When it comes to Jewish funeral traditions, there are quite a few things you need to understand.
Whether you’re going to attend a Jewish funeral, or just curious about the topic, this guide will give you all the important traditions.
We discuss the funeral process and answer some of the most common questions about a Jewish funeral.
Later we talk about customs on burial, mourning, prayers, and provide some recommendations on funeral etiquette.
Jewish Funeral Service: Rituals & Customs
Judaism is basically comprised of three denominations, which in some instances have variations in their rituals and customs.
For the most part, we include the views that are shared by all denominations. For instance, all Jews believe they will attain holiness if they follow the laws laid out in the old testament.
The Role of the Chevra Kadisha
The Chevra kadisha is the Jewish organization that handles the funeral arrangements of the deceased.
Their role includes ensuring that the body is properly prepared according to Jewish law.
One important responsibility is washing and dressing the body and protecting it until the funeral takes place.
Orthodox Vs Reform Judaism Rituals
The three denominations within Judaism are reform, conservative, and orthodox.
The differences largely depend on the degree to which they observe traditional beliefs.
Reform is the most modern, free-thinking, and less observant of traditional Jewish law.
Orthodox have strict observance of Jewish law.
Conservatives are somewhere between the other two.
The Usual Funeral Process
The Hebrew word for funeral is levaya, which means honoring the deceased by accompanying them to their grave.
The funeral will take place at a synagogue, funeral home, or the entire process may happen at the cemetery. The process can vary, but there are a few standard elements.
Time Between Death and Burial
As soon as possible after death, the Rabbi or funeral home should be contacted, so that the arrangements can begin. A speedy burial is extremely important.
It’s believed that this is one of the most important ways to honor the deceased.
Within 24-hours is preferred, if it’s possible.
They feel that it disrespects the dead to leave the body unburied.
Immediately after death a few rituals are performed, which will be discussed in more detail later.
During the Funeral
The funeral usually begins with several readings. Afterward, the eulogies are read and then the memorial prayer is last.
At that time, the deceased is moved to the gravesite.
One of the most popular memorial prayers asks God to grant perfect peace to the departed and to remember their good deeds.
Readings at the beginning of the funeral are frequently Psalms 23, 15, 24, 90, and 103. Eulogies are read by the rabbi as well as a few family members.
Dignity Memorial Jewish has many prayers for this occasion.
It is mandated by Jewish law that the casket must be a simple box, preferably made from pine with no metal.
Sometimes holes are cut at the bottom, in order to hasten the decomposition of the body.
Common questions about a Jewish Funeral
Below are answers to the most commonly asked questions.
How long does a Jewish Funeral last?
The time can vary depending on whether the deceased was a well-known person or not, the number of people who will speak, and the wishes of the family.
However it is rarely longer than one hour.
Is the Funeral in Hebrew?
A Jewish funeral is likely to be in both English and Hebrew. In some cases, there may be a book that translates the Hebrew to English. It depends on the denomination and the family’s wishes.
Can Jews be Cremated?
Whether cremation is allowed usually depends on the sect of Judaism observed.
Orthodox, does not allow cremation. They believe the body should be buried intact.
Reform Judaism has become open to the cremation process, and Rabbis are usually willing to officiate at a funeral or burial.
Although conservative denominations are still opposed to cremation, the Rabbi may still officiate at the funeral for the ashes, but rarely at the burial.
Can they be Embalmed?
Unless required by law, embalming or cosmetic procedures are not allowed.
The same goes for autopsies, however if it is mandated by law, a rabbi may be present if possible.
Why do Jews cover mirrors when someone dies?
This tradition is from very old customs and superstitions. There are many opinions about the significance of this action.
It is thought that the mourners should concentrate on God and on the soul of the departed instead of dwelling on their own vanity.
After the conclusion of the funeral, the casket is carried by hand to the burial site if possible, usually by family and close friends.
Being a pallbearer is considered a great privilege.
Burial Time: What does Jewish Law state?
As mentioned, Jewish law mandates that the burial should take place within 24 hours after death. However, this is not always possible.
Funerals are prohibited on the Sabbath, therefore it’s allowable to wait until Sunday.
Other reasons for delay would be if close relatives must travel from abroad and it will take more than 24 hours.
Burial is also not allowed on some Jewish holidays.
Other Burial rules and customs
Time of Death Rituals
After death, the entire body must be washed thoroughly. It is then submerged in water or it’s poured over the body, which is a ritual bath called “taharah”.
The deceased is then dressed in white burial shrouds.
However if the deceased was injured and there is blood on the clothing, then the washing is not completed.
Their belief is that a person’s blood is just as important as his life and should be buried with the body.
After Death Rituals
As soon as death occurs, someone must guard (A guard is called a Shomer) the body at all times until the funeral, frequently done by the Chevra kadisha.
In some denominations, the immediate family members tear their clothing to symbolize their loss.
Those who will not attend the burial may escort the casket for a short distance, as it’s carried to the gravesite.
The pallbearers stop seven times on route to the burial site, symbolizing their reluctance to let go of their loved one.
If you are ever at a Jewish cemetery, you will likely notice stones that have been placed on the grave markers.
People have varying reason for this ritual. It tells someone visiting the grave that other mourners have been there as well.
Others feel that it means they are never finished building a monument for the departed.
At the gravesite, the mourners sit and the attendees stand around the grave. If the tearing of their clothing was not done before, the Rabbi sometimes does it for them at that time.
Someone chants from Psalms while the casket is lowered into the grave. At that time the Rabbi recites, typically in Hebrew, “May he or she go to his or her resting place in peace.”
The mourners then stand and say the Mourner’s Kaddish, which reaffirms their belief in God. As they pass, they fill the grave with dirt by passing a shovel to one another.
They must use the convex side of the shovel. The shovel cannot be passed hand to hand, but should be placed into the dirt and then retrieved by the next mourner.
Some take grass from the ground and throw it behind them. This signifies their renewed awareness of their own mortality.
It would be rare for a wake or visitation to take place, due to the urgency to bury.
Instead, the family gathers and tears their clothing in a visible place such as a lapel or pocket. This symbolizes that they are in mourning.
This is sometimes done at the gravesite by the rabbi or a piece of black torn material is pinned to their clothing.
Mourning & Bereavement Customs
There are two periods of mourning.
What is Shiva?
Shiva meaning seven, is the first period of mourning. It begins immediately after burial and lasts for seven days.
During this time, the family does not participate in their normal daily routine, which includes going to work.
A candle is also burned for the entire duration of shiva.
What is shloshim?
The second mourning period is shloshim, meaning thirty, which begins the first day after the funeral.
Family resumes their daily routine, but will recite Mourner’s Kaddish, also known as the mourner’s prayer for 30 days.
If the deceased is a parent, the Kaddish is said for one year.
If you’re attending a Jewish funeral and unfamiliar with the customs, below are a few tips on proper etiquette.
The best thing to remember is to dress conservatively.
Men should wear a jacket, tie, and a yarmulke, which is a head covering.
Women should wear a skirt or dress with a length that reaches at least below the knee and their shoulders must be covered.
Women should not wear open-toe shoes. A head covering is typically not necessary.
What to say at a Jewish funeral?
You’re not expected to say anything during the funeral, which mainly consist of prayer.
When speaking to the bereaved, simply express your sympathy for their loss and perhaps say something nice about the deceased.
What Not to Say
As with any religion, don’t inquire about the cause of death or try to comfort by saying things such as, “I know how you feel.”
What to bring to a Jewish funeral?
Flowers are not generally part of a Jewish funeral, so they shouldn’t be sent or brought to the funeral.
After the burial, the family is in mourning and they abstain from their normal daily duties, including cooking. Therefore, bringing food is an excellent option.
It may be a good idea to inquire about the types of food to bring. A basket containing baked goods, dried fruit, chocolate, and nuts, is a very nice choice.
What do you send if not attending?
Contributing to a charity, such as the United Jewish Appeal, would be an excellent gesture. Many people send a condolence card as well.
Remember, a Jewish funeral is a quiet and somber occasion. It’s good to keep that in mind when attending the funeral, expressing condolences, or giving gifts.
Because they are in mourning and unable to do their normal chores, it could be most useful if you offered your services in some way.
Cleaning the home, preparing meals, or even babysitting could be a great comfort at their time of loss.