Grieving the Orthodox Way
The formal Jewish rituals surrounding death give bereaved individuals the comforts of tradition and community, even in wartime
By Tevi Troy
I just returned from Israel, where unfortunately Jewish funerals are a frequent topic of conversation right now. My brother lives in Jerusalem, and his family is friends with a soldier who leads a team that runs military funerals. Since the horrors of Oct. 7, he has been running 40 funerals a week, a heavy burden for anyone, let alone a 26-year-old. These funerals follow not only military protocols but religious ones as well. Over thousands of years, Judaism has developed a series of rituals governing funerals and mourning that recognize the pain and tragedy of death, but also give the survivors a path that enables them to move on.
Since I have previously written here about simchas—celebrations—and how they reflect the rich community and faith of the Orthodox Jewish people, I thought it appropriate to use this space now to talk about Jewish funerals, which give comfort and help at our most difficult times.
Preparation and Funeral
It is no secret that Judaism’s rituals surrounding death are very formal. A majority of American Jews do not practice the 613 biblical commandments, but funerals seem to be one thing in which the rituals are observed stringently. You often hear people say that their departed relatives did not observe the commandments in life but wanted to make sure to do everything right in death. The formal nature of the rituals can help the bereaved ones make it through the grieving process. By giving mourners specific roles, duties and assignments, the formal practices can help the bereaved strengthen bonds and get support in the most painful early periods of loss.
Immediately after learning of the loss of a direct relative—parent, spouse, sibling or child—a Jewish mourner becomes what is known as an onein, or pre-mourner. This status persists until the funeral takes place, and while having this status, Jews are not required to abide by positive commandments, specifically those related to prayer. An onein does not put on tefillin/phylacteries, does not say the three daily prayers—morning, afternoon and evening—and does not say the blessings before or after eating.
Some have joked that this “free pass” could be a time when one could ingest cheeseburgers or other unkosher food, but that is not so: It pertains only to positive commandments. Negative commandments, i.e., prohibitions, remain forbidden. Additionally, the bereaved are not allowed to eat meat or drink wine until after the burial.
Before the funeral, the body of the deceased is washed and prepared for burial. The burial society rituals are their own fascinating topic but are beyond the scope of this article, and frankly beyond the scope of my expertise, as I have not participated in them. If you are interested in these rituals, check out my brother Dan’s excellent 1992 piece in Commentary, “The Burial Society.”
The funeral itself is supposed to take place as quickly as possible. The family of the deceased gathers in the funeral hall, and it has become common in America for close friends or relatives to pay their respects as others wait for the service to begin. Friends who are not as close probably will not drop by the family room at the funeral home and will proceed directly to their seats. There is generally a book to sign so that you can make your attendance, and perhaps some brief remembrances, known.
Before the service begins, the mourners (closest relatives) will be aided by the officiant in tearing one of their outer garments, either a jacket or a shirt or both. This practice is a controlled yet cathartic way of expressing grief, and it is usually accompanied by the recitation of a blessing acknowledging God as the “Judge of Truth.”
The casket is closed at Jewish funerals, but it is placed at the front of the funeral hall. Typically, American coffins are made of wood so they can eventually decompose. In contrast, in Israel, which has much less available land for burials and forests, bodies are placed much closer together and in shrouds, not in coffins. Coffins are not used in Israel except at the funerals of Israel Defense Force soldiers.
As people enter the funeral hall, psalms, or Tehillim, will be recited. A rabbi typically begins the service and says a few words about the deceased, while also announcing who else will be speaking. Hespedim, or eulogies, are typically short—five minutes or so—but there are frequently more than one, from multiple generations of the family. When all the eulogies are over, the rabbi will lead the reciting of Kel Maleh Rachamim (“the Lord, who is full of mercy”).
If the service is at the cemetery, the body will be placed in the ground, and the mourners will help shovel dirt onto the coffin. After the burial, the mourners will say the Mourner’s Kaddish (sanctification) prayer for the first of many times over the course of the upcoming year of mourning. If the funeral takes place in a funeral home, a subset of the attendees, usually the closest friends and family, will accompany the family to the cemetery, where the burial takes place.
In a profound and deeply touching ritual, when throwing dirt on the coffin, the bereaved begin with the flat or wrong side of the shovel, to show their reluctance to bury the dead. After that initial—and ineffectual—first shovel, they flip over the implement and do it the standard way. Friends and family line up to help fill the hole. They then form two lines through which the mourners walk out of the cemetery on their way to the car or limousine. As the mourners walk through, the guests for the first time say Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch sha’ar avlei tzion v’yerushalyim—“May the Almighty comfort you along with the other mourners of Zion.” The friends and family then follow that car as it slowly drives away so that the bereaved individuals are not left alone until they depart.
A Year of Mourning
After the funeral, shiva begins. For seven days, mourners are not allowed to shave, bathe for pleasure, wear leather shoes, engage in marital relations or, interestingly, study most areas of Torah (the logic being that it inherently brings people joy). Friends and family visit the house, and the three prayer services take place there, with the Mourner’s Kaddish happening at each service. Services in which the Mourner’s Kaddish is said must have a prayer quorum, or minyan, of 10 adult Jewish men, so the community often helps ensure sufficient attendance for the prayer services.
The mourners do not help with this, as they are precluded from doing any type of work – preparing food, arranging chairs, organizing the services—for the seven-day shiva period. When guests depart, they say the Hamakom blessing, which can be awkward but also gives people something to say. It also universalizes the tragedy, as if to say that all Jews mourn with you and we will all be consoled together.
After the week of shiva is over, the 30-day period of shloshim (Hebrew for 30) continues. Shaving is still not permitted, but the mourners now go to synagogue to say the Kaddish, a ritual that will continue for 11 months in the case of a parent. In the case of a spouse, child or sibling, there’s no obligation to say Kaddish, but it is typically done for only one month. These four periods—onein, shiva, shloshim and availut (the full year of mourning)—help mark time across the first year of morning. I have often seen non-Jewish friends, unsure of what to do after a loved one passes, go right back to work, which I believe gives insufficient time to process grief and leaves the bereaved alone at the most human moment of their lives. The Jewish stages of grief directly accept loss and encourage us to reflect, remember and grieve.
The year of saying the Kaddish prayer three times a day for Orthodox Jews is a challenging one and can interfere with one’s regular schedule. By the time it is over, one feels relief. When I explained the entire process to a Catholic friend, he said to me, even for a Catholic that sounds like a lot. It is indeed, but the formal rituals also help lead us, as a community, through the valley of the shadow of death that has been far too prevalent in recent days.
Tevi Troy is a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Straus Center. He would like to thank Rabbi Steven Pruzansky for his learned assistance on the technical aspects of Orthodox Jewish mourning rituals.