What is a Yahrzeit?

Image: A lit yahrzeit candle. (Public Domain

A Yahrzeit (YAR-zite) is the anniversary of a death in Jewish tradition.

When we are alive, we celebrate our birthday every year. In much the same way, we observe a yahrzeit for loved ones who have died. It is a way of marking the great passages of life: first, the passage into life (birthday) and then the passage out of this life (yahrzeit.)

The custom of observing yahrzeit is an acknowledgement that we do not “get over” the loss of a parent or a dear one. It is also a way of expressing kibud av’v’em, honor to our parents.

Most Jews observe the yahrzeit of their deceased parents. Some authorities extend that observance to the other categories of close losses: siblings, children, and spouse. Some Jews may also observe the yahrzeits of prominent individuals, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Yahrzeit is usually observed on the Hebrew calendar date of death, although some prefer to keep it on the Gregorian calendar date.

Yahrzeit observance can take various forms. The most common:

  1. A Yahrzeit candle is a special, long burning candle that is lit at sundown and is allowed to burn for 24 hours. (See photo above.) They are available from Judaica shops and some grocery stores.
  2. Saying the Mourners’ Kaddish with a minyan at synagogue.
  3. Some mourners mark the day by giving tzedakah in memory of the deceased.

Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word, the Ashkenazi Jewish language. The same observance is kept by Sephardim, who call it nahalah.

 

 

 

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Economic Justice & Jewish Funerals

Image: A plain pine casket. Photo: Northwoods Casket Company.

Likewise, at first taking the dead out for burial was more difficult for the relatives than the actual death, because it was customary to bury the dead in expensive shrouds, which the poor could not afford. The problem grew to the point that relatives would sometimes abandon the corpse and run away. This lasted until Rabban Gamliel came and acted with frivolity, meaning that he waived his dignity, by leaving instructions that he be taken out for burial in linen garments. And the people adopted this practice after him and had themselves taken out for burial in linen garments. Rav Pappa said: And nowadays, everyone follows the practice of taking out the dead for burial even in plain hemp garments that cost only a dinar. – Moed Katan 27b

Sometimes people are surprised at the plainness of Jewish funerals. The coffin is usually plain wood and there are no flowers. The funeral itself is simple: a few psalms, a few words about the deceased, more psalms, and then the special prayers for the dead: El Male Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish.  We put the plain box gently in the ground, and all participate in filling the grave.

That’s all there is to the funeral. Afterwards our focus is on the mourners, making sure that they are able to do the work of grief with the community’s support. If you want to know more about that, I have written A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning.

The story above is the origin of all this simplicity. The ancient Jewish community was divided by the fact that some were wealthier than others. Income inequality was so wide that some families felt ashamed to bury their dead, because they felt they could not do so adequately without spending money they did not have.

It took the leadership of Rabban Gamliel to change things. He made arrangements that his own funeral would be utterly simple: a simple shroud that anyone could afford, or that a donor might buy for a destitute person. In that way, he equalized all Jewish funerals: he set the example that even a great sage from a prosperous family should have such a simple funeral. Therefore everyone had to follow suit.

Sometimes when we talk about economic justice, we spend a lot of time reassuring people with resources that they will not lose anything by making justice. It’s up to those individuals, sometimes, to lead the way, and perhaps to quietly shame those who don’t want to give up their own splendid shroud. Face it: who needs a high fashion shroud?

Jewish tradition teaches us that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things in this world. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about money. However, it is wrong to leave others hungry or homeless. It is wrong to do things in such a way that others will feel ashamed.

 

How to Help the Hurting

Image: A person opens his shirt to reveal the Superman logo. (NeuPaddy/pixabay)

We are in a vortex of natural and unnatural disasters as I write this (October, 2017.) The mass murder in Las Vegas, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the hideous fires in the West are only the major ones. It seems like terrible things are happening all over the place. It’s part of the human condition that tzuris happens – bad things happen in every life.

