3603 Quentin Rd. Brooklyn, NY 11234

End of Life and Mourning

A Brief Guide of Laws, Practices, and Alternatives

Dear Readers,

This series will deal with themes we would rather not deal with. Talking about sickness, the end of life, burial, and mourning, reminds us of our frailty and weakness. It is understandable that the prevalent attitude to the laws concerning these matters is “we will deal with it when we get there.” Unfortunately, this is not what usually happens. An accident, a stroke, or an aggressive disease can take one’s life before anyone has time to understand or digest the events or render the victim uncommunicable. When that happens, relatives are confused and at times clueless. They do not know what to ask and who to talk to, and they sometimes fall between the cracks of religious institutions’ bureaucracy and insensitivity on one hand, and a barrage of advices from well-wishers on the other. 

Again, these are not things we like to think about, but acknowledging the dreadful possibilities can help family and friends cope with the tragedy.

Disclaimer: this guide does not cover all opinions, and it is far from being complete in covering all matters related to the topic. It rather intends to suggest options for family members and friends, who accompany loved ones in their last journey, before and after death, and often feel constrained and at times even hurt, by certain practices and laws. This should not happen since our Torah is a code of behavior which is meant to bring peace and harmony – דרכיה דרכי נועם וכל נתיבותיה שלום. However, one should take into consideration the public practices of his or her community, and make sure not to ignore other’s sensitivities. For that reason, I suggest studying the matter, despite the uncomfortable feeling, so when the need arises, we will be well informed, or at least will know to ask the right questions.

Preparations in Life

Life’s greatest threat is that it is going to end, for all of us, at one point. We try to ignore that knowledge or fight signs of aging, but it is inevitable. It is therefore recommended to be prepared for that moment for the sake of our loved ones who will be left behind.

  1. Personal information: make sure to inform family or friends of accounts, assets, passwords etc. There are websites which handle the process. One such service I have come across is LastPass, but I would recommend doing the research before deciding which service to use or if you want instead to entrust your loved ones with a written list of all accounts, usernames, passwords etc.
  2. Will: The Torah tells us many cautionary tales about the tragic results of sibling rivalry, so unless there is a good reason to discriminate against one of the people of the same degree of closeness (Children, siblings, etc.), for example, if one of them has committed serious crimes, one should distribute his or her wealth equally, and not create a post-mortem tension in the family. Biblical law, however, dies suggest a hierarchy of inheritance which quite often causes tension and animosity between surviving relatives, especially if some of them want to abide by Jewish law and the others by civil law. The simplest way to avoid such problems is to make a statement, written or oral, as long there is a clear record of it, which will distribute the assets according to one’s will. After death, this statement will be effective retroactively from the day it was given, thus making it a gift effectuated in during the giver’s lifetime. This statement is called מתנה מהיום ולאחר מיתה and it is recommended to consult an expert or do thorough research before creating it.
  3. DNR – Do Not Resuscitate: contrary to popular belief, relatives do not always have time to decide whether their loved ones are going to be on life-support. There are cases when these are urgent decisions which must be made after traumatic events, and unless there is a clear statement of the patient, the default move is to use all means to keep the patient alive. Also, with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, there could be a long period in which a patient’s cognitive capacities are impaired, but the body is still healthy. Then, when physical health starts deteriorating, it is impossible to communicate with the patient. It is therefore imperative to decide on these issues on time, and since it is a very sensitive issue it should be thoroughly explored and understood by patients and relatives. 
  4. Life Support: Many problems arise when patients are already on life-support and are diagnosed as terminally ill. Families are torn between the will to keep their loved ones alive for as long as possible, the realization that the suffering should not be prolonged, and the concern about religious regulations. It is important to know that Halakha recognizes situations in which life-support should not be initiated or stopped if necessary. With that knowledge, relatives should first explore all medical opinions and reach out to rabbis who could provide a solution to the dilemma. They then should know that the final decision is in their hands and that making this decision is a long and tormenting process, potentially turning into a burden of guilt. That is why a DNR eases the process, since the decision was in the patient’s hands.
  5. Organ donation: The Halakhic Organ Donation Society, HODS, handles all aspects of organ donation in a halakhically permitted way. It is a Mitzvah to become an active donor, since each minute of each life saved by organ donations is worth more than the idea of burying a whole body. God does not need the body in order to revive the dead and as Rabbi Yosef Messas argues, it is an honor and joy for the deceased to know that because of him or her, lives were saved. Unfortunately, the unwillingness of some halakhic authorities to acknowledge and incorporate new medical procedure into their rulings, has created a lopsided world where Jews only receive organs from others but never give. This not only casts us in a negative light in the medical community, but also promotes the notion that a Jewish life is worth more than a non-Jewish life, a concept diametrically opposed to the idea of the Image of God, presented in the opening chapter of Genesis.
  6. Autopsy: contrary to popular belief and to the vocal propaganda of some ultra-orthodox groups, autopsy is not forbidden, if there is a possibility that the knowledge gleaned from the procedure will contribute to the enhancement of medical science or crime fighting. In the same vein, donating one’s body to science is not forbidden if there is a clear notion of benefitting mankind. These are of course very sensitive issues which differ significantly from case to case, and one should therefore consult an expert on these matters.
  7. Burial space: it is recommended to make arrangements for a plot ahead of time, to avoid unnecessary tension and stress in the hours or days following the death of a loved one. In the U.S., funeral homes and cemeteries are usually two separate entities, and since they provide essential services at very sensitive times, it would be wise to meet with the people running those entities and decide on the ones who would best serve the family.
  8. Criteria for choosing services: do not hesitate to meet with several entities and ask for references. The most important thing is to find people who are sensitive and understanding, and who do not view their role as merely technical.  I have seen people hurt by service givers who were insensitive to their needs. In one case, for example, a cemetery manager ordered the workers to lower the cement cover of the grave, using a tractor, while the mourners were still there. In another case, a son was not allowed to have eulogies for his father on Hanukkah and the funeral was done with a minimal number of people at the gravesite, leaving the son with an emotional pain and the feeling that he was deprived of giving his father last respect. 
  9. Cemetery and plot location: look for an accessible place, both in terms of getting to the cemetery and in navigating the cemetery itself, to make it easy for the funeral procession, and for the family in the future to visit the place.
  10. Burial in Israel: some people want to be buried in Israel, and in recent years there have been several organizations which promote the trend. The idea is based on an obscure Midrash that says that when the dead will be resuscitated at the End of Days, those who were buried outside Israel will have to travel to Israel, by means of underground tunnels, to be revived there.  
  11. Using a chapel or a synagogue: It is preferable to hold the eulogies and services prior to the funeral in a chapel, for practical reasons, such as accommodating large crowds, amenities including a sound system, weather conditions, and consideration for elderly people. Sometimes, however, the family will choose to do everything at the grave site because they are asked to pay to use the chapel or because it is unavailable. In this case, they should reach to one of the local synagogues and see if the rabbi is willing to have the eulogies there, without bringing the coffin into the building, with some exceptions as explained below.
  12. In the case of a leader of the congregation or a very important person, the coffin can be brought into the synagogue, but then special arrangements must be made for the Cohanim.
  13. Eulogies in the synagogue: There are those who are opposed to using a synagogue for eulogies. Their argument is based on the Mishna (Megila 3:3) which says that Hesped cannot be held at a synagogue, even if the synagogue is now in ruins. Since the word Hesped is usually translated as eulogy, their conclusion is that eulogies cannot be held at a synagogue. The answer to that argument is that today’s Hesped in nothing like the Hesped in Mishnaic time and therefore there should be no problem holding eulogies in the synagogue for anyone.
  14. Hesped then and today: In Mishnaic times Hesped was an elaborate and dramatic process. Besides tearing clothes, it included a physical demonstration of grief which consisted of beating the chest with fists and clapping hands. In addition, professionals were hired to wail and chant dirges to put everyone in the appropriate mood, and musicians with bagpipes and other instruments would perform funerary music. It would make sense to forbid such practices in a synagogue which is supposed to be a symbol of life. Today’s Hesped is a succession of speakers, and even if these speeches convey sadness and grief, that is not a sufficient reason not to hold an Hesped in synagogues.
  15. Alternative burial methods: The customary burial method today in most of the developed world is in coffins. In Israel, it is still customary to bury in shrouds only. In Mishnaic times, however, the custom was to bury in stone coffins called sarcophagus. That coffin was opened about a year after burial, and the bones were moved and rearranged in a much smaller stone box. That box was put in a burial cave, or an above the ground mausoleum, which resembled a modern-day post-office facility, with niches in the walls for the stone boxes. According to the Mishna (Bava Batra 6:8), a 4×6 facility contained 16 burials spaces and a 6×8 one contained 52 such spaces. 
  16. Though the above-mentioned method is obviously not practiced today, there is a growing crisis of lack of burial spaces, especially in Israel. Some cemeteries in Israel are built upwards by means of pouring cement over old graves, in certain cases reaching four or five levels. In others, such as Har HaMenuhot in Jerusalem, additional space is built on pillars, in a manner which renders the grave inaccessible for anyone for whom walking or climbing stairs is difficult (my father, who walks with a cane, was not able to visit my mother’s gravesite since she passed away five years ago because of added construction). In addition, there are many families who cannot afford the exorbitant price requested for burial plots. 
  17. I have presented this information here for several reasons: 1. To serve as a plea with religious and lay leaders to seek practical solutions to the burial problems in Israel and abroad. 2. To repel the myth of grave desecration spread by ultra-orthodox groups in Israel. When old graves are discovered during archeological excavations or construction work, it is fully permissible to transfer the remains for re-burial in a proper place. 3. To offer a solution to the problematic practice of cremation, as will be explained below.
  18. Cremation is considered a taboo in Judaism. In the bible, there are several verses which speak of burning in relation with a king’s death, but it is not clear if they refer to cremation or to a ritual burning of perfumes and personal belongings (I Sam. 31:12; II Chr. 16:14 and 21:19). In Talmudic literature cremation is considered a grave sin and the ultimate punishment for a wicked person. In Israel, where burial expenses are covered by social security, cremation is not recognized as burial, although it is not illegal. There is no doubt that in modern times the mere idea of cremation invokes revulsion for Jews because of the Holocaust connotation. It is very possible that if religious and lay leaders work together to offer an alternative method to today’s burial practices, people who were considering cremation will change their mind. Meanwhile, if one is asked to attend funeral services for one who was cremated, he should not avoid it on religious grounds only, since as we have seen, there is a possibility that this was practiced to a certain extent in antiquity. Making a statement of not attending services will only cause tension and alienation.
  19. Immediate burial: there is a myth that the burial must take place within 24 hours of death, and in some places, such as Jerusalem, there is even an opposition to let the night pass without performing the burial. As a result, families are often left devastated as relatives do not have time to digest the tragedy or to inform others. It also causes people, including immediate relatives of the deceased who live out of town or abroad, to miss the funeral. The myth of immediate burial is based on a verse in Deuteronomy (21:23) which commands that the body of an executed criminal, which was initially displayed on the gallows, will be buried by the end of the day and will not pass the night unburied. This concept was originally limited to cases of executed criminals and did not constitute a commandment for the broader community. As a matter of fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 46:1) refers to the concept of burial as something which is only insinuated in the Torah. Maimonides (Avel, 4:7-8), following an ambiguous language in the Talmud, broadens the scope of the commandment to all people, but adds that if the burial is delayed honoring the deceased it is permissible. It is mainly under influence of Kabbalistic teachings that there is such a push towards immediate burial, and one must remember that in the Bible we find serious delays of funerals, such as in the case of Yaakov (approx. five months). 
  20. Delaying a funeral: from the previous, it stems that it is allowed to delay a funeral when the need arises. Some of the most common reasons for delay are: 1. The need to inform or wait for relatives to arrive; 2. Technical details such as finding a plot or raising funds to cover the funeral’s expenses; 3. Conflicts of scheduling with another funeral; 4. The need to transport the body when someone passed away in another location. In all these cases, it is permissible and even advisable to delay the funeral. I know of many cases in which families were pressured to conduct the burial in a rush and not wait for close relatives to arrive. It is incumbent upon the rabbis and the families, in the vein of the Torah’s consideration of others, to afford relatives and very close friends the ability to accompany their loved ones in their last journey.  
  21. Preparing and timing eulogies: when preparing the list of speakers at the funeral, priority should be given to those who knew the deceased personally. Immediate relatives and close friends should not be limited when speaking, but it is highly recommended to prepare the eulogy in advance, since one is agitated, emotional, and even confused. Other people, including rabbis, should be given a clear indication of how long they can speak. Too often I have attended funerals where rabbis who did not know the deceased spoke of abstract or general concepts, at times reminiscing on unrelated topics and burdening the audience. It is a good idea to appoint a person to signal non-family speakers when it is time for them to finish their speech. 
  22. Women and eulogies: Strange as it might sound, there are places where women are not allowed to deliver eulogies, and instead have written eulogies read by their relatives or rabbis. In one specifically painful case, a woman told me how at her brother’s funeral in Israel there was a long succession of speakers, many of whom did not even know him, but came to pay respect to the family. She was allowed to speak only after all these “strangers”, and the officiating rabbi apologized for letting a woman speak, saying that “usually we do not do that, but there are special circumstances”. One does not need to rely on special circumstances to allow a woman to express her grief for a loved one, so although this is a brief guide, I will expand on this issue a bit more.

The push against women speaking at funerals is an interesting hybrid of a recent trend which relies on very ancient sources, as I will explain. Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his commentary Beth Yosef (on Yoreh Deah, 393) quotes Rivash who writes that the practice in Spain was that the mourners would pray in the synagogue and visit the cemetery every day, and sometimes twice a day. When they returned to the courtyard of the communal residence, the professional wailers would wail, and the women would eulogize. These eulogies were emotional monologues which would bring all present to tears: בכניסתן לחצר המקוננת מעוררת לוייתה והנשים סופדות  

Other rabbis who were familiar with the Sephardic customs also write that women would regularly eulogize and be actively involved in funerals. Among these rabbis are Rabbi Yitzhak Avarbanel (on Jer. 9:14) and Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh (on Is. 32:9). 

The proponents of the ban on eulogies by women, which is practiced in Jerusalem, Petach Tiqwa, and several other cities in Israel, rely on three verses in Zechariah (12:12-14) which speak of a future tragic event and the national mourning which will ensue. During that mourning, the prophet says, men and women will sit separately to conduct the Hesped, or eulogy. The Talmud (Sukkah 52:1) comments that this separation indicates that even in time of mourning and sorrow the evil inclination יצר הרע – is active and is trying to entice people to commit sexual transgressions. It is hard to imagine that the prophet will be concerned that such transgressions will occur as a result of men and women sharing their mourning and grief. As Dr. Aviad HaCohen, an Israeli religious jurist, wondered: גם במעמד עצוב זה, בשעת האבל הגדול והנורא, כשהאישה לבושת השחורים ממררת    בבכי על אביה שנפטר מן העולם, עלול להתעורר יצרם הרע של הגברים – how can one claim that during that grief-stricken moment, as a black-clad woman weeps for her father who passed away, the men attending the funeral will be sexually aroused?

This is indeed a troubling thought, especially since many restrictive measures of modesty rely on the text from Zechariah, and we must seek the reason for the prophet’s call for separation. Intuitively, I would have said that the prophet describes a contemporary practice. Women and men mourned separately either because of social norms and hierarchy or because men did not want to be seen crying, while women, who know that most men are incapable of fully commiserating, preferred to express their sorrow privately. 

Another reason is provided by bible scholars who studied the matter and compared it to other ancient Near-East practices (see: יעל שמש, אבלות במקרא), and have concluded that mourning women used to tear their clothes and expose their chest. This is corroborated by murals in Egyptian graves, a relief on the coffin of Ahiram, king of Geval (-10th C), and from known practices of pre-Islamic Arab tribes. We can now understand why Zechariah describes separate mourning. This argument is further corroborated by the following verses: “I will mourn and wail, I will walk about stripped and naked” (Micah 1:8), and “oh calm women, be filled with fear and sorrow, take off your clothes, and remain stripped with only a girdle on your loins” (Is. 32:11). It is interesting to note that according to one opinion in the Mishnah (Sotah, 1:5), the clothes of a woman accused of adultery would be torn by the priest, leaving her chest exposed.

With time, this mourning-practice was abandoned, leaving behind a reminiscence in the form of a symbolic tear of one’s clothes. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding of the verses in Zechariah has led to the preposterous and inhumane rule that does not allow women to speak at a funeral. As explained here, there is no similarity between today’s and the bible’s eulogies, and any attempt to rely on the biblical text and ignore today’s reality is a deliberate assault on women’s status and rights.

Conclusion: the practice dubbed “Minhag Yerushalayim” which forbids women to speak at a funeral, is a relatively recent practice, established by an extremist group in Jerusalem and adopted by other communities without paying attention to women’s needs and sensitivities. It is a hurtful practice which degrades and demeans women and it should be stopped. As shown here, it has no solid basis in Halakha, and it stands in stark contradiction to the golden rule: “love the other as you love yourself”. Let us ask the men who make the rules if they would agree to have their eulogies written on a piece of paper and delivered by someone else. I believe that their answer would be negative, and they should therefore strive to understand and commiserate with the tremendous emotional pain this so called “practice” is causing women everywhere.  

