The Tabernacle Times
October 2018 ......................... Tishrei - Cheshvan 5779 ......................... Volume 13 Issue 10

Death, Burial, and Mourning

Angela Kunkel
Angela Renee Kunkel
  In Jewish thought, both life and death are part of the divine plan for the world. Life is deemed the highest good, and human beings are obliged to cherish it and preserve it. One should be concerned as much with the preservation of the lives of others, based on the mitzvah (commandment) to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). In view of the high value attached to life, the most perplexing event is death, which puts an end to a human being and his or her achievements. achievements. When the body is transported to the cemetery, relatives and close friends are honored by being pallbearers. Escorting the dead to their resting place is considered an extremely important symbol of respect. This act is called “the true kindness”, an act of genuine selflessness since one can expect no reciprocation. In former days, pallbearers were barefoot as they carried the body on their shoulders. They made several stops so others could participate in this religious act. Today the procession stops or pauses at least three times en route to the grave to recite Psalm 91. As the coffin is lowered into the grave, those present say, “May he (or she) come to his (or her) place of peace”. Those gathered for the burial, then help fill the grave so they can physically take part in the mitzvah of burying

Tradition emphasizes respect for the dying and the dead as well as favor and honor to the last wishes of one who is dying. Jacob (Genesis 49:29) and Joseph (Genesis 50:25) both made final requests to have their remains taken out of Egypt so they could be buried in the land of their fathers. Solomon also heeded the death bed advice of his father David (1Kings 2:1-9) to take revenge on his enemies.

The “herva kadisha” (“Holy Society”) is the group that is charged with the responsibility of preparing a body for burial in accordance with Jewish customs. “Taharah” (cleansing or purification) is the ceremony of washing the dead before burial. This is done by thoroughly pouring lukewarm water over the entire body. The basis for this ritual cleansing of the body is, “As he came out of his mother’s womb, so must he depart at last, naked as he came” (Ecclesiastes 5:14). Just as a newborn baby is washed immediately after birth and enters the world clean and pure, so must the body be washed for burial. In addition, the hair is combed and the fingernails and toenails are cut.

In the early Talmudic period, all Jews were buried in a simple garment known as a shroud (tachrichim). This shroud was made of inexpensive muslin, cotton, or linen—to indicate that the rich and poor alike are equal before the Holy One. No jewelry or adornments are placed on the body for “when a person departs from this world, neither silver, nor gold, nor precious stones, nor pearls escort him, but only Torah study and good deeds (Pirkei Avot 6:9). Traditionally, a mans shroud consists of seven parts—a headpiece, pants, shirt, belt, kitel (robe), tallit, and sheet. One of the tzitzit (fringes) is cut indicating that this person is no longer required to perform the commandments.

Coffins were not used by the ancient Israelites. The deceased was simply buried on a bed of intertwined reeds. Coffins were used only to honor specific individuals (such as a Kohen—Priest), to hide the site of a badly burned or maimed person, or to avoid a public health hazard (such as an individual who died of a contagious disease). The only reference to a coffin in the Bible is the one in which Joseph was kept (Genesis 50:26). Traditional Jews use a plain wooden coffin with no nails, metal, or decoration. This coffin is usually made of pine or other inexpensive soft wood that decomposes rapidly. Wooden coffins are preferred over metal, for metal is symbolic of war. The Hebrew word for coffin is “Aron” and has the same base as that used in the ark in the synagogue (Aron Kodesh—Holy Ark) that holds the Torah scroll. The body is honored as the holy vessel that contained the soul and is rightly treated with the utmost reverence and respect.

The purpose of the funeral service is to pay tribute to the departed and console the mourners. For centuries, funerals took place either at the residence of the deceased or at the cemetery. Today, most families choose to use a funeral chapel then go directly to the graveside for burial. In ancient Israel receiving a decent burial was of great importance. The Bible allots an entire chapter (Genesis 23) to Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah as a family tomb. During the Israelite period, the typical tomb was a natural cave or chamber cut into a soft rock. It was considered a sign of disrespect to leave unburied the deceased. And providing a decent burial for a stranger ranked with giving bread to the hungry and garments to the naked.

