and I recited the traditional Mourner's Kaddish in ancient Aramaic.

The first week after the funeral is called the shiva. During this time, the mourner sits at home, or at the home of the deceased, and is visited by family and friends. In the mourner's home, all mirrors are covered. The mourners sit on low chairs or stools, and people greet them with the words, "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." It is considered a mitzvah, a good deed, to pay a shiva call to the home of the mourner.

My parents were founding members of a Conservative Jewish synagogue - Kehillat Moreshet Avraham - in Jerusalem. Congregation members arranged meals for my family for the entire week. Mourners are not allowed to serve themselves food or drink. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have different customs about what foods are served and which blessings are said.

It is customary in Israel for men not to shave during the shiva, or even during the first thirty days after the death. Observant Jews do not shower or bathe for pleasure, do not have marital relations, and do not study Torah during this period. Mourners do not return to work until the end of the shiva. On Shabbat, there are no signs of public mourning.

Seven-day memorial candle

Greeting visitors during the shiva gives mourners a chance to express their grief and to relate what happened. But it is also an important experience for the visitors, who can share their favorite stories about the friend they knew and loved.

During my mother's shiva, I met people who lived at the Beit Moses retirement home with her. I talked with members of her synagogue, as well as with her many friends - women who played bridge with her and women to whom she taught embroidery for over fifteen years. In addition, visitors came to console my sisters and me - colleagues, high school classmates, friends from our kibbutz days, neighbors, cousins.

On the last day of shiva, the immediate family makes another, more private visit to the cemetery. Psalms and the Mourner's Kaddish are recited. In Israel, the tombstone is placed at the gravesite thirty days after the death. Mourners leave a small stone as a sign that they have visited the grave.

The shiva is important for mourners and for visitors alike. It's a way of telling stories about the deceased and getting to know the person in new ways. It is a path from bereavement into living with the loss. It aids the transition from death to continued life.

My mother will be sorely missed. She was a wonderful mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Her memory will be with us forever.


  1. Ellis, my prayers and love I send to you and your family. Thank you for allowing me into your personal world. You are a God given teacher by sharing Jewish customs, sites and history. This breaks the bonds of ignorance and lifts up our minds. Blessings upon blessings to you, my friend.

  2. Thanks for sharing this interesting post and sorry for your loss,

  3. I'm originally from a family of Sephardic Jews, married into an Ashkenazi family. Two years ago we lost my father-in-law, WWII hero and the man I considered my true father. We are now offering as much emotional support as we can (living in VA) to my mother-in-law who is 87 years old and lives in NYC. I feel for your family and I hope you are taking good care of yourself.


  4. Sorry for your loss. It was tough to lose your parents. I lost my Dad 7 yrs. ago and I know how you feel. Thanks for sharing this interesting post. Prayers to you and your family.

  5. This is the best story so far for 2014, for anyone who has lost a mother, I welcome you to the club, its a great pain and joy if she had a good life, but I wish death would DIE and Man can live for ever.Sorry about the loss of such a lovely mother, her good deeds will for ever speak for her!

  6. My family's condolences to you and your family, Ellis. Keep the faith for strength and temper hurt with fond memories.

  7. Very interesting customs to ease the pain of losing a loved one. I'm sure many would benefit from similar ideas here. I'm glad your mother lived life surrounded by those who loved her, it must be very hard but I thank you for sharing this in such a difficult time.

  8. I'm sorry for your loss. May her memory be a blessing.

  9. Sorry for your loss of your mother. And thank you for your teachings on how your people do funerals. That is very good teachings, from Tiia.

  10. This is very interesting Ellis. I really like your traditions of mourning and funeral. Your mam sounded like a lovely lady. Take care. ....Glynis

  11. What a great post. It is nice to know this about Shiva. People that are not Jewish may not know not to send flowers. What a great resource your site is to help us offer sympathy to people of different religions.

    Shiva Basket