One of the best impulses in the human heart is our desire to help.  Sometimes we can send cash. Sometimes we can volunteer to send goods to where they are needed. But sometimes we are faced with another human being in distress, and we need to know what to do. Fortunately for us, Jewish tradition has a lot to offer on the subject.

Our nervous systems are wired to feel distress when others feel distress. A crying baby gets a range of reactions from bystanders: compassion, irritation, anger, even headaches. Our reaction, whatever it is, is part of a natural response to the pain of another human being. We evolved to respond to wailing infants and to distressed members of our tribe: we hear or see distress, and we feel anxiety, an urge to do something. That anxiety has many expressions: compassion, an urge to fix what is wrong, irritation, anger, or even a headache.

We are wired to leap in and fix it, to make the crying stop. If the problem is a hungry baby, that’s one thing. But what if the problem is something that is complex to fix, or that cannot be fixed at all?

Our sages recognize this impulse and its hazards in the Mishnah:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him. – Pirkei Avot, 4:18

It hurts us to listen to the pain of another, so we leap in and try to repair things. Sadly, some things are not easily fixed. When our dead lie before us, nothing can repair the damage. Even the slow healing of time is only a partial repair when the loss is profound. When we have been hurt, when we have been wounded, there is no quick fix. Rabbi Shimon advises us not to say anything that might seem dismissive. When the pain is greatest, “fixes” do not console. The pain is real. It has to be felt.

So what are we to do, when someone is mourning a loved one?  When people are crying about lost homes, or a livelihood destroyed? What are we to say to someone who has lost a place they loved? What can we say to the person who is choking on fumes from a far-away fire? What can we do for the person who has no visible loss but who feels overwhelmed by frightening events?

I am grateful for the guidance of our tradition as I navigate all this pain:

The reward for escorting a stranger is greater than any reward. It is a practice introduced by our father Abraham, a way of kindness which was habitual with him. He served food and drink to wayfarers and escorted them. Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence, as it is written: “He saw three men … he ran to meet them” (Genesis 18:2). Escorting them is even greater than receiving them. The sages have declared: “Anyone who does not escort his guests is almost guilty of bloodshed” (Sotah 46b). – Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, “Mourners,” 14:2.

One might read the passage above and say, “How does this address the question?” Let’s break it down:

  1. “Escorting a stranger” – the simplest way to read this is to talk about a newcomer to a place: a visitor, a tourist, an immigrant. However, anyone who has ever been in a major disaster will tell you that they feel like a stranger in a strange land. Nothing looks familiar anymore, even the things that haven’t changed. A single catastrophic loss can do that. So the “stranger” of our passage may well be the person who got shot at and survived, or whose home blew to bits, or whose neighborhood burt down. Sure, they are alive – but now they feel strange.
  2. “He served food and drink” – We can offer sustenance to those who are hurting. Water and food allows life to continue, and someone who has been through a trauma may need them more than they realize.
  3. “Receiving them” – We can provide a safe place to sit or lie down. A person cannot recover, even a little bit, if they cannot rest.
  4. “Escorting them” – What does it mean to escort someone? It means to accompany them, to walk alongside them for a while. If I escort someone to a place, I don’t hurl them from my car and drive away: I go with them. The Hebrew word is levayah (leh-vah-YAH.) A funeral is levayat hamet, accompanying the dead person to the grave. We do not abandon dead bodies; we go in groups with them to the grave and put it gently in the earth.
  5. “Escorting them is even greater” – When I accompany a stranger, I walk alongside them through their experience. It is their experience, not mine, so mostly I listen and look and keep them company. As Maimonides teaches, this is one of the greatest gifts we can give to a person who is suffering from estrangement: we can simply be with them.

