Knowing that the death of a loved one is inevitable, early rabbis developed practices for death and mourning that are still relevant today. Although our tradition can seem rigid at times, I find there is much that is helpful and meaningful in our Jewish ritual practices for mourning and the end of life.
Since ancient times, the first thing a Jewish community established was sacred burial ground and a place to prepare bodies for burial, according to a strict set of ritual obligations fulfilled by the Chevra Kadisha, the “holy society” responsible for caring for the bodies of the dead. Members of the Chevra Kadisha are responsible for respecting the set of obligations related to purification of the deceased’s body, and their work is especially sacred because the recipient can never return the attention.
Depending on the level of our observance, Jewish rituals related to death and mourning can be strict or soft, but they are there for us to take comfort in. The Mourner’s Kaddish is an ancient Aramaic text, but contemporary prayers, songs and readings exist to round out the traditional practices. After a death, the Shiva lasts seven days, and family, community members and friends can visit the mourners in their home to share in their grief and offer comfort. Many of us have been to a Shiva house or participated in a Shiva minyan, and we can attest to how meaningful it can be. I like the custom of bringing food to a Shiva house, since in our grief we often can’t take care of ourselves optimally. And when we show up for mourners in their grief, it matters.
While other traditions honour death and grief in their own ways with sombre funerals, memorial services, several days of singing and dancing, rousing wakes, or uplifting “celebrations of life,” few other traditions that I know of continue to observe and honour other benchmarks of time for a full year after a death, in particular after the death of a parent.
In December, a few of us held a casual service and ritual in honour of the 30 days that followed the death of my friend’s beloved step-father. The term for the 30 days of mourning after a death is Shloshim, and, traditionally, a study service or ritual is held to mark the end of this period. In our case, it was the only mourning ritual held for and by us in Ottawa, since our loved one had died in Europe. We gathered in my friend’s home to share stories and memories. We were several generations united and committed to sharing our love and our hopes for healing. This was the first Shloshim service I had participated in in a home, but sometimes we hold these types of events with Or Haneshamah, my congregation, when we gather to study a sacred text or topic from a Jewish perspective, in honour of the deceased.
Shloshim, and other obligations such as saying the Mourner’s Kaddish during a minyan, or remembering loved ones during Yizkor services, means that our tradition acknowledges that grief and mourning are ongoing and the pain of loss shifts and changes over time.
Traditional Jews practise other prohibitions especially in the case of the death of a parent. These practices of mourning last one year and include not listening to live music, not participating in festive feasts or celebrations, and not cutting beards or hair. Another friend of mine told me she found the obligations helpful rather than onerous in her state of grief, because she didn’t feel up to attending parties and concerts in any case, and her obligation to forgo them gave her an “out,” a free pass, that she could use in secular society. Like our obligations around food, doing things mindfully and differently when we are grieving does not so much remind us of our loss, but rather makes space for it.
Our tradition is ancient and imperfect, but it is so wise. Like our calendar with its seasonally resonant rhythm of festivals and holidays, and our weekly celebration of Shabbat, living Jewishly can help us feel grounded in our constantly shifting contemporary world.
When we gathered for our Shloshim service, we held space for each other. We held space for our love and for our sorrow, and, in so doing, we held each other up in compassion.
Ufros Aleynu sukkat shelomeha. Shelter us with peace, Oh God; let us feel the refuge of your love.
Dedicated to Eelco Buitenhuis, in blessed memory.