Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Death As Viewed in Judaism

Nadene Goldfoot                                                              

Life is valued the highest in Judaism.  We all come from one person, our mother, and taking a life is like destroying the entire world.  Saving a life is like saving the whole world.  It is considered the highest mitzva, or good deed.

Therefore, when one hears that a beloved friend dies after you try to talk them out of it, one feels the heartbreak.  You know that in a sane mind, your friend would never do such a thing, and only through great despair and utter depression has this happened;  a whole world has been shattered.

Because life is so valuable, we are not permitted to do anything to bring death upon ourselves or others, even to prevent suffering.  We are not permitted to use euthanasia, suicide or assisted suicide as this is strickly forbidden by Jewish law.  The Talmud even tells us that we cannot move a dying person's arms if that would shorten his life.  However, if the friend is suffering, and you know death will come naturally soon, his life does not need artificial prolonging.  We may "pull the plug" or refuse extraordinary means of prolonging a life in these cases.

When a person dies, the soul must have time purifying itself before it can enter the World to Come.  This purification period takes at the most, twelve months which would be the length of time for the most evil of us.  We do not want to imply that our parent was an evil person, so twelve months of reciting Kaddish is not used, and instead eleven months is enough.  If the parents of the deceased are also deceased, then another close relative may recite the Kaddish for them.

Death is not looked on as a tragedy, but as a natural process.  This comes as all part of G-d's plan.  We do have a firm belief in afterlife, a world to come.  There, people who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded.

Mourning practices are detailed but not out of fear or distaste for death.  The steps taken are to show respect for the dead called kavod ha-met, and to comfort the living, nihum avelim, who will certainly miss the departed.

We realize that we can break almost any of our 613 Jewish laws to save a human life, because the most important job we have is to sustain life.

We should mark a grave with a tombstone which are traditionally unveiled 12 months after burial.  A person is to be buried within 24 hours after death.  A person does not have any blood extracted from his body.  He or she is washed by a group of tending Jews who will watch over the body.  These Shomerim are watching and sit with the body until burial.  When a person dies, the eyes are to be closed and the body is laid on the floor and covered.  Candles are placed next to them and lit.

Cremation  has not been the acceptable method of dealing with the deceased.  A person is buried in the earth.  A coffin is not required, but usually a wooden one is used in the United States.  In Israel, where wood is so hard to come by, they are buried in their shroud.  A wooden casket has holes drilled in them so the body does come in contact with the earth.

If a parent, sibling, spouse or child hears of a death, it is traditional that they show their sorrow by tearing one's clothing over their heart if  a parent, or on the right side of the chest for others.  Then they say a blessiing describing G-d as the true Judge and an acceptance of G-d's taking of the life of the dear one.

Open casket funerals are not the tradition in a Jewish death.  This is forbidden.  After the burial, a close relative or friend has everyone to their home for the first meal for the mourners, the se'udat havra'ah.  Traditionally, it will be hard boiled eggs as this is a symbol of life and bread.  The meal is for the family only, not for visitors and after this time, condolence calls can be made.

After this comes the time of seven shiva days, where the family sits shiva.  They gather in the deceased's home on the day of burial and continues until the morning of the seventh day after burial.  The mourners may sit on low stools or the floor instead of chairs.  They should not wear leather shoes or shave or cut their nair during this period.  The women will not wear make-up, and work is not done.  The will not do anything of pleasure, even showering or bathing, have sex, wear fresh clothing or study Torah.  They will wear the clothes that they tore at the time of hearing about the death or at the funeral.  Mirrors in the home are to be covered.  Ten people are needed for certain prayers that are to be said.  Condolence calls are made to the home of the mourner but speaking is not necessary. They expected you and are grateful for your attendance.  When you visit a mourner, you usually say, "May the Lord comfort you with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

Following the time of shiva is a 30 day period called shloshim (30).  This period is a time of not attending any parties or celebrations, cutting hair or listening to music.  It is the time from the burial to the 30th day.

Avelut is the final period of mourning with is only for parents mourning their child which lasts for twelve months after a burial.  They are to avoid parties, celebrations, theater and concerts.  It lasts for eleven months starting at the time of burial.  The son of the deceased recites the Kaddish every day during this period.  The Kaddish, said in Hebrew, is "May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed.  May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your day...."and continues in much that way.  The real mourner's prayer is El Molai Rachamim, which is recited at the grave.

When someone dies, it is a great loss to those who knew this person.  The mourner stands up every day in front of 10 people, the minyan, and reaffirms their faith in G-d  even though they have suffered this great loss.  This insures the person mourned in the eyes of G-d because it shows that he or she raised their children to have such strong faith at a time of their greatest loss.

In Israel I attended the tombstone unveiling of my friend's parent.  After the ceremony, she had us come to her car in the cemetery where she gave us all a piece of cake.  That seemed to be a new tradition that was very nice.


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