Celebrating Aging

The author shares the process of using Jewish texts and customs to celebrate a new stage of life.

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I included portions of the Sabbath service because I envisioned Simchat Hochmah [literally, a "the joy of wisdom"] to be a truly Jewish ritual that springs from specifically Jewish roots. The highlights of the Sabbath service include carrying the scrolls and reading the weekly Torah portion. Carrying the scrolls and reading from Torah were a deeply moving experience for someone who had been allowed on the bimah [the platform facing the Ark where the scrolls are kept] only on her wedding day. It was as though I had been accepted as a full Jewish person for the first time in my life!

Unlike the terse sentences that report the deaths of the patriarchs, there is an entire chapter in Genesis dedicated to the death and burial of the matriarch Sarah. One of the reasons for this exceptional treatment is because of Sarah's status as mother of a people, of a life reflected in death; but I think it was also symbolic of the magnitude of mortality in the lifecycle. I believe that the detailed description of Sarah's death and burial established her position in life, her mortality, and the wisdom of the immortality of her essence. Genesis 23, then, teaches us the internalization of death in the lifecycle.

Wearing White

How to face mortality in one's own ceremony is a difficult proposition, to say the least. It was feminist scholar Drorah Setel's inspiration that led me to consider wearing a kittel. The kittel is a white ceremonial robe worn by some congregants on solemn occasions such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during one's lifetime, and serves in death as the shroud. In this way the body is clothed in the same manner in the sanctity of life as… in the sanctity of death. It is symbolic, in the larger scheme of things, of the cycle of life and death in harmony with the cosmos.

I began the ceremony wearing an ancient robe, woven and made by women of Macedonia, which I had bought some years ago in Yugoslavia. Halfway into the ritual, I changed into a white linen galabie that I had brought with me from Jerusalem, where I had been that summer. The galabie is a simple garment, like a long shirtdress, the customary attire of Middle Eastern men and women. This garment was particularly meaningful to me because my cultural background is Syrian and the galabie was worn by my ancestors.

I think that anyone seriously considering taking part in a Simhat Hochmah ritual should include the experience of wearing a kittel, the garment they will be buried in. It is a sobering occurrence and was, perhaps, the most moving part of the ritual.

Making a Covenant or Promise

Another element from the Sarah and Abraham story that I chose to include in the ritual was a covenant or a promise. A covenant is a solemn commitment that binds two parties to fulfill an agreement in which each is rewarded by the action of the other. A promise is an assurance by one person to fulfill an agreement, perhaps give a reward, but the rewarding is not reciprocal.

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Savina J. Teubal

Savina J. Teubal (1926-2005) was the author of the books Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis and Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah, as well as many essays and articles about biblical characters and eldering rituals.