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Friday, 15 December 2017
Yom Shishi, 27 Kislev 5778



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Beliefs on Jewish death & Burial

The following information gives detail to what Judaism’s or what some Jewish people believe about the issues of death or the afterlife and burial. This listed perspective is not a messianic (Jewish Christian) view nor shares the same beliefs in the foresaid. The provided information is to help lay groundwork for those who need to understand how to share on the issues of eternal life. The better one is acquainted with what the Jewish background is here better serves the purpose of sharing the issues of what lies ahead for those who reject the reality of an day of reckoning.

The Afterlife Concept in Judaism
Unlike the beliefs of Christianity and Islam religion which strongly believe in what happens after death, Jewish sacred texts have said little on this concept. In Christianity, afterlife is an important ideology where it is believed that after death, man attains heaven depending on his righteousness. In Islam it is believed that people waging jihads ascend to the pinnacle of heaven. However in Judaism, the belief is more centric around actions. It mostly highlights the relationship between man and God and the duties to be performed by man during his lifetime. So before we dwell into the concept of Judaism afterlife, let's go on a quick tour to know about the Torah.

Torah is a collection of documented religious teachings that refer to the Five Books of Moses:

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy

 This collection contains many literary genres inclusive of law, religion, history, allegories and even poetry. In short, Torah is a form of Jewish Bible. Although there have been no explicit references indicating the concept of afterlife in Judaism, there have been stances in the late Jewish history illustrating the thought. As per the teachings of Torah there are immediate rewards or punishments for the deeds rather than analyzing the aftermath of life. But there are subtle references indicating concepts of reincarnation and resurrection. Some textual references also indicate how the righteous are united with their beloved ones post death and the wicked ones are excluded. Although the traditional Judaism believes that death is not the final end of a human life, they have not elaborated enough on this doctrine thereby leaving the reader to draw his own personal interpretations on the belief. But if we take a leap back in the Jewish history during the medieval period, when Jews were enduring slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, the Hebrew slaves were quite obsessed with death and afterlife. However the Torah maintained its distance from the afterlife concept unlike the death-obsessed Egyptian beliefs. On the contrary, Torah relates itself more with life than death as it even shuns its priests from coming near the dead.

Afterlife Concept in Torah
The Hebrew word - Olam Ha-Ba means "the world to come." This phrase clearly indicates that there was some theme that went with the Torah illustrating that death was not the end of the journey and there was a scope for afterlife although this thought has been vaguely portrayed. References to terms like sheol give an idea that the belief of afterlife though shadowed was existent. It was believed that wicked people were cut off from the world and were sent to sheol (place of darkness). Death had other interpretations as well. Like in generic terms as per the Torah, death meant rejoicing the ancestors. It is also believed that Abraham (also the founder of Judaism), Jacob, Isaac and Moses gathered to their people post death. All the above biblical interpretations lead the reader to believe that the Torah does indicate that the soul continues to exist in some form after death. This belief is further made strong in the saying - "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence. ~ (Daniel 12:2)

Resurrecting Dead (Tehiyat Hameitim)
Judaism from the time it was born has definitely maintained its integrity without getting extremely influenced under the rulers who dominated Jews from time to time. However, the Torah was flexible enough to incorporate a few concepts, one of them being the resurrection of dead and afterlife. Historians say these concepts made their entry into the Torah under the Hellenistic influence. Later this concept became a fundamental belief of the rabbinic Judaism. References to beliefs of resurrection of dead and afterlife have been made in Maimonides' ''13 Articles of Belief,'' and the most often recited prayer - Shemoneh Esrei.

Judaism Today
Judaism being a monotheistic religion has also bifurcated as:

  • Orthodox Judaism: The Jews following this faith are stringent about following every word in the Torah as they believe they are the direct words from God. This faith includes the followers of Hasidim (Started by Israel Ben Eliezer) and Haredim (Also known as Ultra Orthodox).
  • Progressive Judaism: The Jews adopting this faith believe in the spiritual context of the Torah. This faith also includes the Reform Judaism (early 19th Century) and the Liberal Judaism.

Judaism afterlife still remains a debatable topic in spite of references indicating its belief in afterlife. However, Judaism today does accept the resurrection of dead and the concepts of heaven and hell.

 Here is an outline of Jewish death rituals:

Since Judaism emphasis on the sanctity of life, they forbid euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The person dying should not be left alone, and should be treated with respect and love during his final moments. It is a mitzvah (a commandment of Jewish Law) to be there at the side of the dying person. There are no deathbed confessions, and on the first hearing of the death, it is habitual to say, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, the true Judge."

Chverah Kadisha
In Judaism, the body is considered as a holy vessel to contain the soul, and hence treated with reverence. After death, the first thing is to call the rabbi. Most of the synagogues help in making necessary funeral arrangements. In many communities there is chverah kadisha, the scared burial society that is traditionally responsible for the preparation of the body for burial and also for the burial. It washes the body thoroughly, recites prayers while performing this ritual physical cleansing. Then the deceased is dressed in tachrichin, the traditional burial shroud, handmade of white linen or cotton. All Jews, rich or poor, are buried in tachrichin as a statement of the equality in death. But nowadays, some liberal communities allow the deceased to be dressed in regular clothing.

After the customary bathing and dressing, the deceased is placed in a casket made of wood. It is preferably made of pine wood with no metal parts, as it decomposes quickly. Since the body is to be returned to the Earth, nothing should be done to obstruct this process. The casket should be plain and unadorned, again as a expression of the equality of death. It is a ritual to keep a small bag of earth or sand from Israel inside the casket. Once the body is laid to rest in the casket, it remains closed. Judaism does not allow the viewing of the body. Since the body should not be left alone, normally a shomer or guard is kept by the family or synagogue to stay besides the deceased at all times.

The funeral should take place soon after the death, as it is believed that the soul has returned to God and so the body should be returned to the Earth as soon as possible. This also helps the bereaved to face the reality of death. Burial is not allowed on a Shabbat or a festival and during such times can be postponed. Before the funeral begins, the family performs keriah, a ritual of rending one's clothes. They make a small tear in their clothing, while some liberal Jews wear a black ribbon which is torn. Keriah basically symbolizes the torn heart of the mourners. At the funeral home, psalms and prayers are recited, which mainly includes Psalm 23, the memorial prayer El Maleh Rakhamin, the Mourner's Kaddish and an eulogy presented by a family member or the rabbi or a close friend.

After the service, friends who have been honored to carry the casket have to stop seven times along the way to the burial site. The number seven represents the word hevel (utter futility), which appears seven times in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Each person at the graveside puts three shovels of dirt into the grave and recites: "May he/she come to his/her place in peace". Rather than handling the shovel directly to the next mourner, they replace the shovel in the Earth, to avoid "passing on death." They wait till the casket is completely covered and wash their hands after leaving the graveside as a way symbolic cleansing.

The period between death and burial is called aninut, during which the chief grievers are not obliged to observe the mitzvot. The chief grievers include the seven close relatives: father, mother, brother, son ,daughter and wife or husband. For them, the Jewish law marks different stages of mourning which help them to come to terms with their grief.

After the funeral, the mourners return home and are provided with a meal called the seudat havraah, the meal of consolation by friends and neighbors. The meal traditionally includes hard-boiled eggs, which are an ancient symbol of fertility and denote the continuation of life in the face of death. The chief mourners enter into a period of bereavement called shiva, a seven-day period where the mourners do not leave the house and are provided with food by the family and neighbors. This help them to form a minyan (a gathering of the minimal number of members of an organization to conduct business ) for the daily services so that they can recite Kaddish. For next eleven months they have to recite Kaddish thrice a day in the presence of a minyan. Kaddish is a prayer of praise to God and is recited as an expression of faith in the face of death. During the seven days of shiva, the mourners can't use cosmetics, shave or cut their hair, as these are considered as the signs of vanity. They can't wear leather and indulge in sexual relations. The mirrors in the house are removed, turned towards the wall or covered with white sheets to avoid any form of vanity. They sit on low stools or on the floor to express grief. On the seventh day, the mourners venture out briefly but are accompanied by friends or relatives. After the shiva, they had to attend the synagogue service on the first Shabbat.

With the end of the shiva, the period of mourning called sheloshim starts and continues till the thirtieth day after the death. During this time, the mourners resume their work but avoid attending festive occasions like weddings and parties. The mourners are restricted from visiting the grave of the deceased, as it's important for them to get over their grief.

On the first death anniversary, the family assembles at the graveside for the dedication of a gravestone. This is an essential milestone for the mourners as it indicates a new beginning. At the same time, a eulogy is given and Psalm 23, El Maleh Rakhamin and Kaddish are recited. The gravestone is concealed with a white linen cloth, which is taken off to "unveil" the stone. The stone is engraved with the name of the deceased and the date of birth and death, normally in Hebrew or English. While visiting the gravestone, it is necessary to place a small stone on it. This is to show that the grave has been visited and the deceased is being remembered.

Yahrzeit and Yikzor
Every year on the death anniversary of the deceased, Yahrzeit is performed by the family. Yahrzeit is a day of remembering the deceased by lighting a special yahrzeit candle and reciting the Kaddish. In addition to yahrzeit, there are four other occasions during the year when the deceased is remembered: on Yom Kippur and the last day of the three pilgrim festivals (Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot). The memorial prayers known as Yikzor prayers are said by the congregation at the synagogue.

Like many other Jewish practices, the Jewish death rituals exhibit a healthy practicality. These rituals demonstrate a distinctive way of reverence for man and respect for the dead.

What is the Jewish view on cremation?

Cremation is never permitted. The deceased must be interred, bodily, in the earth. It is forbidden-in every and any circumstance-to reduce the dead to ash in a crematorium. It is an offensive act. It does violence to the spirit and letter of Jewish law, which never, in the long past, sanctioned the ancient pagan practice of burning on the pyre. The Jewish abhorrence of cremation has already been noted by Tacitus, the ancient historian, who remarked (upon what appeared to be a distinguishing characteristic) that Jews buried, rather than burned their dead. Even if the deceased willed cremation, his wishes must be ignored in order to observe the will of our Father in Heaven. Biblical law takes precedence over the instructions of the deceased.

Cremated ashes may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. There is no burial of ashes, and no communal responsibility to care, in any way, for the burned remains. The only exception is when the government decrees that the ashes be buried in the ground, and there is no other burial plot available to the family. For such unusual cases a portion of the Jewish cemetery must be marked off and set aside.

Jewish law requires no mourning for the cremated. Shivah is not observed and Kaddish is not recited for them. Those who are cremated are considered by tradition to have abandoned, unalterably, all of Jewish law and, therefore, to have surrendered their rights to posthumous honor.