Hebrew is cool. It’s a Semitic language, and it works very differently from English.
Most words in Hebrew grow from a three-letter ROOT. The root expresses a general idea, a family of possible words with three basic consonants. We add vowels, endings, and prefixes to make the variations on the theme.
For instance, K-D-Sh (Kuf, Dalet, Shin) is a root whose general idea is “holy.” With appropriate vowels, etc we get:
Kaddish – (kah-DEESH or KAH-dish)* The prayer mourners say, which also divides the service into sections.
Kiddush – (Kee-DOOSH or KID-ish) The blessing-toast for Shabbat and holidays, or a meal that begins with that blessing.
Kodesh – (KOH-desh) – (adj.) Holy
Kiddushin – (kee-doosh-EEN) – Jewish marriage, in which each partner is sacred to and set apart for the other.
Can you think of any other words in this family that you’ve heard around synagogue?
Are there any other Hebrew words you’ve heard that sound like each other and confuse you?
*Some words have two pronunciations listed. The first is the modern Israeli pronunciation, and the second is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which sometimes pops up in American English. Both are correct.
Also, in the illustration above, remember that English reads left-to-right but Hebrew reads right-to-left. The Shin is the letter on your left.
At a time of trouble, good friends are apt to say, “Let me know if I can help.” However, the worse the disaster, the harder it is for the suffering person to articulate what they need. Here is a list of things you can offer to do for a Jewish mourner:
During shiva (the week following the funeral):
Clean the kitchen
Pick up the children from —
Assist with pet care
Run errands: grocery, dry cleaning, etc.
Make coffee or tea
Greet visitors at the door
Answer the phone
Make phone calls
After shiva is over:
Invite them to lunch or dinner
help with household chores
help with transportation for children, pets, or the mourner herself
invite them for part of Shabbat or a holiday
listen when they talk about the deceased or about their sorrows
Tell them you know how they feel
Speculate about the afterlife
Tell them that they should get over it, or that they will get over it
Ask when they will be dating
Press them about anything that they don’t want to discuss
Ask for the belongings of the deceased
Mourners have been left behind by someone they loved. They may also feel abandoned by the living. You can help by including them in your life, and by making genuine, concrete offers of assistance at a difficult time.
A friend is a wonderful gift, but a friend who is willing to be present and help at a time of trouble is a treasure.
This is an update of a post from a while back. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.
The sages tell us that there is no greater mitzvah than to help bury someone, because it is a favor that cannot be returned. They don’t mention (but I am sure they knew) that it is also a difficult mitzvah: death is scary, graves are scary, and loss is painful. Jewish funeral etiquette is slightly different from many American customs. Here are my beginners’ tips for attending Jewish funerals:
1. DON’T STAY AWAY. It may be tempting to “have a prior commitment” when there is a death on the outskirts of our circle of friends, but it is a good thing to go to funerals even when you knew the person but “not very well.” The person who died won’t know you are there, but to the mourners it is a comfort to be surrounded by their community, especially by their friends.
2. YOUR PRESENCE IS IMPORTANT. You do not need to say much to mourners; in fact, the less said, the better. Nothing you say is going to fix it. What will help most is your presence at the funeral or at shiva (more about that in a minute.) Take their hand. Say “I am so sorry” if you must, but in Jewish tradition, there is no need to say anything at all unless the mourner starts the conversation. Mostly what will help is for you to let them know that they have friends who will not disappear.
3. WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. Dress nicely, but wear sensible shoes if you are going to the graveside. Cemetery grounds are often extremely plushy grass. If it would be difficult to walk in sand in the those shoes, they will be miserable in a cemetery. All of this goes triple if it has been raining. You do not want to be the woman I once saw trapped in the mud by her very expensive (and ruined) stiletto heels.
4. LOW KEY IS THE KEY. If you find friends there, just remember that this IS a funeral: talk quietly. Once the service begins, be quiet. Turn OFF the cell phone for the service, and do not fiddle with it.
5. MOSTLY, JUST LISTEN. There is very little required of the congregation at a funeral. Your job is to be there. There will be a few prayers, perhaps a song, a hesped (eulogy), and the traditional prayers El Maleh Rachamim [God Full of Mercy] and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Say “Amen” [Ah-MAYN] when the congregation says it, if you wish. The payoff for listening is that you will learn things about this person that you did not know. You may hear some wonderful stories.
6. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. The funeral director will give directions before and after the service. Please do whatever he or she tells you to do: park here, sit there, stand, don’t walk there. Complying with directions is one way to support the mourners and give respect to the dead.
7. AT GRAVESIDE.Some funerals move from a chapel to graveside, some are held at graveside. If you do not know the family well, it is OK to attend the chapel service and then skip the graveside service – it’s assumed to be more private. There will likely be chairs under an awning facing the open grave. Those chairs are for mourners; you do not want to sit in them unless you are a member of the family or disabled. There will be a few prayers, the casket will be lowered, and the officiant may assist the family in the ancient custom of shoveling earth into the grave. One or three shovelfuls is typical, and after the family, other attendees may assist. It is a symbolic way of participating in caring for the body by putting it safely in the earth. Again, follow directions; this is an extremely sensitive time for the family and you don’t want to cause a problem.
8. SHIVA. There may be an announcement about shiva, the gathering at the home for (traditionally) seven days after the burial. Go at the times announced. At the shiva house, remember that your presence is what matters; you cannot make their pain go away with words. Mourners need time and space to mourn, and it is an act of kindness to give them the opportunity to do so. Usually there is a short service at the shiva house in the morning and evening. You can linger, but do not overstay: when people start leaving, go. Keep in mind that this is not a party, the mourners are not “entertaining.” Sending or bringing prepared food is a very nice thing to do; when in doubt, send kosher food.
9. DONATIONS. Most families will designate a charity to which donations (tzedakah) may be made in memory of the dead, and most non-profits are happy to send a card to the mourners telling them about your gift. This is not required, but it is a very nice thing to do. Which brings us to:
10. THINGS YOU WILL NOT SEE OR HEAR AT A TRADITIONAL JEWISH FUNERAL:
Flowers – instead, Jews give donations to a memorial fund.(See #9 above)
An open casket – We don’t look at a dead person unnecessarily, since they cannot look back at us.
A fancy casket – Traditionally, Jewish caskets are plain, unfinished wood.
Talk about the afterlife – Most Jews focus on doing good in this life. We don’t know for sure what happens after death, and we tend not to worry about it much. Some think there is an afterlife, some don’t.
At a somewhat less traditional Jewish funeral, there may be a fancy casket, or there may have been a cremation. Do not comment about anything that seems unusual. The mourners may be honoring a request of the deceased, or something may have been the topic of a disagreement in the family. These people are already in pain: this is not the time to appoint yourself the Jewish Tradition Cop! If you have questions, call or email a rabbi later (or leave a question in the comments here!)
In my work as a rabbi, I find few things more spiritually enriching than a funeral. It is a sobering thing to stand by an open grave. Many silly things that seemed terribly important shrink to an appropriate size in the face of death. Being with a family and friendship circle as they comfort each other is a reminder that love is indeed “stronger than death.” (Song of Songs 8:6) The whole experience puts me back in touch with the beauty of life.
Of course, there is much more to learn about Jewish funerals and mourning practice, but this is intended to be a guide for those who are about to attend a Jewish funeral for the first time. I hope that it is helpful as you perform this mitzvah.
Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.
There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths. That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”
A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?
The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.
In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:
Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.
Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?
As regular readers know, sometimes I get topics from looking at the searches that brought people to my blog (thank you, wordpress.com, for the great info!) Here’s a great one:
How is it a good thing to go to a funeral?
Let me rephrase it just a bit:
Why would anyone in their right mind go to a funeral?
