Traditional Jewish Customs

When should the funeral take place?

By Jewish law and custom, the burial should take place as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours of death. Naturally, if people are coming in from out of town, or other issues arise, the service may have to be delayed.

When this is not feasible, Jewish law requires one to complete the arrangements as expeditiously as possible. Funerals are not held at the following times: on Shabbat; on the Festival Days of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot; or on the High Holy Days.

What are the preparations before burial?

Before the body is buried, it is washed in a ritual act of purification, called taharah.  The ritual of taharah is usually carried out by a Chevra Kadisha (“holy society”). The Chevra Kadisha is a group of specially trained Jews who care for the body and prepare it for burial. Strict procedures are followed, which include the recitation of prayers and psalms. Men handle male bodies and women prepare female bodies; modesty is preserved even in death. If you are interested in this service, please let your director know and we will make the arrangements for your loved one.

In traditional Judaism, after the body is cleansed, it is dressed in tachrichim, the traditional burial garments. The biblical basis for this practice is found in Ecclesiastes 5:14, which reads, “He shall depart, just as he came.”  Since one is washed at birth, it is interpreted, one should also be washed at death. The simple white garment is meant to signify that we are all equal in death and we are judged on our merits and deeds, not material possessions. Many men and women are also buried in their tallit (prayer shawl).  One of the fringes of the tallit is cut to show that it will no longer be used. Some people are buried in their typical daily dress.

In traditional Jewish practice, the deceased is not left alone from the time of death until burial. This ritual act of shemirah (“watching,” “guarding”) is performed as a sign of respect to the deceased.  A shomer, a Hebrew word for meaning “guard,” sit with the deceased from the time of death until the time of the funeral. This custom is based on the desire not to leave a loved one unattended and may be handled, on a rotating basis, by members of the chevrah kadisha, who read psalms, prayers, or study sacred texts while in attendance.

How do you select a casket?

Keep in mind what is aesthetically acceptable, and affordable.  The traditional casket is made entirely of wood. The type of wood selected is a family decision.

What is the K'riah ceremony?

K’riah is the Hebrew word for “tear.”  Just prior to the start of the funeral service, a piece of clothing or a black ribbon is torn and worn as an expression of one’s grief. It is always performed standing, which shows strength at a time of grief.

As the tear or cut is made, the family recites the following blessing which expresses faith in God’s wisdom and judgment:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam dayan ha’ernet. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Judge of Truth.

The torn garment or ribbon is worn during the seven days of Shiva (but not on Shabbat and Festival Days).

If the person is mourning the death of a parent, the ribbon/cloth is worn on their left side, over the person’s heart. All other relatives in mourning, which includes siblings, spouse and parents, wear the ribbon/cloth on their right side.

What takes place during a funeral service?

Jewish funerals are characterized by brevity and simplicity. They are designed for the honor and dignity of the deceased and are a part of the mourning process which helps comfort the bereaved. Generally most of the service takes place in the funeral home or synagogue. Sometimes the entire service is conducted at the grave site.

The bereaved family is seated in the front row of the chapel or synagogue. The closed casket remains in view. Traditionally, it is  not decorated with flowers. Instead of sending flowers in the name of the deceased, a donation can be made to charity, frequently designated by the family of the deceased.

The service may begin with one or more psalms. The psalm most commonly recited is Psalm 23. The rabbi will then proceed with several readings from Psalms or other inspirational sources.  The eulogy is most often delivered by the rabbi, who has met with the family prior to the funeral to learn about the deceased and the particular attributes the family would like mentioned. The eulogy will typically contain personal reminiscences and sometimes humorous anecdotes as well. Frequently members of the family will also speak, sharing personal thoughts about their loved one.

The final prayer of the funeral service is the El Malei Rachamim (Hebrew for “God, full of compassion”).  At the close of the service, an announcement is made informing those present where and when Shiva will be observed.

What happens at the cemetery?

