Customs and Traditions in Mourning


Customs and Traditions in Mourning


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Jewish Guide to Mourning

By David Abelman

One of things we all avoid is the thought of death, either that of ourselves or of a dear relative. Nevertheless, death is an inevitable part of life.

The traditions and customs of Jewish mourning are based on deep philosophic and psychological concepts which aid the mourner to come to grips with the loss of a close relative. A close relative is one of the following: mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, husband or wife. Other relatives, though they may be dear, are not considered close in this discussion.

The mourning period is divided into two time periods, one prior to the burial and the other after the burial. During the period prior to the burial, the mourner is called an "onen" - this period is the most intense in terms of mourning. During the period of time, which begins immediately after the burial, the mourner is called an "aval".

From the time that the mourner is notified that a close relative has died, he becomes an "onen". This is the period of the most intensive strain for the mourner. Yet with the tragedy of loosing his dearly beloved relative, preparations must be made for the Jewish funeral, together with all the accompanying details.

He (or she) is now exempt from all positive commandments, such as praying, making blessings, wearing tephilin, etc. However he (or she) is not allowed to transgress any negative commandments. At the time that the mourner hears the news of the passing of his close relative, he (or she) is required to tear his garments. Generally men will tear their shirts, and if they are wearing jackets, they will tear their jackets. Women will not tear their blouses, as this is not considered modest, but will tear a garment worn over their blouse.

The tearing of the garments is not just a symbolic expression of mourning, but a true expression of heartfelt grief. Perhaps this tearing of the garment, more than any other act, expresses the immense feeling of sorrow that the newly bereaved individual has. No words can express this feeling of loss and during the week of "shiva", the mourner continues to wear his torn garment.

Jewish traditions value a quick burial, it is considered disrespectful to allow the deceased to lie waiting for burial. In cases where relatives do not live in the same city or country, the funeral may be delayed for the sake of this relative as long as the delay is not excessive.

Although many funeral parlors will offer the nearest kin extremely fancy coffins (some claim that to bury a relative in a cheap coffin is disrespectful), Jewish custom shuns this extravagant practice and looks more favorably on using a modest coffin. Care should be taken to insure that no metal pieces are inserted in the coffin, such as nails and screws.

"Taharah" is the Jewish process of cleansing the dead. This custom is becoming more and more popular. At one time, when there were few Jewish funeral homes, the deceased was given to gentiles to be buried and the body was prepared not according to Jewish tradition. Today, people are realizing that this preparation is actually a very important part of preparing the deceased to enter into the next world. The body is cleansed and inserted into a "mikva", a ritual bath to bring purity to the deceased as a preparation to enter the next world. This is done by the members Chevra Kadisha - the Jewish burial society.

Unfortunately many are willing to pay more money for a fancy casket, which does nothing for the deceased, as opposed to "tahara" which is actually a kindness that is done for the deceased and aids him in the next world.

Jewish law prohibits cremation and requires burial in the Jewish cemetery. It is the custom in many places that the mourners are the first to place soil in the grave to begin the transition process. This adds finality to the process and aids the mourners to accept the death and thus begin the healing process.

After the burial the period of "onen" ends and begins the period called "avalus". The mourner is now an "aval" and begins now to sit "shivah" (the seven day period of mourning) for his relative. During this time he (or she) sits on a low stool or on a pillow placed on the ground. Cutting of the fingernails, bathing for pleasure, washing with hot water, haircutting all are forbidden. Men do not shave. Listening to music and entertainment is likewise forbidden. Mirrors are covered and some even cover pictures.

Visitors are encouraged to come. The first meal is a special meal which should be brought to the mourner by his neighbors. It is considered a bad omen for a community if it does not bring a mourner this first meal. Many have the custom of eating an egg and bread at this meal, as an egg, being round, is the sign that the soul which descended into this world goes back into the next world and may descend again back into the world in another body.

The first three days are for the mourners to cry and mourn the loss. Visitors are not encouraged to begin speaking to the mourners until the mourners begin to speak. It is considered a proper action for the mourner to cry and weep as they remember the good deeds and actions of the deceased. Efforts to comfort them should not be made to stop the crying, but to bring out the good qualities in the deceased. Comforting is made by sympathizing with their loss and encouraging them to speak out their experiences.

The first three days that a mourner sits "shiva" is generally focused on the deceased person, whereas the last four days, the focus becomes shifted to the mourner in regards to re-entering the world. This is not a noticeable shift, but rather a gradual and natural shift that can be understood as moving from the loss to the adjustment.

During this week the mourner stays in his house, a "minyan" (a quorum of ten men) assembles in the home for the prayer service. If it is impossible to get ten men to pray with the mourner, then the mourner can come to the synagogue. It is now that the mourner begins to say the "kaddish" prayer. This is often mistakenly called a prayer for the dead, but in reality is a prayer for the expansion and revelation of G-d in our world. Some explain that since a Jew, through who's actions G-d's presence has been drawn into the world, has died, the revelation of G-d in the world has been reduced, therefore we pray that He be made greater in the world.

Since a basic belief in Judaism is in that of the next world, we believe that the soul of the deceased may pass through a cleansing process to rid it of the stains of sin that it accumulated in this world. This process takes up to one year. During this time, any good deed that we do in the memory of the deceased will lessen the cleansing process since it adds to the deceased's merits.

Many mourners have the custom of leading the prayer service. This is considered, along with the saying of "kadish" as a method of increasing the merit of the deceased in the next world. We want the heavenly court to look down and see that in the merit of the deceased, his close relative is leading a prayer minyan.

Other methods of increasing merit for the deceased is through contributing money to synagogues and Jewish schools, purchasing supplies for them, such as Torah scrolls, prayer books, etc, and giving charity generously to the poor. Through good deeds, the Heavenly courts give consideration to the deceased, saying that this is proof that the deceased was a good person since he (or she) left a relative that engaged in such good acts.

On the Shabbat that inevitably comes during the mourning period, public mourning is suspended. Only acts of mourning that are done in private, such as marital relations are forbidden. As soon as the Shabbat ends, the mourner returns to his "shivah".

On the last day of mourning, after the morning prayers, the mourning period of "shiva" ends. In many communities, the mourner is told to get up. Some have the practice of having the mourner walk around the block that everyone should see that the period of mourning is over.

The period of "sheloshim" is a continuation from the mourning period. "Shloshim" is Hebrew meaning thirty and refers to this thirty-day period which began from the burial. Although the mourner no longer sits on low stools and is forbidden all the above activities, his participation in the outer world is still curtailed. He (or she) still refrains from attending events that are happy in their nature, such as weddings and concerts. He (or she) still does not get a haircut or finger nails clipped.

If the mourning is for a parent, then the mourning period continues the entire year and "kaddish" is said for eleven months. If the mourning is for another relative, then the mourning period, including the recitation of "kadish" ends with the "shloshim" The mourning for the parent is the most intense for two reasons. One reason is that we are most tied to our parents from our early childhood and the loss is the most difficult. The second is that we are obligated to honor our parents more than all other relatives.

By the end of the twelve month mourning period the graveside monument is erected and unveiled as a lasting remembrance of the deceased. Every year thereafter the Yahrzeit - the Hebrew calendar anniversary of the passing of someone near and dear is observed by reciting Kaddish and special memorial prayers, lighting memorial candle and visiting the grave. Special memorial prayers are recited also during Yizkor memorial service, which is conducted four time a year during major Jewish holidays

The rules and customs of mourning are many and vary from community to community. The above guide only touches on only several of the very basic of traditional Jewish values. In times of need, the aid of a qualified and knowledgeable Rabbi for guidance is recommended.


from the February 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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