Jewish tradition gives us two big reasons to go to a funeral. The first, levayat hamet [accompanying the dead] is exactly what it sounds like: we accompany the dead person to the grave. The reason behind that is that dead bodies are vulnerable. They can’t defend themselves. Bad things can happen to them. So we accompany the dead person to the grave to be sure that he or she is put in the ground with respect for the person that they were.
The second reason to go to a funeral is menachem avel [comforting the mourner]. “Comforting” does not mean “make them feel all better” – that’s impossible. Comforting, in this context, means simply being with them, letting them know that people care. You do not need to “say the right thing” – all you really need to do is to avoid saying the wrong thing. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be silent. “I am so sorry for your loss” is perfectly fine. The traditional words of comfort are “May you be comforted among the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem” – another reminder to the mourner that he or she is not alone.
Things not to say: “You’ll get over it.” “He was old.” “He’s in a better place.” “She’s better off.” or even “She’s watching you from heaven.” You have no proof that any of these things are true, so don’t say them.
Funerals are uncomfortable if you are not used to them. Jewish funerals are generally quite short and simple. There are a few traditional prayers and psalms, and either the rabbi or the family stand up to talk a bit about the person who died. At graveside, there are brief prayers and then family and friends take a shovel of dirt and put it on the casket in the grave. These things are done to help bring home the reality of the death and to help the mourning process get moving.
The more funerals you attend, the more accustomed to them you will become. For tips on attending your first Jewish funeral, check out this article. Death is a part of life. It is a great kindness to mourners to reach out to them when they are grieving, and especially to attend the funeral.
How is it a good thing to go to a funeral? It is a good thing, because it is a kind thing. No one should stand alone by the grave of someone they love.
Mourning is a time like no other. Someone with whom we had a close connection has died, and our world is out of balance. We have spent years depending on that person, or supporting that person, and interacting with that person and suddenly they are … GONE. On top of that, there is much to do: arrangements must be made, legal requirements fulfilled, and all while we are stunned by the news.
For American Jews, it is particularly confusing because as with many things, we are pulled in two directions. American secular culture largely avoids mourning, and encourages us to be self-sufficient individuals, bravely getting on with life with as little disruption as possible. The dominant Christian religious culture suggests that loved ones have gone “to a better place.”
Jewish tradition takes a different path. It structures mourning as a staged process undertaken by those who are closely related to the deceased: children, siblings, parent or spouse. This definition of “mourner” can be updated to reflect the needs of all kinds of families, but the principle behind it is that we recognize some relationships as especially close. If you have lost someone whose absence will significantly alter your life, then consult with your rabbi for help in following the Jewish mourning process.
1. ANINUT is the time from the death itself until the burial is completed. This is a time of concern for the body of the person who has died. Because it is so important in Judaism to treat the body with respect, the mourners have no responsibilities other than to make the funeral arrangements. They are relieved from other ritual requirements, and all social niceties. They are also assumed to be in deep shock and mourning, and friends should be available to assist if need be but should not intrude. Persons in aninut do not go to work, and are not responsible for other commitments. They may tear an article of clothing and then wear it during shiva, or pin a torn ribbon to their clothing, to express their feelings of loss.
2. SHIVA begins at the moment the body is safely laid to rest, and continues for a period after that, usually a week. (For calculations for the exact length of shiva when holidays are near, consult a rabbi.) Mourners in shiva remain at home, and friends help them with the necessities of life. Friends visit to offer comfort. (For more about the mitzvah of a shiva visit and what to say to a person in shiva, see Five Tips for Shiva.)
If you are the mourner, it is OK to ask for what you need, even if what you need is silence. When you are sitting shiva, you are not entertaining. People may come to the house, but you do not have to look nice or have a neat house. It is OK for other people to do your dishes and to bring food to you.
Often American skimp on shiva, saying that they need to get back to work, or they don’t want to be any trouble. If you possibly can, let shiva do its work. It can be boring and uncomfortable, but its purpose is to allow you time and space to mourn. You have suffered a loss. It is OK to take time to acknowledge that loss.
