Life, Death and Mourning
In Judaism, life is valued above almost all else. The Talmud notes that all people are descended from a single person, thus taking a single life is like destroying an entire world, and saving a single life is like saving an entire world.
Of the 613 commandments, only the prohibitions against murder, idolatry, incest and adultery are so important that they cannot be violated to save a life. Judaism not only permits, but often requires a person to violate the commandments if necessary to save a life. A person who is extremely ill, for example, or a woman in labor, is not permitted to fast on Yom Kippur, because fasting at such a time would endanger the person’s life. Doctors are permitted to answer emergency calls on Shabbat, even though this may violate many Shabbat prohibitions. Abortions where necessary to save the life of a mother are mandatory (the unborn are not considered human life in Jewish law, thus the mother’s human life overrides).
Because life is so valuable, we are not permitted to do anything that may hasten death, not even to prevent suffering. Euthanasia, suicide and assisted suicide are strictly forbidden by Jewish law. The Talmud states that you may not even move a dying person’s arms if that would shorten his life.
However, where death is imminent and certain, and the patient is suffering, Jewish law does permit one to cease artificially prolonging life. Thus, in certain circumstances, Jewish law permits “pulling the plug” or refusing extraordinary means of prolonging life.
In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. Death is a natural process. Our deaths, like our lives, have meaning and are all part of G-d’s plan. In addition, we have a firm belief in an afterlife, a world to come, where those who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded.
Mourning practices in Judaism are extensive, but they are not an expression of fear or distaste for death. Jewish practices relating to death and mourning have two purposes: to show respect for the dead (kavod ha-met), and to comfort the living (nihum avelim), who will miss the deceased.
Jewish mourning practices can be broken into several periods of decreasing intensity. These mourning periods allow the full expression of grief, while discouraging excesses of grief and allowing the mourner to gradually return to a normal life.
When a close relative (parent, sibling, spouse or child) first hears of the death of a relative, it is traditional to express the initial grief by tearing one’s clothing. The tear is made over the heart if the deceased is a parent, or over the right side of the chest for other relatives. This tearing of the clothing is referred to as keriyah (lit. “tearing”). The mourner recites the blessing describing G-d as “the true Judge,” an acceptance of G-d’s taking of the life of a relative.
From the time of death to the burial, the mourner’s sole responsibility is caring for the deceased and preparing for the burial. This period is known as aninut. During this time, the mourners are exempt from all positive commandments (“thou shalts”), because the preparations take first priority. This period usually lasts a day or two; Judaism requires prompt burial.
During this aninut period, the family should be left alone and allowed the full expression of grief. Condolence calls or visits should not be made during this time.
After the burial, a close relative, near neighbor or friend prepares the first meal for the mourners, the se’udat havra’ah (meal of condolence). This meal traditionally consists of eggs (a symbol of life) and bread. The meal is for the family only, not for visitors. After this time, condolence calls are permitted.
The next period of mourning is known as shiva (seven, because it lasts seven days). Shiva is observed by parents, children, spouses and siblings of the deceased, preferably all together in the deceased’s home. Shiva begins on the day of burial and continues until the morning of the seventh day after burial. Mourners sit on low stools or the floor instead of chairs, do not wear leather shoes, do not shave or cut their hair, do not wear cosmetics, do not work, and do not do things for comfort or pleasure, such as bathe, have sex, put on fresh clothing, or study Torah (except Torah related to mourning and grief). Mourners wear the clothes that they tore at the time of learning of the death or at the funeral. Mirrors in the house are covered. Prayer services are held where the shiva is held, with friends, neighbors and relatives making up the minyan (10 people required for certain prayers).
If a festival occurs during the mourning period, the mourning is terminated, but if the burial occurs during a festival, the mourning is delayed until after the festival. The Shabbat that occurs during the shiva period counts toward the seven days of shiva, and does not end the mourning period. Public mourning practices (such as wearing the torn clothes, not wearing shoes) are suspended during this period, but private mourning continues.
The next period of mourning is known as shloshim (thirty, because it lasts until the 30th day after burial). During that period, the mourners do not attend parties or celebrations, do not shave or cut their hair, and do not listen to music.
The final period of formal mourning is avelut, which is observed only for a parent. This period lasts for twelve months after the burial. During that time, mourners avoid parties, celebrations, theater and concerts. For eleven months of that period, starting at the time of burial, the son of the deceased recites the mourner’s Kaddish every day.
After the avelut period is complete, the family of the deceased is not permitted to continue formal mourning; however, there are a few continuing acknowledgments of the decedent. Every year, on the anniversary of the death, family members observe the deceased’s Yahrzeit (Yiddish, lit. “anniversary”). On the Yahrzeit, sons recite Kaddish and take an aliyah (bless the Torah reading) in synagogue if possible, and all mourners light a candle in honor of the decedent that burns for 24 hours. In addition, during services on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavu’ot, after the haftarah reading in synagogue, close relatives recite the mourner’s prayer, Yizkor (“May He remember…”) in synagogue. Yahrzeit candles are also lit on those days.
When visiting a mourner, a guest should not try to express grief with standard, shallow platitudes. The guest should allow the mourner to initiate conversations. One should not divert the conversation from talking about the deceased; to do so would limit the mourner’s ability to fully express grief, which is the purpose of the mourning period. On the contrary, the caller should encourage conversation about the deceased.
When leaving a house of mourning, it is traditional for the guest to say, “May the Lord comfort you with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.