How do these texts translate into actual help? Here are eight things we can do when we are faced with someone who is suffering:

  1. FIRST, DO NO HARM. No matter how badly we want someone to stop hurting, leaping to solutions isn’t helpful. I find that sometimes I have to remind myself as I listen to someone, “NO FIXING.” Since I have no magic wand, I cannot do or say anything that will magically make them feel better. Even if I had a magic wand, it could not repair the damage done by the experience of trauma.
  2. OFFER WATER. People who have lost a lot of fluid through sweating or crying need water. They may be so lost in pain that they are not feeling thirst. If they ARE thirsty, then so much the moreso I should give them water to drink!
  3. OFFER FOOD. “I’m fixing/getting a sandwich – want one?” is a way to offer food without stirring up feelings of indebtedness. This helps people on a multiplicity of levels, from needed nutrition to a feeling of social connction. This is not a time for a nutrition or (God forbid) weight loss lecture. “I’m having something – want some?” is a way to build a bridge back to a tiny oasis of normalcy.
  4. OFFER A SAFE PLACE. If you have the privilege of offering a guest room, that can be great. But that “safe place” can be a ride to a destination, a seat next to you, an afternoon at your house, or an invitation to your table for Shabbat dinner.
  5. OFFER SILENCE. Sometimes “receiving them” to a safe place can mean offering them the opportunity to be in your space without having to talk about the disaster at hand. The tradition teaches us to support mourners at shivah by being silent until they speak first, and letting them set the topic. When much of life seems like chaos, a quiet place with no demands can be a real haven.
  6. LISTEN. If they want to talk, listen to them. Make eye contact and pay attention. You are a witness to their experience. Resist the urge to say much. If they are a person who “thinks out loud” they may need to sort through their thoughts, and what they say may not make much sense. Do not interfere or advise unless they talk about a dangerous plan (e.g. “I’m going back to the fire zone to see my house – I don’t care what anyone says!”)
  7. MAKE REFERRALS. I think the most important thing I learned in my pastoral counseling classes was to make referrals. After you have really heard a person out, if you know of someone qualified to help with some aspect of their situation, put them in touch. There may be more “escorting the stranger” to do here: if going to the therapist, or the police, or the FEMA website is overwhelming to them, offer transportation or a chair next to you at a computer to do what needs to be done.
  8. BE A COMPANION. For however long or short your interaction, remember that you are neither their child nor their parent. Don’t make a suffering person take care of you, and don’t tell an adult what to do. Walk alongside them. Be good company as they traverse a strange landscape.
  9. REST. – No one can be a high quality helper 24/7.  When we are tempted to give advice, to meddle, to scold, or something else inappropriate, it is our sign that we are overdue for a break. Self-care is an important part of being a caring person. There is no shame in handing an unhappy person along to someone who is better equipped to deal with them right now.

None of us are Superman. We are each limited in some way. What we have to offer is our humanity.  May each of us rise to the challenge when the need arises!

September 11, Again.

Image: 9/11 Memorial, Manhattan, NYC. Photo by MonicaVolpin via pixabay.com

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we will soon read as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that individual stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.

This is an edited repost of an earlier message on this blog.

May I Say Kaddish for my Pet?

Image: Rabbi Adar and Gabi. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Thousands of years ago, human beings and dogs formed a partnership that lasts to this day. We know that ancient Egyptians held cats in such reverence that one of their gods, Bastet, was often pictured as a cat. Other animals have sometimes been the companions of human beings, and those bonds can be deep and powerful.

This is one issue upon which the Torah is largely silent. The closest we have in rabbinic literature to a mention of dogs as companions is in a midrash, a rabbinic comment upon a story in Torah, which says:

To protect Cain from being killed, a dog was given him, who accompanied him and protected him against all comers. – Bereshit Rabbah 22:12

Given this long history of connection, and given the strong affection between some animals and humans, a person might ask, “May I say Kaddish for my beloved pet?”

Modern rabbinic responsa (official opinions written by learned rabbis) are firm on the subject: mourning for animals must be kept separate from mourning for humans. So the answer is no, we do not say kaddish for animals, even the most beloved ones.

Some pet lovers find this ruling hurtful: “I am grieving, so why should I not mention my beloved pet at the Kaddish?”

The answer here is straightforward: animals are not people. Our mourning rituals address the end of a human relationship: the loss of a mother, father, child, spouse, or sibling. Our relationships with animals are qualitatively different than our relationships with human beings. We mourn them differently.

By “differently” I am not specifying a quantity. There are people who have had more satisfying relationships with animals than with other human beings. Where the “fault” lies for that is not the issue: it is simply a fact. Animals are different from people. For some animal lovers, the loss of a pet can be genuinely devastating.

The fact is, Jewish tradition does not have forms for mourning animal companions. However, conversations about mourning for animals are emerging. The site Ritualwell.org has several interesting articles on the subject, including:

Grieving the Loss of a Pet by Rabbi Rona Shapiro

Burial Service for an Animal Companion by Rabbi Susan Schein

Creating a Ritual for Loss of a Companion Animal by Rabbi Joshua Snyder

Animals are part of God’s creation. As such they are sacred, just as the earth itself is sacred, as human beings are sacred. Losing an animal companion can be wrenchingly difficult. If you are suffering through such a loss, you have my sympathy.

Readers who would like to do so are welcome to leave stories and memorials to beloved pets in the comments.

A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning

Image: Two gray-haired women sit on a hammock together beside a pond, looking at the water. (silviarita/pixabay)

Sheloshim (which means “thirty” in Hebrew) is the thirty-day period of mourning after a funeral.

I am very grateful for all the kind words and comfort that were offered to me over the past weeks since my mother’s death. I am more convinced than ever of the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions, as I move through the process of Jewish mourning.

And it is a process. First, there is the period of shock after a death, which we call aninoot. That is the time between death itself and the burial, and no matter what your tradition, it is a busy time with many duties to fulfill. Even for me, a  mourner at a long distance from the funeral, unable to help with funeral preparations, there was a profound feeling of shock. No matter how “expected” death is, it is a shock to the living. A mourner in aninoot is relieved of all responsibilities other than funeral preparations – no mitzvot to perform, no social obligations to fill.

With the funeral, a mourner passes into the period of shivah, the intense week of mourning after the burial of a loved one. They sit with family and receive the comfort of friends. They do not leave the house. The idea is to take the time to allow feelings and memories to emerge. Friends visit, and sit quietly with the mourner. They may bring food and remind the mourner to eat. They do not tell the mourner how to feel; they simply witness the emergence of feelings without judgment. Their presence reminds the mourner that while someone important has left this life, the mourner will not be abandoned by the living.

At the end of the week of shivah, the mourner leaves the house and if possible takes a walk, perhaps around the block. It is a return to the world.

The mourner is still in the period known as sheloshim, the thirty days following burial. In this lighter period of mourning, the mourner may go back to work, but they stay away from parties, concerts and similar joyous events. A mourner in sheloshim does not marry and does not attend weddings. Often there is an event marking the end of sheloshim, traditionally a study session in honor of the departed.

After that, formal mourning ceases, except in the case of the death of a parent. In that case the mourner observes the shneim asar chodesh, twelve months of mourning, saying kaddish and attending services.

The purpose of this process is to move mourners from the side of the grave back into the world of the living. Of course human grief is not simple and tidy. A scent or a melody can bring back a sharp memory of a loved one years after their death. Some losses never heal, and certainly no one wishes to forget loved ones. However, this gentle, wise process of Jewish mourning provides us with a framework for our grief and instructions for those who wish to comfort. As such, it is a blessing.

Silence, This Week

Image: A portrait of my mother. Photo courtesy of my niece, Ashley Parkes. Unfortunately I do not know the name of the original artist.

Baruch Dayan emet. [Blessed is the True Judge.]

The blog will be silent this week, as I observe shivah for my mother, Valere Potter Menefee. Her funeral will be Monday, July 3 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville TN. Because of my recent health difficulties, I am unable to travel. I will be observing shivah here in California beginning Monday evening.

Jewish mourning practice dictates that I spend a several days quietly doing the work of grief. Therefore this blog will be silent while I am busy with that work.

A few words about my mother:

Valere Potter Menefee was born June 21, 1931, the youngest of three children. She was predeceased by her parents, her brother Justin Potter, Jr., her sister, Anne Potter Wilson, and husband, Albert L. Menefee, Jr. Mama attended the Peabody Demonstration School, Ward Belmont Preparatory School, and Vassar College.

Mama studied dance with Albertine Maxwell from a very early age and danced as an adult with the St. Louis Ballet Company and with Adolph Bolm in Los Angeles. She also danced with a company that performed traditional Indian dance to the accompaniment of Ravi Shankar. Mama’s high standards for professional behavior in the arts were a major influence on me growing up. I wasn’t built to be a dancer, but her disdain for what she called “tricks” and cheapness in performance have stayed with me all my life. She used to say that the most miserable days of dance rehearsal were by far the most productive, a maxim that has carried me through many a challenge.

After her graduation from Vassar and her time as a dancer, she went to work for WSIX (now WKRN) in Nashville, TN. Her job, she used to say, was “chief cook and bottle washer” – she did a little of everything, writing ad copy, marketing, voice-overs, and a bit of on-air work in a pinch.

Mama married my father, Albert Menefee, Jr., in June of 1954. She used to tell the story that she met him on a blind date set up by their mutual friend, Bill Baird. She loved raw onions, and forgot to skip them when she ate dinner before he arrived. So she greeted him at the front door with a green onion, saying, “Eat this.” He liked green onions, and he liked the woman offering the the green onion – it was a match.

Mama had five children in eight years. I cannot really fathom how exhausting that must have been, to have so many little ones and be pregnant yet again, to drive all those children all the places they needed to be, and to keep up with all of us.

Mama loved the arts. She was emphatic that literacy meant being able to read English and music, so we all had piano lessons. I was terrible at the piano but when I switched to playing classical guitar, she was very supportive.

Mama converted to Roman Catholicism while she was a student at Vassar. She was deeply serious about it, serving as president of the Nashville chapter of the Ladies of Charity, and in later life serving as an Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister for the Cathedral of the Incarnation, taking communion to parishioners at Baptist Hospital and area nursing homes. She insisted on Catholic educations for all three daughters, and drove us from our home in Williamson County to St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville every day. That was a round trip of 25 miles, twice a day, often including stops to chase the neighbors’ livestock out of the road and back onto their property.

She was devoted to the Dominican Sisters who owned the school. One rainy day she lent her raincoat to a bedraggled young sister. Only later did she realize that she had left a pack of Camels with a lighter in the pocket. She was horrified, and so was Sister Assumpta when she got to the Motherhouse and found she had a pocket full of contraband!

Mama taught me how to let the air out of tires. We had a problem with “city people” who’d come to the farm to hunt without permission, or just to torment the livestock. We’d find buckshot in the cows’ rumps, and occasionally the visitors would start a forest fire. Mama’s approach was indirect but effective: people soon learned that if they left their vehicle parked on our land, they’d come back to four flat tires. The offenders never returned, and word got around – an elegant solution, really.

Mama had her imperfections, as we all do. Many of hers came from a lonesome childhood with troubles no child would have survived unscathed. She once turned up at my dorm room in college, demanding (that’s the only way to put it) that I take her to the library to look up “something” in the newspaper files. It turned out that what she was after were the newspaper accounts of her brother’s suicide in 1941. “Weebuddy” was 15 when he died; I knew she had worshiped him. It turned out that the adults had chosen not to tell her why he disappeared. I guess they couldn’t figure out what to tell a 10 year old or were so lost in their own pain that they couldn’t tell her. The topic of his death was forbidden at home, so she had only scraps of information about it until we read the story in the microfiche of The Tennessean archive at UTK.

Mama and I had a difficult relationship. I’m not going to get into that, out of respect. I just want to acknowledge it. I loved her, and I’m glad that the last time I saw her I had the opportunity to tell her so.

So this week I’m grieving. Obviously I’m no longer a Catholic, I’m a Jew, so I’m mourning as a Jew. Sitting shivah is what we do. It’s elective if the parent who died was not Jewish, but I learned when my father died that it is a mistake to skip shivah. Big losses need big acknowledgement.

So this blog will be silent until next Shabbat. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading.