Life Cycle 7 – Illness, Death, and Mourning

Question:  When a family member is seriously ill there is a change in the Hebrew name. Can you please explain this procedure and Barukh Hashem when the person recovers does the name remain or does the individual go back to the original name. Thank you.

Answer: The tradition of changing the name of a seriously ill person is based on a superstition that if a person changes his/her name, the angel of death will become confused, and be unable to take the life of the ill person.

The new name, once given, becomes a permanent part of that persons name – it does not revert back to the pre-illness name.  For example, if Moshe Barukh was given the additional name of Hayim, then his new name becomes Hayim Moshe Barukh.

One of the traditions to choose the new name is to open the Tanakh and choose the first suitable name that appears on the page.  Another tradition is to give an additional name that is connected to a Hebrew work for life or blessing.

The procedure is simple.  There is a prayer of healing mentioning both the old and the new name, and formally changing the name; followed by a mi-sheberach prayer for healing for the new name only.

I cannot email you the complete Hebrew and English texts of these prayers, but your local rabbi should have access to them.  If, however, you would like to give me your name and address, I would be glad to send you a copy.

To be honest, however, I must tell you that I do not believe in this particular ritual.  It is a bit too magical and superstitious for my taste.  Simply put, if it is God’s plan that an ill person will recover, then it will happen, regardless of whether the name is changed or not.

Question:  What does the family do at the exact moment of death?  My father wishes to die at home.

Answer: When death is near, the dying person may recite the viddui, a confessional prayer; if he/she is unable, another person may recite it on his or her behalf.  In the last few minutes of life, the dying person should not left alone.  Family and perhaps friends should be with him/her to ease the passage into the next world.

When death occurs, open the windows in the room, to allow the soul to begin it’s journey.  Close the eyes and mouth, straighten the limbs, and some follow a custom of placing the body on the floor, feet pointed towards the door.  Place a sheet over the body, light a candle, and place it near the head (except on Shabbat); some place candles all around the body.

The Synagogue office or rabbi should be called, and they will contact the hevra kadisha to wash and dress the body in the traditional burial shrouds (takhrikhim), as well as any other synagogue committees who need to be notified; and the funeral home should be called.

The mirrors in the house are covered, and Psalms 23 and 91 are recited.  The body should not be left alone from the time of death until the funeral.

Sources:  The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Rabbi Maurice Lamm; A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort, Dr. Ron Wolfson.

Question:  Are there any laws regarding suicide and the after-life. Would we end up in the same place even if we died of natural causes?

Answer: Judaism believes that life and death are in the hands of God.  We are commanded to take care of our health, and not to do anything to injure our body because it was created in the image of God.  Doctors are charged with the task of healing, and forbidden to do anything that shortens their patients’ lives.  Suicide, therefore, is against Jewish tradition.

It used to be that people who committed suicide were buried in a separate section of the cemetery.  Now, we understand suicides as those who are mentally ill, and bury them in the regular part of the cemetery along with those who have died because of physical illnesses.

Despite this, suicide remains an aveirah, a sin.  But I cannot answer questions about what will happen after any individual dies, whether by suicide or by natural causes.  After we die, God will judge each of us individually based on our sins and our mitzvot.  Until then, we should live our lives as if our mitzvah and aveirah scale is exactly balanced, and every mitzvah we do shifts the scale in our favor!

Question:  Why guard the dead?

Answer: Shemira, guarding the dead, is done as a sign of respect for the deceased.  Originally, the body was guarded to protect it from wild animals.  Traditionally, the body is not left alone from the time of death until burial.

Question:  I want to know why there is a piece of broken clay put over the dead person’s mouth and eyes?

Answer: Jewish tradition views the body as a vessel created from the earth containing the spark of the soul.  When the body dies, it is as if the vessel has broken.  The broken pottery (made of an earthen substance) placed inside the casket, is symbolic of this.  I was unable to find any sources which specifically mention the custom of placing the pottery on the mouth and eyes.

