– “I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great”. Such are the first words spoken by a pious Jew every morning, even before he opens his eyes, gets out of bed, and starts a new day. They express his gratitude for another day of life, for the postponement of death. Life is a stage of existence; by repeating our everyday prayers, with each step we are meeting death at our side – this life’s consequence and fulfilment. The Kaddish, although it is also recited as a prayer for the dead, is an affirmation of life and the praise of the Creator. The Jewish space of death is multilayered, entangled, and stretched across the whole of life. The embryo and the foetus is water at first, and it reaches a certain degree of independence at the moment of birth. Each night equals brushing against death, and the risk that your soul might not return to your body. Each new year brings fear of the sentence, accompanied with the wish: “May you be inscribed for the next, good year of life.”
The minyan (ten adult Jews) praying at the synagogue turn towards the mourner several times, in order to include themselves in the Kaddish he recites. Leading the dead to his resting place is a mitzvah – a religious duty nearly as important as studying the Torah. Whoever sees a funerary procession, he must join it for several steps, and then follow it at least with his gaze.
The Torah-derived law – the Halakha – is a rich source of prohibitions and prescriptions relating to illness, death, and mourning, which branch out into the minhags – traditional customs, reinforced by folk practices and superstitions. Familiarisation of death also happens through a language full of euphemisms, the world of funerary symbols, through mourning orchestrated into gestures, conversations, and prayers – the whole mysterium mortis judeorum.
And after all, Judaism gives its followers, as well as those religions which have sprung from it, the belief in the immortality of soul, in ephemerality of life, and in resurrection.
In proportion to the difficulties pertaining to the life’s beginnings, its end is guarded with many rules and imperatives. Suicide and euthanasia are firmly rejected in the orthodox Judaism. The sick may not be deprived of the hope of healing, and those surrounding the ailing person who are aware of the inevitable parting may only gently suggest that he sets his accounts straight with God and people. The dying person should not be left alone, and he should be persuaded to confess his sins, in the viddui, either by pronouncing them out loud, or in this heart only. Often the last words of the dying man are: “May my death be an atonement for my sins”.
At the moment of death, the congregation say the prayer of Shema Yisrael – “Hear, O Israel” – and they emphatically prolong the ending of the first phrase: the word echad, meaning ‘one’. The departed cannot be left alone. At least one person should keep wake by the body, reciting psalms in the glow of constantly burning candles. In the room where the dead body is laid, neither eating nor drinking is allowed; it is also forbidden to perform religious deeds which the departed can no longer perform himself.
Death is verified by bringing a feather to the dead person’s lips. The eyes are forced shut, often by placing coins upon them, and the mouth is closed as well. The body should be laid down on the ground and covered with a shroud. Preparing the body for the funeral – by washing and dressing it, and placing it within the coffin – is the task of Chevra kadisha,the “pious fraternity,” or “holy group.” Haste is prescribed – the funeral should take place as soon as possible, even on the day of the death. In general, family should not authorise autopsy to be performed. Also exhumation of the body is only allowed in very special cases, and at a request of the local authorities. The dead must not be buried, or even the cemetery entered, on Sabbath and certain holidays.
Tradition has it that all water should be poured out of any open vessels within the house, often these vessels are also purposefully broken. The windows are open wide, which signals the death to the neighbours. Often all mirrors are covered as well, and comfortable furniture removed – the mourners seat themselves either on the ground, or on very low stools (today the latter are often disposable).
Chevra kadisha, the “pious fraternity,” or “holy group,” is a kind of voluntary service that enjoys great universal respect. We know for certain that such fraternities existed since the 14th century, first in Spain and Germany, and initially their activity was limited to organising burials of their own members; until rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi of Prague established a fraternity which served all dead. From that moment on, washing the body, clothing it, and placing it in the coffin became the pious deeds of the Chevra kadisha members. One cannot accept payment for such a service, and neither must one pride oneself in performing it. Remaining from the former Krakovian group is a stone bench outside the Remuh synagogue [in the picture on the left], which once used to serve for washing bodies. Groups also still exist, both male and female, ready to perform the ultimate service.
The burial ceremony consists of the funerary procession, the internment itself, as well as the closing ceremonies. The dead is buried in a simple coffin; if he is a man, he should be clothed in a white shirt, and wear a tallit with the knotted fringes cut off, as a sign that he cannot pray any more. There are different traditions ruling the transportation of the body: sometimes the procession starts from the cemetery gate, sometimes from the home of the deceased; some carry the coffin upon their shoulders, others hold it low, with their arms down. The coffin is usually placed with the top pointing towards Jerusalem, and above the dead man’s head, a handful of soil from Israel is cast. Covering the grave is a pious deed, and a duty of men present at the funeral. After the grave is made, the Zidduk ha-Din prayer is recited – “the acceptance of the sentence”; the mourners then continue with one of the versions of the Kaddish.
The final part of the funeral takes place at some distance from the grave, often in the funerary building. The men who have gathered at the burial form two lines, and mourners pass between them; if weather allows, they walk barefoot. The congregated tell them: “May the Almighty comfort you among all the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem,” and the mourners recite Kaddish Yatom (Orphan’s Kaddish), and all persons present join them1:
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Congregation; Amen.) in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, swiftly and soon. Now respond: Amen. (Cong Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.) May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He(Cong. Blessed is He) beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now respond: Amen. (Cong. Amen). May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen. (Cong. Amen). Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen. (Cong. Amen).
This prayer, recited only in the presence of a minyan, returns in the next stages of mourning: the mourner recites it during religious services for the next eleven months, and then again on the Yortsayt – the death anniversary.
Afterwards, the funeral party wash their hands and proceed to the wake. The body remains in earth, while the soul of the righteous one attains reward – either immediately, or it wanders to the valley of Gehinom – or Gehenna, the Jewish place of punishment, where at God’s decree it shall spend the prescribed time, usually twelve months. This is just one of many views of the afterlife.
In Yiddish, cemetery is called Beit Olam, ‘house of the world’, or Gut Ort, ‘the good place’. The term “kirkut” derives from the German and has negative undertones. Rising above the graves are the matzevas– head stones; the inscriptions list the Hebrew name of the dead, date of his passing away, the praise for his virtues, and the wish that the soul should be bound in the knot of life. Although everyone is equal in the face of death, a Jewish cemetery has its hierarchy and geography: the most noteworthy get ohels — ‘tents’ raised over their graves, with “kvitlech” prayer notes soon appearing upon them – these are little paper notes with admonitions to intercede in prayer. It is not traditional to bring flowers, but instead candles are lit and little stones placed upon the graves. The latter are partly reminiscent of burials performed while wandering through the desert, when corpses buried in the sand had to be thus safeguarded against scavengers.
The tradition teaches that the first man to die, Abel, was buried by the Original Parents, Adam and Eve, in the ground. Helpless in the face of death, they observed a raven which buried another dead bird in the soil. The dead await resurrection and Final Judgement in their graves. Their peace must not be disrupted, and the bodies must not be disturbed. Orthodoxy rejects cremation (to which adds the trauma of the holocaust) and exhumation of the body. Some communities do not cover the coffin with a lid. Orientation of the body laid on the back in the grave may vary – facing to or away from Jerusalem; however, the “squatting” burial position is nothing more than a myth. The matzevah over the new grave appears only after the period of mourning is finished.
In the instruction of religious law, ‘The Gates of Halakha’ 2, a whole separate chapter is devoted to death and mourning, with as many as fifty-nine passages in it. One should mourn their parents, children, siblings, and spouse. The first stage of mourning, called aninut,lasts from the moment of death till the funeral. The mourner may not eat meat, drink wine, shave or cut his hair, bathe, or use cosmetics. He should avoid taking meals in company, and he is not allowed to greet others. He may not recite several important prayers and blessings. The funeral itself is a public display of mourning: one tears apart several layers of his clothing, while halakha defines the exact manner of this, depending on the degree of kin.
The second stage of mourning – called the shiva – lasts for a week since the burial (covering the grave with earth). The mourner should not leave the house throughout this period. There are restrictions as to the manner of dress; clothes cannot be freshly washed, leather shoes are not allowed, and there are limitations as to permissible hygienic procedures – one may not clip his nails, shave, or trim his hair.
What is prescribed is the study of mournful psalms, the book of Job, and Jeremiah laments. The morning prayer on the seventh day, and the words of consolation: “May the Almighty comfort you among all the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem” conclude the shiva.
And so begins the third stage of mourning – called shloshim (lit. thirty), and lasting for twenty-three days up to the thirtieth day after the funeral. During that period, restrictions pertaining to hygiene and social life should be maintained, however, both shiva,and shloshim may be lifted, if there is a holiday during the time. The mourning period after the death of family members lasts for thirty days, only the mourning after one’s parents lasts longer; in that case mostly social restrictions and prescribed prayers (Kaddish) remain in force.
The halakhic memory of the dead returns on the occasion of holidays and special remembrance prayers (Yizkor), as well as on the anniversary of death (yortsayt).
Jewish angelology and demonology mingles with midrashim and popular tales. Adam’s first wife, the demon Lilith, may be tricked, and thus not allowed to kidnap a new-born infant. The Angel of Death can also be fooled, and that in the full majesty of the Torah. When prayers for the sick are held at the synagogue, their names are exchanged to new ones – if saved, the person who was spared from death should keep his or her new name during the liturgy (for instance, when called out to read the Torah).
I am finishing this essay just after the Rosh Hashanah celebrations – the Jewish New Year. Still sounding in my ears is one of the prayers, made popular by Leonard Cohen is his song titled “Who by fire”…
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague…
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
Translated from Polish by Dorota Wąsik