A prompt burial is considered a matter of respect for the dead. The Bible recounts that Sarah (Genesis 23) and Rachel (Genesis 35:19) were buried promptly. This respect was also given to the body of a man who had been hanged. Rather than you permit the corpse to remain on the tree all night, “You…must bury him the same day” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Therefore, Jewish law generally requires that burial take place within 24 hours after death. However, proper “honor of the dead”—coffin preparation, shrouds made, and to await arrival of close relatives—may justify some delay, but never more than three days. Funerals are not held on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, or on the first day of festivals. Jewish tradition opposes the practice of viewing the body before burial. When there is a need to bury two people at the same time, a scholar takes place over an “average citizen”, and the burial of a woman is always performed before that of a man. Instead of flowers, it is proper to send a donation in honor of the deceased to a synagogue or to a charity selected by the family.

Funeral services normally begin with one or more Psalms. Psalm 23 (The L~rd is my shepherd) and Psalm 121 (I will lift up my eyes to the mountains) are the most often used. For a woman, “A woman of valor” (Proverbs 31) is recited. The central part of the funeral service is the eulogy to pay tribute, but this is to be done without overstating his or her character traits or
            (Continued at top of next column)
  the dead.

Sounding the Shofar

Since ancient times graves have been marked with a stone or monument. The first tombstone mentioned in the Bible is the monument that Jacob erected over the grave of his beloved Rachel (Genesis 35:20). There is a custom when leaving the grave site to place a small stone on the marker. This may hearken back to the ancient tradition of marking the grave with a pile of stones. Conversely, it may be the end result of the custom of writing notes to the deceased and pushing them in crevices in the headstone (just as notes are pushed into the cracks in the western wall in Jerusalem). When no crevice could be found, the note was weighted down with a stone. In time, the paper disintegrated or blew away leaving only the stone. Later visitors probably assumed that leaving a stone was the
prevailing custom.

Shivah (seven) is considered the most intense period of mourning. Upon returning from the burial is considered the first day of Shivah. The family gathers to “sit shivah” in the home of the deceased. Traditionally, mourners sit on low stools or benches as a desire to stay close to the earth. In the Bible, the typical posture for the mourner was either sitting (Ezekiel 26:16, Job 2:13) or lying on the ground (2 Samuel 13:19, Lamentations 2:21).

It is considered an obligation for relatives and friends to visit during the shivah period to provide comfort, food, and other needs. Bringing foods that are round such as hard boiled eggs, lentils, garbanzo beans, and bagels symbolize the cyclical and continuous nature of life.

The activity of mourners is strictly limited while they are sitting shivah. Mourners do not bathe (except to wash for basic cleanliness), anoint the body, or engage in sexual intercourse. They do not use cosmetics, shave, cut the hair, or wear new clothes. Mourners do not leave the house to perform manual labor, or conduct business transactions. Mourners also refrain from listening to music or watching TV. They are even forbidden to study Torah. Except the books of Job, Lamentations, and parts of Jeremiah are permitted. It is also customary to cover mirrors in the home. The most popular reason for this is that mirrors are a symbol of vanity and the mourner should not be considered with personal appearance. A memorial candle is kept burning in the house throughout the shivah period, even on the Sabbath. In Jewish tradition, the candle is symbolic of the body, while the flame represents the soul that is always reaching upwards (Proverbs 20:27).

The Jewish grieving cycle (minimally) takes a full year when a member of your immediate family has died, the entire community will share grief and sorrow with the bereaved as well. These customs are meant to ease the loneliness of loss. Rituals guide the mourners during a time when thoughts and feelings may be confusing or may vary widely moment to moment.

Our Messiah Yeshua was faced with the reality of death in John 11:1-45 (fully worth reading). In this account, we see mourning and weeping. We also see a hope, for in the midst of sorrow, Yeshua pronounces one of his most well-known sayings, declaring himself to be “the resurrection and the life” and in a startling remark, claims that those who believe in him will never die. In the book of Revelation, John writes of those who follow Yeshua: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). No more death, no more funerals, no more sitting shivah, no more saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. For those who have
put their faith in Yeshua, there will be only
life everlasting.

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