Question: Is there a name for the fence surrounding a Jewish cemetery?  Does it have any significance or halakha associated with it like an eruv does?  What happens when you find a non-Jew buried in a designated Jewish cemetery?  Is there a ceremony or service performed when a new stone is dedicated to an old grave?  We are cleaning up an old cemetery and answers to these questions, and any other information or guide books you can offer would be helpful.

Answer: I know of no name for the fence surrounding a cemetery.  It is not called an eruv.  The only significance of it is to separate the consecrated Jewish cemetery ground from any other property around it.  Although non-Jews should not be buried in the Jewish part of a Jewish cemetery, a non-Jew buried in a Jewish area does not affect the Jewish character of the cemetery.  There are ceremonies for dedicating monuments, but no special ceremony is required for dedicating a new monument to replace a broken monument.  However, no dedication ceremony is absolutely necessary.  I cannot think of a book offhand that deals exclusively with the kinds of questions you are raising.  The Jewish Books of Why (first and second) would be a good place to start.  Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” might also have some useful information.  In Hebrew, the book Kol Bo al Aveilut would have information.  The best think you can do is contact the local rabbi of a nearby community, and ask him/her for some help.

Question:  What constitutes a “Jewish” cemetery?

Answer: It is a mitzvah for Jews to be buried in land belonging to Jews.  The primary definition of a Jewish cemetery, therefore, is simply that it is owned by the Jewish community.  If there is no Jewish cemetery in the area, then Jews should either be buried in the nearest community with a Jewish cemetery; or buy some property and consecrate it as a Jewish cemetery.

Question:   Can a Jew be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery?

Answer: According to Halakha, one who lived one’s life as a Jew, should be buried in a Jewish cemetery, owned and controlled by the Jewish community.  The task of burial is a sacred mitzvah, and the land upon which burial takes places is sacred, consecrated for the purpose of burial.  When land is purchased for a new cemetery or the expansion of an existing cemetery, the community gathers on the land to walk around its borders seven times.  Just as God completed the creation the world in six days according to Genesis, and brought holiness into the world by sanctifying the seventh day; circling the new cemetery seven times is a way of sanctifying the land, setting it aside for its intended purpose.  As the community gathers for this ceremony, it may also be seen as a way for the community as a whole to take ownership of the mitzvah of burial, and sanctify the space through their commitment to Jewish life and tradition.

I do not officiate at funerals of Jews who are buried in non-Jewish cemeteries, with a few possible exceptions.  I would theoretically officiate at the funeral of a Jew who died in battle, and was to be buried in a military cemetery (such as Normandy).  I would also probably officiate at a funeral of a veteran who wanted to be buried in a veteran’s cemetery, but I would encourage the person and his/her family to consider making burial arrangements in a Jewish cemetery.

Question:  I’m planning a trip to the Netherlands, and as part of my journey, I will be stopping by the American War Cemetery to pay my respects to a cousin who was killed fighting the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge.  My question is this:  What prayer(s) do I say, especially since I won’t have a minyan?  Can I download these prayers from a website, as I am not sure that I will be bringing a prayer book with me on my travels.  Thank you for your help.

Answer: The most appropriate prayer that doesn’t require a minyan would be an El Malei Rahamim (“God, full of mercy”), which is recited at funerals, dedication of monuments, and Yizkor.  The text can easily be found in most traditional Siddurim; if you will not be taking one on your trip, you should be able to find and photocopy it.

Question:  Can you give me the prayer in English for a prayer in memory of a loved one?

Answer: The Prayer you are thinking of is called an El Malei Rachamim.  The English translation is:

God, full of compassion, who dwells on high, grant perfect rest beneath the wings of your Divine presence, among the holy and the pure who shine with the splendor of the firmament, to the soul of ————– son/daughter of ————— who has gone to his/her eternal home, may his/her rest be in the garden of Eden.  Please, Master of mercy, secret him/her in your protected place forever.  May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life.  Adonai is his/her portion.  May he/she rest in peace.  And let us say, Amen.

Question:  What is the Conservative view on above ground burial?

Answer: The traditional (and Conservative) position is to prohibit above ground burial.

The Torah, at the beginning of Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis, teaches us that human beings were created when God took a clod of earth, formed it into a human figure, and breathed into it the divine breath of life.  Each one of us is thus created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  When the spark of life, the soul, leaves the body at the moment of death, the empty shell of a human being remains, the image of God ?

When the breath of life leaves a body for the last time, our tradition teaches us that we should return the body to the place from whence it came, to the earth.  The natural return of the body into the ground means that we do not cremate bodies; we do not use above ground burial vaults; we do not use sealed concrete or metal grave liners; and we use caskets that are made entirely of wood.

Question:  Can a grave be moved to another cemetery and if so if there a time limit?  Can it be moved after 35 years?

Answer: Disinterment is generally prohibited because of the Jewish concern for the dignity of the dead.  However, there are certain circumstances under which it may be permitted to move the remains:

1)  if the intent is to move the remains to a family burial plot or to Israel;

2)  for the security of the remains;

3)  for public need (e.g., a road is being built on that location);

4)  if the remains had been buried in a plot belonging to somebody else.

There is no time limit for the reburial.  Realize, however, that if much time has passed, the remains of the body will have disintegrated.  In that case, the actual material being moved would largely consist of sand or earth.

One final note:  My response to your question should not be taken as permission to move the remains.  The final authority lies with the rabbi of the congregation which owns the cemetery, or the cemetery society itself.

Question:  People seem to be sitting shiva for only 3 days.  Is this OK?

Answer: The word “shiva” means seven; and this is the normal length of the mourning period immediately following a funeral.  However, Halakha does have a provision for going back to work after only three days for people with a severe economic need.  I suspect most people who are observing less than the full seven day shiva are doing so for reasons of convenience, rather than economic need.

Question:  The question I have refers to death, I want to the know purpose of sitting shiva when someone in the family dies — what are the do’s and the can’t do’s?

Answer: I cannot give you a complete answer to your question – entire books have been written on Jewish mourning customs, and I have recommended two of them at the end of my answer.  However, I can give you a brief outline.

The purpose of shiva is to provide mourners with a time to focus on their loss without the obligation of carrying on a “normal” life.  It provides a way for the community to be with the mourners, to offer listening ears, and perhaps a few words of comfort.  The rituals of shiva are designed to assist, in a gentle way, the mourners to return to the land of the living.

During the period of shiva, mourners are prohibited from excessive grooming and pampering of the body, such as taking long baths, shaving, or trimming nails, the idea being that the mourners should be in a state of social withdrawal during shiva, to allow them to focus on the grieving process.  The same explanation is commonly given for the custom of covering the mirrors, so one does not spend too much time on one’s physical appearance.  In addition, mourners continue to wear their k’riah garment, their torn piece of clothing or the torn ribbon, during shiva.

The phrase sitting shiva derives from another custom to sit on low stools or benches, or on chairs and couches with the cushions removed, during shiva.  This custom stems from the idea that one should lower one’s physical being during shiva to match the decline in one’s emotional state.  In other words, the psychological depression stemming from loss is symbolically reenacted by the physical depression of lowering one’s body closer to the earth.  The Biblical source for this custom comes from Job.  When he experienced a series of losses, his friends came to comfort him and sat with him on the ground.

During shiva, it is also customary not to engage in certain pleasurable activities, such as attending parties, wearing leather shoes or new clothes, watching television, playing games, listening to music, or engaging in sexual relations.

Since mourners should not leave the house, a minyan is commonly arranged in the house morning and evening, so they can pray with a community and recite kaddish.

On Shabbat, mourners do not sit shiva publicly.  They do not wear the k’riah garment or ribbon, and they may sit on regular chairs and come to the synagogue.