3. SHELOSHIM is the 30 days after burial, including the seven days of shiva. At the close of shiva, mourners leave the house again. Gradually, mourners will return to the routines of life.
4. MOURNING A PARENT goes on even longer, for eleven months or a full year, depending on local custom. One says Kaddish for the parent.
5. UNVEILING the tombstone (matzevah) is a ritual that became common in the 19th century, when close family gathers at the grave to unveil the marker and read Psalms and Kaddish. Timing of the unveiling depends on local custom: in some communities it is done at one year, in others at the end of sheloshim, and in others, at any convenient time at least a week after burial. It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones, and to leave a stone on the tombstone as a sign that someone has visited.
6. YARTZEIT is the observance of the anniversary of the person’s death. (The first yahrzeit is observed at the anniversary of the burial; after that, it’s the anniversary of death.) Mourners say Kaddish for the person and it is the custom in some places to burn a yahrzeit candle. It is an opportunity to remember the person, and if the feelings are still there, to grieve in the arms of one’s community.
7. YIZKOR is a memorial service attached to the major Jewish holidays. It means “May [God] remember” but really, it is an opportunity for us to remember, and to have an opportunity to feel the feelings that may come up with memory. Yizkor takes place as part of services on Yom Kippur, on Shmini Atzeret, on the last day of Passover, and on Shavuot.
It takes time and effort to rebuild our lives after a significant loss. Jewish tradition allows us the time and space to fully mourn, then put away mourning for a return to life, all the while honoring the memory of the deceased. Remember that if you have to deal with people who want you to “get over it” and get back to work or social obligations, Jewish mourning is a religious obligation as well as a psychologically healthy approach to dealing with loss.
May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
First of all, there is no need to stress: no one is going to try to tell you that the building is on fire in Hebrew, unless you are in Israel. In an American synagogue, anything someone says to you in Hebrew is almost certainly (1) friendly and (2) not mission-critical. So take a deep breath, shake the tension from your shoulders, and try on a few new phrases of Synagogue Hebrew.
These are phrases you might hear in connection with a service:
CHOOmash – a book containing the Five Books of Moses.
sid-DOOR or SIDdur – prayer book
YARTZ-eit – the anniversary of a death (or on the first year, anniverary of a burial.)
KADdish or KADdish yaTOM – Mourner’s Kaddish, prayer said by those in mourning or on a Yartzeit.
KIDdush or KIDdish – the blessing made on Shabbat or holidays over wine, a kind of toast to the day. It may also refer to refreshments after the Saturday morning service.
Oneg or Oneg shaBAT – refreshments after the service, usually on Friday night.
YAsher KOach (with a gutteral ch, as in “Bach”) means, “Good job!” (Literally, “may you have strength”) If someone says it to you, you can smile, you can say the traditional reply baRUKH ti-hi-YEH (to a man) or bruCHAH teh-HEE (to a woman.) Either way, the reply means “May you be blessed.” You can also say that in English, or simply say toe-DAH (Thank you.)
yaSHAR koCHECH means “Good job” as said to a woman. However, in many places you will hear “Yashar koach” said to people of both genders.
BEEmah is the elevated area in the synagogue where the Torah is read, and where the service leader may stand. Depending on the architecture, it might be in the front of the room, or the middle of it.
HAGbah is the lifting up of the Torah scroll after reading. Someone may call for a SHTARker (Yiddish for strong person) to lift it, although that is a little undignified – they should have found him or her before the service began.
aleeYAH or aLEEyah means literally “to go up.” It has two main uses: (1) “An aliyah” is a Torah reading, or the honor of saying the blessings for a Torah reading. (2) “Make aliyah” means “move to Israel.”
Are there phrases you’ve heard and wondered about? You can look them up at the Jewish English Lexicon, or leave me a comment below.