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Holes in the Ritual: Opportunities to Enhance Jewish Mourning Rituals

While I have always found Jewish mourning rituals to be meaningful, providing a structure through which to process one of life’s most difficult moments, I have also noticed over the years a few areas in which these rituals could be augmented to mark significant moments for the mourning family and the community that supports them. As someone who is deeply involved in organizations that specifically address Jewish mourning practices, I am particularly interested in seeing creative additions to the repertoire of Jewish mourning rituals. Some of the hats I proudly wear are those as a member of the faculty of the Gamliel Institute and staff of Kavod v’Nichum. In my work with these organizations I am one of many people who study, practice, teach, and encourage the development and use of Jewish ritual and liturgy to respond to these significant liminal moments surrounding a profound event.

Kavod v’Nichum (Honor & Comfort) is a North American non-profit dedicated to encouraging Jewish communities to take on the mitzvot that honor the person who is now dead (the meit or meitah), and offer comfort and support to those who have now become mourners. The main thrust of Kavod v’Nichum is to help communities to organize, establish, train, support, revitalize, and/or reinvigorate groups or organizations that can take on this sacred work for their community.

The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training and educational arm of Kavod v’Nichum, providing a series of (mostly) online classes, and certification of mastery in the work of the chevrah kadisha, the holy society that takes on the ritual work of honoring the deceased through the rituals that help the transition from living to dead, from body with soul as one, to body separate from soul, while ritually preparing the body to be returned to the earth from which it came, and accompanying and encouraging the soul (as one of our company frequently says, “midwifing the soul”) on its journey. 

The mourning process occurs in stages. Immediately upon learning of a death, the family enters the status of aninut, not quite mourners yet, but a status that acknowledges their loss. Their tasks are related to preparations for the funeral, and making arrangements to sit shiva. Mourners and those who encounter mourners may recite the phrase “Baruch dayan ha-Emet” (Blessed is the True Judge) or the longer form of it, “Baruch atah Hashem dayan ha-Emet,” and if they were present at the moment of death they may perform the ritual of k’riah (rending clothes).

At this point in time, there is no prescribed ritual response for community members in general beyond the recitation of the “Baruch dayan ha-Emet” formula on hearing of the death. The only active communal response is channeled through the work of those who are involved in shmirah (being present with the deceased) and taharah (the ritual preparation of the body before the funeral); however these tasks do not fall on the entire community, just a specialized segment of it. I would suggest that perhaps this is a lack—there certainly could be some sort of ritual for community members in general (who are not involved in the mitzvot of shmirah and taharah), either as a community, or in any dealings with the family members, to formally acknowledge the family’s loss beyond the recitation of that short, powerful phrase, “Baruch dayan ha-Emet.

Following the more traditional path, the body would be prepared for burial by the Chevrah Kadisha, and there would be a funeral service of some sort (often in a chapel, synagogue, or graveside).[i] The family usually will engage in the ritual of k’riah just prior to the funeral service. During that ceremony the communal responses are limited, and mostly passive. A few persons, frequently including a rabbi and family members, will offer something in the form of a hesped (a funeral oration or eulogy), and there often are readings from psalms, proverbs, poetry, or other appropriate texts; there may be some singing/chanting.

Toward the conclusion of the funeral service, after the casket (if one is used) is lowered into the grave, those present—starting with those in aninut—take turns placing dirt in the grave over the deceased. There are multiple customs around this: some use their hands, others use a shovel but turn it upside down to indicate their reluctance and/or regret at performing this task, others use the shovel normally; some use the shovel once, others three times, still others shovel until they become tired. There is also a custom to place the shovel in the dirt and not hand it to the next person so their effort in taking the shovel indicates their undertaking (forgive the unintentional pun) of the mitzvah to bury the deceased, while others pass the shovel from hand to hand. There are variations here too on how much shoveling is done: some will simply have each person who is willing take a turn, and stop after all have done so no matter what the amount of dirt in the grave; some will continue until the casket is covered and not visible; and some will continue until the grave is fully filled in.

Here, I strongly suggest, is one of the places that ritual is missing. I always feel an awkwardness around this moment in the service. There is a physical action in which the community participates, but there is no liturgy and no ritual that accompanies it. There is no reading that tells why we do this action, and why now. There is no blessing said for what is about to be or has been done, there is no phrase that is uttered as a kavannah, there is nothing for the community member to say or recite to accompany and elevate the physical action about to be done.

And finally, as part of what feels like a lack in this aspect of the funeral, there is no blessing or reading or ritual that marks the moment that the shoveling/filling of the grave by the community is completed, the formal funeral is done, and at that moment the family moves from the status of aninut to aveilut (mourners).

The lack of a ritual framework for these moments is jarring to me; it interrupts both the structure of the funeral service, and the emotional flow. (This is made even worse if a liner or vault is used and the vault or cover is lowered, further disrupting the sequence and the flow.)  I suggest that there is an opportunity for new ritual creation to mark these moments.

At this point in the funeral, ritual reappears: we are directed to form the shurot (lines) for the now-mourners to walk through, offering them hopes for comfort and consolation, as they move toward shiva, and enter into the process of formal mourning. Hands are washed on leaving the cemetery. A meal of consolation is provided. The community members know that they are to engage in shiva calls, and participate in shiva minyanim when scheduled, being present for the mourners. The community often takes on the task of providing meals for the mourners during shiva so the mourners are not burdened by having to deal with everyday tasks when they are focused on and struggling to understand their loss.

At the conclusion of Shloshim there is ritual to mark the transition. For those who continue formal mourning for the year (the tradition is actually eleven months), there are rituals and behaviors in which the mourners engage, but very little in the way of communal response. Perhaps this too would be an area where some creative thought would be warranted.

I trust that readers of Ritualwell will be up to the task to creatively fill these “holes” and offer new rituals to mark some of the more significant moments in the mourning process that are in need of acknowledgment.


[i] I acknowledge that this is not universally the case today—some choose donation of the body to research or science, others cremation, and there may be yet other options—but the traditional and typical approach remains burial. This also does not take into account the options for where and by whom the specific tasks may be performed in fulfilling the mitzvot or the possibility of options such as organ donation.

Rabbi Joe Blair is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, class of ’96. He serves two small congregations in the central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Bridgewater College, and serves as webmaster and coordinator for Jewish Values Online. He studied at, and was one of the first group of graduates from the Gamliel Institute. He serves as a staff member of Kavod v’Nichum, and as a faculty member and Administrative Dean of the Gamliel Institute. He is the editor of the Kavod v’Nichum’s blog, Expired and Inspired, which appears on the L.A. Jewish Journal blogs website. He is involved in several Chevrot Kadisha.

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