For more in-depth information, I highly recommend the book, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort, by Dr. Ron Wolfson.  The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Maurice Lamm is also a good resource.

Question:  Why does a person sitting shiva sit on a box? I have heard that the people observing shiva should be seated lower than the people coming to pay their respects. Please explain.

Answer: The custom of sitting on low stools or chairs stems from the idea that one should lower one’s physical being during shiva to match the decline in one’s emotional state.  In other words, the psychological depression stemming from loss is symbolically reenacted by the physical depression of lowering one’s body closer to the earth.  The Biblical source for this custom comes from Job.  When he experienced a series of losses, his friends came to comfort him and sat with him on the ground.

A mourner is not obligated to sit at a shiva home, but if he/she does sit, the custom is to sit on lower chairs than normal.  Pregnant women, and elderly or weak persons may sit on normal chairs.

Question:  My brother died – the shiva begins Tuesday.  I have a business trip planned that is important to go to in Las Vegas and am not sure if I should go or not.  I will finish the shiva on Thursday and go to temple on Friday for the service.  I wanted to leave saturday morning.  Is this acceptable or do I need to wait 30 days before I can go on a business trip?  I want to do the right thing.  Thank you.

Answer: First of all, may God comfort you among all mourners in Zion and Jerusalem on the loss of your brother.

Your are correct that during shiva it would be inappropriate to go on a business trip.  Shiva begins on the day of the burial, and lasts for 7 days.  There are circumstances, primarily when there is great financial need, to permit a shortening of shiva – one should speak to one’s own rabbi about that.  Since I don’t know you, I don’t feel comfortable making that kind of decision for you.

The mourning customs following shiva are known as sheloshim, the 30 day period after the burial.  The laws of sheloshim are less restrictive than shiva.  You may return to work, but refrain from attending celebrations such as weddings or parties, and also refrain from going to movies, the theater, or other programs of entertainment.

Your specific question is hard for me to answer – you are asking if it is proper to leave for a business trip on Saturday morning, during shiva.

First of all, as I wrote above, I don’t know enough about your situation to know if there would be financial loss due to postponing the business trip.

Second, aside from the question of shiva, I could not say that it would be acceptable to leave on a business trip on Shabbat!

Question:  I have a friend who converted to Judaism.  His father is dying.  The father and mother are not Jews.  Is he required to sit shiva and to say Kaddish?

Answer: The current issue of JTS magazine has published a recent teshuvah (response on a question of halakha) by Rabbi Joel Rembaum on the subject of converts mourning their close relatives.  The entire article (which is actually a summary of the teshuvah) can be read online at Jewish Theological Seminary ONLINE,

Rabbi Rembaum concludes with the following paragraph: “Converts to Judaism are required to follow the prescribed traditional Jewish bereavement practices when mourning the deaths of non-Jewish parents and close relatives. Should special circumstances arise a rabbi should be consulted so that appropriate adjustments to these practices can be made.”

My sympathies go out to your friend.

Question:  I would like any information you can provide concerning professional mourners in the Jewish Tradition. I am not a member of the Jewish faith but many question about Christianity can be best understood by a knowledge of Jewish Law and Traditions. This question arose in Sunday School when Jesus went to the cave where Lazarus was interred.

Answer: I am not familiar with the details of the story of Jesus and Lazarus and how they might relate to your question regarding professional mourners.  However, there is a tradition to pay individuals to say kaddish in the synagogue every day for a year for those who die without children to say kaddish for them, or for those whose children cannot make the commitment to say kaddish.  This is based on a mystical idea that the recitation of kaddish helps to elevate the soul of the deceased to heaven.

I discourage this practice, because in my understanding of Jewish law and tradition, the observance of kaddish is primarily meant for the mourners, not for the deceased.  Kaddish is a statement for the mourners of an ongoing believe in God and relationship with the Jewish community, despite confronting the horrible tragedy of death and loss.