It is a mitzvah to accompany the dead to the grave. At the conclusion of the chapel service, family and friends who will attend the burial service form a procession behind the hearse to the grave site. At the cemetery, the casket is removed from the hearse and carried by the pallbearers to the grave, lead by the rabbi. Usually at least six people (men or women) are needed to carry the casket and it is considered to be a great honor. The Talmud illustrates the importance of the mitzvah when it says (Ketubbot 17a): “One must abandon the study of Torah to carry the dead [to their resting place].”

The customs and practices surrounding the interment vary within each branch of Judaism. The casket is lowered into the grave by hand or by mechanical device. Here family and friends are invited to shovel earth into the grave.  It is considered both a duty and an honor to help in filling the grave. As this is done, the shovel is usually not passed directly from one person to the next, but is placed on the ground before being picked up each time. This gesture symbolizes the hope that the tragedy of death will not pass from one person to another, and also symbolizes the desire not to rush this final parting from the deceased. This final act helps mourners with acceptance and closure.

Some families prefer not to be present for the lowering of the casket. They may wish to place several handfuls of earth on the casket which is lowered after the mourners leave.

According to tradition, once the burial is over, the emphasis shifts from honoring the deceased to comforting the mourners.  To act out this transition, all those present are asked by the rabbi to form two parallel lines, facing one another.  As the mourners pass through the two lines, he/she recites the following traditional words of comfort: "HaMakom yenahem etkem betokh sha'ar avlei Zion v'Yerushaliyim." "May God comfort you now among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem."

What happens after the cemetery?

The family and friends return home to “sit Shiva”. Shiva is observed in the home of the deceased or at a close relative’s house. Upon returning home from the cemetery, mourners and friends traditionally wash their hands before they enter the house, and a pitcher of water and a basin are set outside the home for visitors to cleanse themselves–metaphorically–as they return from a place of death to a place of life.

A special candle (provided by the funeral home) is lit upon returning from the cemetery and it burns for the entire Shiva period. In Proverbs 20:27 we read: “The human soul is the light of God.” The candlelight symbolizes the soul of the deceased as well as the presence of God. It is a sign of respect to the memory of the deceased.

Is it appropriate to send flowers?

Traditionally a memorial contribution to a charitable cause will be listed as an alternative to sending flowers.  This is a way to honor the deceased that is a preferred and lasting remembrance.

The meal of condolence

The first meal eaten by the mourners upon returning from the cemetery is called the meal of condolence.  Often prepared and served by friends, this meal creates an atmosphere of support.  It is Jewish custom to include round foods, especially hard-boiled eggs.  Round foods remind us of the cycle of life - which inevitably includes death.  Eggs, in particular symbolize new life which goes on, even in the face of death.

What is Shiva?

As mentioned earlier, immediately following the burial, the focus of attention shifts from the deceased to the mourners.  Up to this time, our attention has been centered on saying farewell to our loved one.  Now it is the time to help our our friends and family adjust to their loss.  Shiva refers to the seven-day period immediately following the burial.  (The day of the burial is the first day).  During Shiva, a minyan––worship service––is traditionally held at the house of mourning. The service is held so that the bereaved are afforded the opportunity to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.

An integral part of Shiva is the condolence call. It is a mitzvah to visit a house of mourning during the Shiva period. The custom of comforting the mourners is derived from Job 2:13, when Job is joined by his friends as he mourns the loss of his children: "So they sat down with him upon the ground for seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him for they saw that his grief was very great." The Talmud teaches that consoling mourners is an act of God. The purpose of the condolence call is to offer companionship to the mourners – to offer support and a sympathetic ear. When visiting a Shiva house, let the mourners initiate the conversation. Let them choose what to talk about, or let them choose silence. Visitors may ask to hear stories about the person who died, or tell stories that would honor him or her. It is important to speak of the deceased. In this way, the bereaved recall the many events which bound their lives to their loved one. The period of Shiva allows mourners to express their grief openly and without restraint. Those who are bereaved need to grieve with the understanding and support of friends and family.