  1. Eulogies on special days: Maimonides (Mourning, 11:3) lists several days in which it is forbidden to eulogize. Those are the intermediate days of Pesah and Sukkot, Rosh Hodesh, Hanukkah, and Purim. As mentioned earlier, eulogy in antiquity has little in common with today’s practices, as it was a very dramatic process, including musicians and professional wailers. What we refer to today as eulogy is a farewell delivered by relatives and friends in an organized, controlled setting. It is important for the family to have closure and to be able to bid proper farewell to their loved ones, but unfortunately, there are those who refuse to acknowledge the thorough change in our mourning practices and forbid the family from holding a gathering and delivering eulogies. To strike the right balance between relatives’ need to talk and the desire to respect the rule of no eulogies on the days mentioned here, the solution is to let only close friends and relatives speak, and to limit the role of the rabbi to reading the relevant psalms and prayers.
  1. Obligation and Purpose of Mourning: before we discuss the detailed laws pertaining to the behavior of relatives on the day of the burial and during Shiva, let us address the question of the legal status of mourning practices. The prevalent opinion in Halakhic literature is that the Torah commands people to mourn on the first day after burial. There is no source for that opinion, however, other than a discussion in the Talmud (Zevahim, 100:2), which does not deal with mourning at all. It deals with the question of whether one is allowed to eat from the sacrifices after losing a relative, since joy is a prerequisite for partaking in the sacrifices. The opposing opinion is voiced by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Yoreh Deah, 399:13) who says that all the laws of mourning are rabbinical. But even his words should not be taken as a statement that the Sages of the Mishna created a set of laws to be imposed on the public as commandment or a decree. The way the laws of mourning should be understood is that both the Torah and Mishnaic sages did not legislate rules for mourning, but rather described what was practiced in their time and dealt with the halakhic implications of those practices. The Torah, and the whole bible, never mention a commandment for a person to mourn for a relative. There are either descriptions of what people did while mourning (Abraham, Jacob, David, Ezekiel, Job, to mention a few), and prohibitions of certain practices. Those prohibitions were either of pagan practices, such as cutting one’s flesh and pulling one’s hair, or restrictions of some practices for specific people, such as the priests at all times, or a prophet whose behavior was meant to be symbolic.

The same follows for rabbinic literature. The rabbis described the practices which were common in their time, and which differed greatly from biblical practices. A careful reading of Halakhic sources reveals that there are dozens of practices which were abandoned, though they are still mentioned in the Shulhan Arukh, for the simple reason that mourning practices depend on contemporary and local social norms (e.g. covering the face, baring shoulders, mourning for distant relatives).

Legal experts and scholars could fight endlessly over the question of whether the laws of mourning were dictated by God in the Torah, created by the rabbis as a mandatory system, or depend on the norms and rules of each society. To resolve this dispute, I will use a tool which according to Rabbi Yosef Messas has biblical authority: Logic. The assumption that the Torah or the rabbis would tell people to grieve for their loves ones is illogical. My experience as a rabbi for many years taught me that those who grieve (and which are the majority), do not need directives to do so, while those who do not grieve because they were alienated or estranged from their relatives, will never feel genuine grief. The intricate system of laws and practices of mourning is not meant to tell people what they must do but rather to facilitate for them the process. This is clearly reflected in the Halakhic statement: הלכה כדברי המקל באבל – we always follow the most lenient opinion regarding mourning (Eruvin 46:1; Moed Katan 18:1). It is also evident from the numerous mourning practices which have been abandoned. 

We could say that mourning laws and practices serve several purposes: 1. Most importantly, they help the mourners express their grief. 2. They provide an opportunity for friends, acquaintances, and the community at large, to commiserate with the mourners. 3. They set certain boundaries for the mourners, preventing them from being completely lost and overwhelmed, by advising them what is accepted and what is not.

When a mourner asks what is the right thing to do, or whether a certain action should be avoided (should I sit here, wear that, can I keep saying Kaddish after the year is over, can I go to a movie, to a concert etc.), the answer should not be given in a clear-cut legal style, but rather in a manner which encourages the mourner to explore his or her own sensibilities and situation. The mourner should ask the following questions: 1. How do I feel about doing this and would my (father, mother etc.) want me to do this or that? 2. How would the other people sharing mourning with me feel about it (siblings, children, spouse etc.). 3. How will it be perceived by my friends and community, and how much weight do I give their opinion?

Once these answers are clarified, it will be easier to decide. As we shall see as we go through the laws and practices of mourning, they were all meant originally to help and not to control. Therefore, if one feels that the laws of mourning are causing him or her stress and agitation, it means that something has gone awry.

  1. For whom does one mourn? Today, the official list of relatives for whom one mourns includes parents, siblings, children, and spouses. In antiquity, the list was broader, and included people in the extended family. The boundaries were defined by the rule: כל שמתאבל עליו מתאבל עמו – one should mourn with those he mourns for (B. Moed Katan 20:2), meaning that one should sit shiva whenever one of the relatives mentioned above is in mourning. That rule adds to the list uncles and aunts, grandparents, and relatives of one of the spouses. Rabbi Moshe Isserles explains that mourning for the extended family was not an obligation, and was done only out of respect for one’s immediate relatives, but now (i.e. 16th century), this is not expected from the relatives and if one insists on doing it he will be deemed weird. This explanation stems from the understanding that mourning is an obligation dictated by rabbinic law, but the truth is, as previously explained, that mourning practices reflect social norms. Prof. Nissan Rubin explains (קץ החיים: טקסי קבורה ואבל במקורות חז”ל) that the shift from mourning the extended family to mourning the nuclear family is parallel to the shift in the structure of Jewish society. When people lived as clans, mostly in an agrarian society, all members of the extended family were considered immediate relatives. With urbanization and life as nuclear families, the circle of mourners was limited to the direct blood-relatives and to one’s spouse.
  2. Expanding the circle of mourning: based on the above explanation it is understandable, though lamentable, that a purist interpretation of the Halakha will not mandate, and in fact even forbid, mourning for anyone outside the nuclear family. As a result of that approach it was ruled that an adopted child does not have to mourn for his adoptive parents, though he should “show signs of sorrow, and even say Kaddish”, while others wrote that his mourning should not come on the expense of his Torah-learning. On the other hand, that adopted child is obligated to mourn for his biological parents, even though he never met them. There are other categories of relatives for whom one does not mourn, and they include blood relatives who converted to Judaism. They are considered “newborn babies” and are technically unrelated to each other. The halakha dictates that they should not mourn for each other, but the practice is to be “strict” and to mourn, though they cannot say the blessing which expresses our acceptance of the divine verdict – Barukh Dayyan HaEmeth. One last, and very painful category, is that of babies who died within thirty days of birth, not to mention stillbirths and miscarriages. In the following entries, we shall see that one should practice mourning in all these cases.
  3. Mourning depends on one’s feelings: as previously explained, mourning is an expression of the survivors’ grief and an opportunity for their different circles of friends and acquaintances to alleviate their pain and provide a support system during harsh times. Clearly, one cannot force a person to mourn for his biological parents if they abandoned or rejected him. Of course, he could go through the motions for the sake of public opinion, but he will feel no pain and sorrow. Conversely, adoptive parents who dote their children with love and dedication are closer to them no less, and even more, than many parents are to their biological parents, and the same is true for some stepparents, especially when the child was very young when the parent remarried. The halakha regarding adopted children was carried over from times when the social structure was completely different. Unwanted children often did not survive and widows with young children usually did not remarry, so the “adopted” children in the halakhic texts refer more to older stepchildren which might have not felt connected to their adoptive parents. Nowadays, there is no doubt that adoptive relatives are considered blood-relatives as far as mourning practices are concerned.
  4. Mourning for non-Jewish relatives after conversion: people who converted to Judaism, yet still maintain good relationships with their biological family, which was not always the case in the past, should practice mourning for them. It is important both as a means for the mourner to express grief, and to emphasize the essential teaching of the Torah, that all humans were created in the image of God. One consideration the mourners should have, is how public they want to make their mourning, deciding who will be the people from amongst their friends and community that will share their grief with a perspective of understanding and sympathy, since they will have to navigate the process between two religions.
  5. Stillbirth and miscarriage: as noted earlier, there are many laws and practices of mourning which are outdated but are carried on by momentum and tradition. There is one area, however, where the detachment of modern Halakhic authorities from reality and societal changes is particularly painful. I am referring to the tragic loss of very young, or yet unrealized life. Traditional halakha considers any newborn as someone whose chances to live are minimal until one month after birth. This had to do with high infant mortality in the past, and many traditional societies did not mourn the loss of a fetus or a very young child, not because they did not care, but because they braced themselves for such possibility. To illustrate the progress made in the field of saving babies’ lives, infant mortality rate in the US in 1915 was close to a 100 per 1,000 live births, and it declined to 7.2 per 1,000 in 1997. Experts estimate that in medieval Europe, the rate was between 30-50 of all births. We could understand, though maybe not justify, why in the past Halakha dictated that shiva and mourning would not be practiced in such cases. However, it is disheartening to see that many authorities of modern Halakha do not recognize the changes, and state that one does not mourn for the death of a baby under thirty days old, even if was caused by an accident and not due to medical problems. The story is even more difficult regarding stillbirths. Chabad’s Mikvah.org, for example, provides the following statement regarding stillborn babies: “due to changes in society, some parents do provide names and/or grave markers for stillborn, and may even attend burials, but the Torah’s outlook has remained the same”.

I have highlighted the last phrase because this is where the problem lies. There is no “Torah’s outlook” here, but rather an organic evolution of practices which reflect social norms and historical reality. Just as in the past, mourning was narrowed from the extended to the nuclear family, so we have an obligation to officially expand it to neonatal death, stillbirth, and possible miscarriage. As a rabbi, I have accompanied friends through the tragedy of stillbirth, in one case with a young couple in whose wedding I officiated. The pain is tremendous, as one mother expressed it “you are in the happiest ward in the hospital, experiencing the worst nightmare. Despite the terrible pain and sense of bereavement and despair, there were no set rituals for the grieving parents to go through, and so in each of these events I had to create them, with the parents. In one case, when an orthodox friend heard that I am about to attend memorial services for a stillborn, he uttered matter-of-factly “one does not do that for a stillborn”. That man was generally a very sensitive person, and to his merit I must say that at the time he did not have children of his own, yet I was distraught by the abysmal gap between rigid Halakha and real life displayed by his words. 

A different experience for me was when my wife, who was expecting, felt that the fetus stopped moving, and was later told that indeed the fetus did not survive. We had to break the news to our community, who united around us, but we had no clue how to handle the situation. There were no halakhic guides or proper rituals, and as we found out, there were many couples who have experiences similar tragedies. They also did not know what to do, and in most cases, kept the information as a terrible secret, to be shared only with those who were dealt the same blow. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the orthodox community must get together, recognize the deep changes in society, and create a guide for parents experiencing those difficult times, which can last for years. The importance of such guides is in inviting friends and relatives to show support and to let parents acknowledge and express their grief, if not publicly, at least to a select group of acquaintances. It is hard for me to write about this very painful topic and I know that some readers might feel uncomfortable reading about these painful cases. I believe, however, that we cannot indulge in the bliss of ignorance and pretend that this does not happen. It is also part of the American mentality which celebrates the fantasy world of horror movies but tries to suppress the real world of death and mourning. We tell people to be strong and not to cry, and we make cemeteries look like parks, but this cannot change the harsh reality and the fact that those who suffer loss need our love, support, and empathy.

 I wish and pray for all expecting parents to be able to celebrate the birth of healthy children and their long and healthy life afterwards. Meanwhile, I encourage parents to explore the possibilities and craft their own rituals, in lack of official ones.

  1. Women at the cemetery: there is no reason to prevent women, including pregnant women, from attending a funeral or attending a cemetery, other than superstitious beliefs about the demonic power of women, and concerns about modesty, which started among mystical circles in 16th century Safed. Unfortunately, there are still those who instruct women not to attend the funeral, even if they are direct relatives of the deceased. Such treatment of the mourners is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the Torah which commands us to be attentive and sensitive to the needs of others.
  2. Descendants of the deceased prevented from attending the funeral: In Jerusalem, there is a practice to forbid the children of a deceased man from attending his funeral. This practice, as I have heard, has unfortunately taken root in other places as well. The origin of this practice is in the Kabbalistic belief that the demons are created by the drops of semen wasted by the deceased, and those demons come attend the funeral. If those demonic children meet the real children in the funeral, they will envy them and attack them, and so, to protect the real children from danger. There is no doubt that this practice should be abolished, and that the children of the deceased have no obligation to follow the instructions of those officiating at the funeral, or even the instructions of their own father, unless they are so unattached to him that they do not want to accompany him. There are several reasons why this practice should be abolished and rejected: 1. As it is scientifically proven, and as I have written in previous articles, one’s semen has no significance and no sacred status; 2. The belief that these drops turn into demons borders on paganism; 3. Even if we argue that the practice has deep Kabbalistic meaning, it should be reserved only to those who are true kabbalists, of which there are maybe one or two alive today; 4. No practice can override the duty and desire of a child to pay respect to his father; 5. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, ignoring the mourners’ emotional needs is a transgression.  
  3. Keria’h – tearing garments: the idea of Keria’h is to express that part of one’s life has been torn, never to return or heal. The mourners also show that they share the deceased fate by letting go of their earthly possessions. In his famous lament, Job says “naked I came out form my mother’s womb, and naked I will return there”, and accordingly, he also sat on the ground to be closer to the children he lost and were now buried underground. The custom of tearing one’s clothes has changed with time, however, for several reasons. Mainly it is because our westernized society frowns upon exaggerated display of emotions, negative or positive, and because our dress code is different. Orthodox Jews still tear their clothes in a highly ritualized process and are sometimes lost in the details of how long or wide should the cut be, which of the many garments we wear should be cut, and on which side of the garment. It is important to remember that today the Keria’h serves mainly to let the mourners express their grief, which otherwise would have been bottled-up, in accordance with our social norms. For that reason, the rabbi, or the person officiating, should be sensitive to the needs of the mourners and explain the meaning of the ritual to them. If they wish to do it in a different manner, it should be fine, as it is their right to choose how to express their sorrow. For example, I have dealt with cases where the mourners wanted to do the Keria’h at home instead of the cemetery, or only men at the cemetery and women at home, or only the men and not the women. There were also cases where people decided to tear a scarf or an accessory instead of a shirt as is customary, in others a ribbon, and in others refused to do keria’h altogether. In all these cases the role of the rabbi is to support and understand the mourners and explain to all the well-wishers who want to force the mourners to follow the “law” or “practice” that they are causing more harm than good.
  4. First meal: when the mourners come back home, they are served food by their friends. It symbolizes the efforts of friends to nudge mourners, who sometimes refuse to eat or drink, back into the world of the living. For that reason, the meal was traditionally made by people other than the mourners, but in cases such help is not available, the mourners could take care of that meal themselves. It is also customary that the mourners to not do any house chores, including serving themselves a cup of coffee. One should avoid rebuking them when they do so and let them serve themselves or others if they feel the need.
  5. Choosing the Shiva home: the mourners can sit shiva in one house or in separate locations, and even do part of the shiva at one place and part at another. In antiquity, with smaller and close-knit communities, the mourners would build a temporary structure where the extended family would sit together for the duration of the shiva, but today we are much more mobile and dispersed. 
  6. Holding shiva services in a synagogue: it is a common practice, well documented, that mourners come to the synagogue for prayers, but receive visitors at home, or even receive visitors at the synagogue in case the house is too small or remote. Having services in the synagogue could alleviate for some families the burden of having a constant stream of visitors at home and will allow them to get much-needed rest. It also helps small communities maintain a steady minyan, instead of struggling to have one minyan at the synagogue and one at the mourners’ house.
  7. Visiting the cemetery during shiva: one of my congregants was rebuked by another for visiting her husband’s grave during shiva, and I had to comfort her for this additional, unnecessary emotional pain. This is a typical case of people protecting the “practice” while harming their peers. As a matter of fact, visiting the grave every day of the shiva, and sometimes twice a day, was customary in many Sephardic communities.
  8. Covering mirrors: very often, prayers are held at the shiva house. If one stands in front of a mirror, or a picture which reflects his image, it seems as if he is bowing down to a human being, and for that reason the mirrors or picture frames are covered. The explanation that spirits are trapped in the mirrors is nothing more than pagan superstitions, and it is obvious that other mirrors in the house need not be covered. 
  9. Shiva chair: nothing screams “standardized, impersonal grief” louder than the “Shiva Chair” which has become today a ubiquitous object in shiva house, courtesy of different charity organizations or local communities. Those are small plastic armchairs which “fulfil” the halakhic “criteria” of a chair on which one is allowed to sit during shiva. I remember very well from my childhood in Jerusalem, among sages of the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities alike, a totally different practice, which was much more in line with the original intention of “sitting shiva”. That practice was to use the furniture already in the house, but make it a little less comfortable, by removing a cushion or sitting at the edge, for example. The idea of sitting on a lower seat is to make the mourner feel less comfortable than usual, but it should be done with his own personal objects and not with an industrialized, standardized object, imported to the house from the outside world. The standard shiva chair also conveys the false message that there is only one way to mourn and only one certified chair to sit on. I applaud the charity organizations and communities for helping the mourners with folding chairs, books, kippahs, etc., but they should at least give the mourners the option to choose between their own furniture and the shiva chair.
  10. Eating at the Shiva home: It is customary to serve food at the Shiva home, most commonly cookies, dried fruits, and nuts, alongside drinks, to offer an opportunity to recite all blessings (מזונות, עץ, אדמה, שהכל). In some communities, visitors must eat a full meal, and in others the visitors dine with the mourners, and the oldest or most honorable of the visitors personally serves them. Some people avoid eating at the Shiva home or taking anything from there. This is a superstition based on fear that the “bad luck” of the mourners is contagious. The mourners can eat with no restrictions, though some have the practice of not having meat and wine.

Serving food was originally an act of charity. Needy families would rely on food served in such occasions and would bestow blessings on the family. This was also the reason for serving a full meal in the synagogue for the whole community at the end of the shiva, the thirty days, and the year. Sharing one’s wealth with the needy also conveyed the message that our life here is transient and that helping others is the best way to use one’s assets. Today, families invite mostly close friends and the meal has become in some cases a social event. It is preferable to serve modest refreshments and give the difference to a worthy charity. 

The importance of saying a blessing, for some, is the act of the blessing itself, as another Mitzvah to be deposited in the astral bank account of the diseased. In the small Ashkenazi shul near my parents’ house, an elderly man would command us in Yiddish at memorial services “נו, מאכט א ברוכה”  – make a Blessing, trying to get more merit points for the deceased. This is a noble concept, but it obfuscates the main idea – that of being inspired by the blessing to be a better person. The blessing is a way to contemplate the abundance of food and the good health which allows us to enjoy it and reminds us that as long as we are alive, we have to make best use of the precious gifts granted to us by God. 

  1. Traveling on Shabbat to attend a funeral: I would like to share an email I received from a friend living in Israel: 

“Recently I had a conversation with a woman who told me a difficult story. Her father had passed away in Israel, and the funeral was going to be Sunday morning. She wanted to go to her father’s funeral, to grieve with her family and escort her father to his final resting place. She asked for a permission to fly to Israel on Shabbat, but her Rabbi told her that it was unacceptable to do so. It would be better for his departed soul that he had a Shabbat observant daughter in the world.  She described the whole situation to me as absurd. She was upset that that she couldn’t properly grieve, and she was triggered by recent news events of a permission being given to a certain Orthodox Jews involved in politics, to be able to ride in car on Shabbat. She expressed that a truly orthodox person wouldn’t seek such a permission, but at the same time she seemed frustrated that she couldn’t get one to say goodbye to her father. She no longer is fully observant and feels guilty because the whole reason she didn’t go was to be a merit to her father. It is a tough situation, and I wouldn’t want to imagine being in such a situation. What are your thoughts on the matter?”

Well, my thoughts on the matter start with questions: 1. Is she less observant now because of the negative experience of being forbidden from attending her father’s funeral? 2. What is the importance of attending a funeral? 3. What prohibitions are involved in boarding a plane on Shabbat? 4. What was the nature of the permission given to the Orthodox Jews she mentioned?

I will start with the last question. I assume she is referring to the permission given to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, which drew a lot of attention in the religious media outlets of Israel, as well as the New York Times, which wrote:

“For Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, celebrating the presidential inauguration by attending the gatherings on Friday night, posed an obstacle to their orthodox Jewish observance of the Sabbath. Ms. Trump, president Trump’s older daughter, and Mr. Kushner got special permission to break from the strict religious laws that forbid them from using technology or mechanized devices, such as cars, during the Sabbath, which begins on Friday evening. A Jewish person who was briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak publicly about it, said on Friday night that they were given the exemption under the principal in Jewish law of pikuach nefesh which suggests preserving the safety of a specific person over any religious consideration. In the case of Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump, that would have meant being outside security escorts once the Sabbath has started.”

The principle of pikuach nefesh, to be exact, is about preserving the life of someone who is in danger. In the case cited here, there was no need to be in danger in the first place, since the couple could have chosen to stay home and forego the celebrations. But the fact heat they were given permission by an anonymous rabbi is upsetting to many not because they feel it is forbidden, but rather because they ask “why are we not given similar permissions?”, and that brings us to the third question, regarding the nature of the prohibitions. As I mentioned in a recent post about travel-related issues, asking a non-Jew to do on Shabbat work which is forbidden for a Jew, can at most be considered a rabbinical prohibition. 

When one’s life is in real danger, even biblical Shabbat prohibitions are cast aside, but in the case of Trump and Kushner, as well as the case cited above, there was no risk but rather great discomfort. The sages of the Mishna, who instituted the prohibition of asking a non-Jew to do work on Shabbat, made an exception for cases where there is great need or the need to perform a mitzvah. This is probably the root of the decision of the anonymous rabbi to allow the couple to travel in a car driven by non-Jews. The reason this permission is not given more broadly is because of the fear of contemporary rabbis that it will lead to an erosion of the observance of Shabbat.

This brings me back to the first question, and to the possibility that by applying a very strict legal code the rabbis protect the abstract law but endanger its following. In other words, they lead the orthodox world to a future of less and less people keeping more and more laws, while leaving the majority outside the walls of orthodoxy. I will hopefully expand on this issue in the future, but for now I will say that the rabbis must give people more credit, knowledge, and authority, and understand that if people who want to observe Shabbat know the full gamut of the law and the areas where they can be flexible, it will help be more observant and to better connect to what they are doing.

This brings me to the second question I posed above, of what is the importance of attending a funeral. The rabbi who forbade the woman from flying to the funeral, divided her world into the Shabbat compartment and the mourning compartment, unrelated to each other. Once he decided that her presence in the funeral was not needed for the elevation of the soul of her father, he found no reason to be lenient regarding the laws of Shabbat. I see it differently. There are no compartments but rather a whole person in distress. She wants to observe Shabbat, but she also desperately wants to attend her father’s funeral, for her own feeling of respect and the chance to say a last goodbye. Not being able to do so will haunt her all her life (I know it firsthand as my wife was not able to make her father’s funeral in time from LA). In this case, it is not only one Shabbat which is compromised but the quality of her whole life, including all Shabbat days and her connection with God and Judaism.

It is therefore clear that she should have been allowed to travel on Shabbat, as long as she made sure that she avoids direct actions forbidden on Shabbat and has everything handled by non-Jews.

  1. Voluntary Kaddish: I use the term voluntary Kaddish to describe situations where Kaddish may not be mandated by Halakha, but one wants to recite it anyway. There are two main objections for reciting such a Kaddish: 1. Since the Kaddish is associated primarily with the loss of a parent, one might be asked by his living parents not to recite voluntary Kaddish, for example, for a distant relative or a friend. As a matter of fact, there are some communities where one whose parents are still alive does not even recite the half-Kaddish after concluding the Torah reading; 2. There is a Kabbalistic belief that Kaddish recited not in its right time upsets the soul. The argument is that when the kaddish is recited the soul of the deceased is notified, and the soul expects to be notified only within the year but not beyond that. Let us see how to deal with these two arguments:

If your parents are alive and you recite the kaddish not in their presence, there is no reason for concern. If, however, they are present and they feel uncomfortable with their son or daughter reading Kaddish, it is a matter of balancing the respect for your parents with the will to do a good deed for a friend. First, try to reason with your parents and explain that their fear stems from a superstition, and that there is no way that an act of kindness will breed negative results. You may even say that you heard that it is a סגולה – supernatural guarantee, for them to have long life. If they remain unconvinced, it is your decision whether they are being unreasonable and you want to say it, no matter what, or whether your sense of respect towards them should take over, in which case you either avoid saying Kaddish in their presence, or you say it quietly without them noticing. 

The other argument, that Kaddish out of its designated Halakhic time frame causes the soul distress, is questionable because there are varying opinions regarding that time frame. I have dealt many times with siblings who were given different dates by their perspective rabbis for reciting Kaddish, so to which one of these dates would the soul respond favorably? The true reason for the Kabbalistic argument is probably the Talmudic dictum that one is not allowed to mourn for too long. The rabbis did not want people to sink into prolonged periods of mourning, and therefore created a roadmap for the mourner’s recovery and integration into society. However, the mourning the Talmudic rabbis were concerned with is one where the mourner inflicts pain on himself and withdraws from society, whereas we are discussing extending only the reciting of Kaddish beyond the accepted timeframes. Sometimes, however, there will be people around the mourner who will rebuke him if he extends the reciting of Kaddish beyond the year, and he might not feel comfortable arguing with them, especially if they hold a religious or rabbinic position in his community. I had such a case in Jerusalem, with an orphan teenager who asked if he could continue saying the Kaddish after the year was over. The local head of the synagogue told him that it is forbidden because of Kabbalah. I did not want to defy the man, but it was obvious that the boy was still grieving the terrible loss he suffered and that he needed to keep saying Kaddish. I suggested that he keep saying it as long as he wanted, and that he will have in mind that he is reciting it also for all those who died without leaving relatives behind, and specifically the victims of the Holocaust. I still follow my own advice as I recite Kaddish for relatives and friends, even though the year for my mother has passed years ago.

In conclusion, one can recite Kaddish for any person when he feels that this is necessary. It is recommended to avoid friction with one’s parents over this issue, but there is no prohibition. One should respect his parents, but not at the price of his own emotional health, so if he feels he must say Kaddish for a very dear friend, he could either pray not in his parents’ presence or recite the Kaddish quietly, if this satisfies his need.

One can extend the period of reciting Kaddish indefinitely and can always have in mind those who left no one behind to say Kaddish, thus adding an element of altruism and loving-kindness to his act.

With that, I want to share two responses from friends, and to clarify that beyond the collective meaning of the Kaddish, it carries a special significance for each individual. That was my intention in Tuesday’s post: Missing Kaddish. My aim was to emphasize two main issues: 1. That one should not feel guilty if he misses one day of Kaddish, and rather try to find a proactive substitute in the form of charity or acts of loving kindness. 2. That one should not hire a person to say kaddish, unless he views it as an act of charity.

That post solicited diametrically opposed responses from two readers of similar background. One friend wrote that despite his busy schedule and travels he tried not to miss three prayers a day. He felt as though he was catching a flight three times a day, and when the year was over, it took him a long time to bring himself to visit the synagogue again. He said: “Through my year all I could think about is that there has to be a better way to pay respect to my dad and make the world a better place. Thank you for opening up this path for me.”

On the other hand, a friend who is still within the year for his father wrote the following: “It has been 10 months but I still infuse every Kaddish I say with a gratitude to my father for not only all he provided, but for the actual life he gave me. I say the Kaddish with purpose, and as much Kavanah that one can muster up in those short seconds, every time. I also hope that the honor to my father is valued by every person, in every Minyan, who sees the devotion I have in this practice.  I hope their thoughts are “What a fine person (name omitted to protect privacy) was in bringing up such devoted and respectful children.” My friend also felt that I should not have given mourners a way out or a substitute for Kaddish. As you can see from the response of my friends, each person has a different understanding of what Kaddish is and each is influenced by it in his own way. 

The Kaddish is a tool to help a person express his grief, but not an end as of itself. It carries with it collective memories and messages, and for one who has to recite it, it is worth reading some of the vast interpretive literature written around it, but it could also seem for some as a monotonous repetition of text which is unrelated to grief, and which enforces them to idle in the synagogue until it is time for Kaddish.

As the disclaimer at the top of this post explains, this column does not issue directives to people, and does not claim to cover all opinions. By all opinions, I refer not only to those of the Poskim, the Halakhic authorities, but to those of all readers. We are so accustomed to assume one’s religious identity by a thin slice of his or her practices, but the picture is much more complicated. No two people have the same set of beliefs and practices, and a distinction must be drawn between at least three plains: 1. Public display of religious practice and ritual, usually conforming to community or society; 2. Private display among close relatives and friends, which might vary according to the people present; 3. Personal beliefs which are not always congruent with the external display, whether private or public. It is therefore my mission here to make Judaism accessible to as many people as possible, by providing alternatives and encouraging critical thinking, so when one finds himself performing a ritual of which he feels detached, he will know that the feeling is legitimate and that there is a way to look for a solution.

Leave a comment