Question: My middle child – 4th of 7 – recently was killed in a tragic car accident far away from home. She was 24, unmarried, and fell asleep while driving home from classes at college. She was not wearing her seat-belt. She harmed no on else in the accident. It was as if God just plucked her back to him. We have followed all the proscribed laws/traditions for burial from the moment she was released from the hospital and sent to a Jewish Funeral home where my sister sat with her and then flew home with her, sitting shiva, hevra kaddisha, etc. But I do not understand why a parent does not say kaddish for the year (or 11 months). I feel that I will say kaddish for her for the rest of my life. I would also like to know if there is some way that I could have some one pray at the wall in Israel for her and our family. This is a terrible tragedy for our large and closely knit family. Any help will be greatly appreciated.

Answer: May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, on your tragic loss.

The standard mourning period comes from the Torah, Numbers 20:29, in which Moses and the Israelites mourned for Aaron for 30 days.

The mourning period for parents was lengthened because the death of a parent, the one who gave us life, is an especially difficult loss.

The idea of saying Kaddish for 11 months comes from a mystical idea that the soul undergoes a period of judgement and purification after death, and it might take up to a year to achieve heaven.  Every time that Kaddish is said, according to this belief, the soul is elevated towards heaven.  Only significantly wicked people would be in this intermediate status for as long as a year, so the tradition became to say Kaddish for 11 months in order not to assume that our parents are quite so wicked.

You may choose to say Kaddish for your daughter beyond 30 days, even for the full 11 months.  There is a custom for people who die without children for someone else to take on the obligation of Kaddish for 11 months.  Since your daughter had no children, you may want to observe this custom.

The Rabbis of the Talmud were sensitive to grief, but were also sensitive to excessive displays of grief.  While you ought to observe the Yarhtzeit by saying Kaddish, to say Kaddish every day for the rest of your life really is too much.  You have experienced a tragic loss.  I experienced the loss of an infant daughter, which does not compare to the loss of an adult child.  I know that the pain of loss never goes away, but in time it does fade enough so that you are able to live a normal life again.  If it does not, I urge you to seek grief therapy for your especially tragic loss.

Question:  When does a person start saying Kaddish?

Answer: One begins saying Kaddish on the day of the funeral (at the burial service), and continues for either 11 months (for parents) or 30 days (for spouses, children, or siblings).

Question:  Why is it preferred that only a son say Kaddish for a parent?

Answer: From an egalitarian Conservative point of view, both a son and a daughter have an equal obligation to say kaddish for a parent.

Question:  Does one say Kaddish or partake in Yizkor services for a step-father or step-mother on 35 years duration?  and also how about for a stepchild of many years also.

Answer: There are two ways to phrase your question:

Is one obligated to mourn a step parent (or child) in the same way as one’s actual parent (or child); or is one permitted to mourn a step parent (or child) in the same way as one’s actual parent (or child).

One is not obligated to mourn or say Kaddish for a step-parent or child.  In a slightly different case, in which a biological parent had given up parental rights and a second person formally adopted the child, then one would be obligated to mourn and say Kaddish.  But you are describing a situation in which it is not clear that this is the case.

Thus, although it appears that one is not obligated, one is still permitted to say Kaddish.  Essentially, the Torah obligates certain people to mourn (parent, child, sibling, spouse) ; those who are not on that list at still allowed to obligate themselves.

If, in the 35 year relationship with your step-father, you feel very much like a child to him, I would encourage you to take upon yourself the obligation of saying Kaddish for him.

Question: I understand that traditional Judaism says that reciting the kaddish in the absence of a minyan is prohibited. My father also died recently and I am 35 miles from the nearest synagogue though I do travel on Shabbat specifically to say kaddish. I have included the kaddish in my daily morning prayers in addition to tehillim because I FEEL it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. That, as the only child I have an obligation to recite the kaddish for my father despite the absence of a minyan. While ‘prohibited’ by Rabbinic interpretation the questions are:

1. WHY can’t the kaddish be recited in the absence of the minyan if it’s an affirmation of one’s strength derived from God.

2. Is my recitation of the kaddish ‘negated’ because of the ‘prohibition’-ie. God will not hear it or accept it?

3. What’s the terrible wrong being done?

Answer: There is no issue of God hearing or not hearing prayers with respect to saying kaddish without a minyan, and I would never claim that reciting kaddish without a minyan is a terrible wrong.  However, it does not reflect the true purpose of kaddish.

The original purpose of kaddish was to sanctify the name of God after public study of holy texts, as an acknowledgment that the source of Biblical and Rabbinic texts ultimately comes from God.  It was recited only in a minyan because there is greater spiritual power when people gather to study in community rather than as individuals.

The mourner’s kaddish is recited as a public affirmation of one’s faith in God despite having suffered a loss.  It is also a constant reminder to the community that the one reciting kaddish has suffered a loss, and the community should show sensitive support.  For this reason, it is not included in services which lack a minyan, which is the Jewish definition of community.

Question:  What is the history of not walking in another persons shoes?  I have been told if someone dies you are supposed to throw their shoes away and not give them to someone else to wear.  What if they were new shoes that were never worn by the deceased?

Answer: It is true that there is a folk custom which states that it is prohibited to wear shoes of the deceased, and one should throw them away.  It is based on a mistaken notion that the shoes might carry disease or “bad luck,” causing the death of the new owner.  However, a teshuva (responsa, answer to a halakhic question) by Rabbi David Golinkin states that there is no basis for this custom, and that throwing away the shoes transgresses the commandment of baal tash’hit, the prohibition against destroying the environment through waste.  Therefore, the shoes should be donated to the poor rather than being destroyed.  They may be donated to both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.

Question:  Are there any other symbolic meanings to the placing of a stone on a headstone besides the obvious one of marking one’s visit?  When did the custom of the unveiling begin, and, besides marking the end of the mourning period, are there any other explanations for why it was started?

Answer: I do not know that my explanation is absolutely correct, but it is the best understanding I have regarding the history of monuments and placing stones.

In ancient times, gravesites were marked by piles of stones so that people walking by, especially Kohanim, would know that people were buried in that location.  Since the rain and wind would eventually erode the pile of stones, the family members visiting the grave would need to rebuild the marker each time they visited — thus the tradition of placing stones on a monument.

At some time, many centuries ago, the custom developed for people to mark a grave with an engraved stone.  I don’t know the origins of the formal unveiling service, but I imagine that it was created to fill an emotional need to recall the departed while reciting appropriate prayers.

Question: When visiting a Jewish cemetery, is it OK for the children to place their individualized painted rocks on the tombstone of their grandmother?  We took the rocks from her place of burial and want to place them on her tombstone during the unveiling.  Please let me know – I do not want to make anyone angry.  Thanks.

Answer: It is certainly permitted for the children to place stones on the monument of their grandmother, although I have never heard of the custom of painting the rocks.  You refer, however, to the place of burial as if it is different than the place upon which the monument is being placed.  It shouldn’t make a difference in my answer, but if this is an important part of your question, you are welcome to try me again.

Question:  After the name of deceased people, I have often seen the letters ztl (with an apostrophe placed somewhere).  I assume the letters stand for the Hebrew phrase meaning “of blessed memory.” Is this the case and what are the words exactly, in English transliteration?

Also, I remember my New York Jewish mother who was raised in quite an observant milieu say some words that were possibly Yiddish-accented Hebrew that may or may not have been the same “of blessed memory” phrase. What might that have been?  Please clue me in.

Answer: There are two common phrases recited after the name of a deceased person.  One is abbreviated ZT”L, the Hebrew letters Zayin, Tzadi, Lamed, and stands for Zekher Tzadik Livrakha, “May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.”  The other is abreviated Z”L, the Hebrew letters Zayin, Lamed, and stands for Zikhrono (Zikhrona for a woman) Livrakha, “May his/her memory be for a blessing,” or “of blessed memory.”