Themes in Death and Mourning

Though traditional sources on the laws of mourning are quite detailed and specific, an acquaintance with this legal literature reveals a number of overarching themes and principles.

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Excerpted with permission from "Death and Mourning: A Time for Weeping, A Time for Healing," inCelebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

One of the ritual areas about which American Jews are least knowledgeable is death and mourning. Many--perhaps most--Jews celebrate birth, coming of age, and marriage in the context of Jewish tradition. But death is more often observed the American way than the Jewish way. Not only does this abandoning of Jewish practice diminish the dignity and meaning of the rites of closure, it also denies the mourners rich opportunities for conso­lation.

With hospice care for the terminally ill becoming more common, many people will find themselves pres­ent at the moment of death. Overwhelmed by the loss and sorely in need of expressing both grief and love, persons not schooled in Jewish patterns of behavior will not know what to do when death occurs.

But those who are familiar with the rites of mourning do know what initial steps to take to preserve the dignity of the deceased and ease the pain. They would immediately rend their garment and recite the words barukh dayyan emet--blessed is the just judge--a brief statement suggesting that as unjust as the death may seem, Judaism asks one to believe that God has reasons for His actions. They would not leave the corpse alone but remain in the room and begin to recite psalms. For a person who feels confused and bereft upon wit­nessing the death of a loved one, these time-honored structures serve to comfort.

[The chapter from which this is excerpted] presents an overview of the laws of mourning, sketching in the general contours and even some details. These laws come to us from the Bible, the Talmud, and more recent Jewish codes of law, in particular the Shulhan Arukh, first published in 1565. As specific and situation-oriented as the laws of mourning in these works are, anyone who is steeped in this literature begins to notice that a number of princi­ples predominate.

Easing the Burden of Mourning

The first is halakhah ke-divrei ha-mekel be-evel, that is, in matters of mourning we rule according to the more lenient opinion (Mo'ed Katan 19b) (all references are to the Babylonian Talmud). From the time that an early talmudic master named Samuel formulated this principle, it was invoked whenever there was a conflict of opinion on how to proceed. What it seems to reflect is a sense on the part of the rabbis that dealing with death is so difficult that whatever accommodations can be made to ease the burden of mourning should be made.

Equality in Death and Mourning

A second general principle that emerges from the talmudic material is that death is the great leveler. Whereas elsewhere in Jewish law, partic­ularly in marriage and synagogue ritual, women are treated as subordi­nate to men, in death they achieve parity. It makes no difference if it was a man or woman, a father or a mother, who died or who mourns: The same rules apply to both sexes. Just as a man is buried, so is a woman buried; in the same way that a man observes rites of mourning, so a woman observes rites of mourning. The final acts of kindness performed for the deceased know no gender differentiation.

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Judith Hauptman

Judith Hauptman is a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A popular lecturer on Judaism and feminism, she is the author of Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice.