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.


What is the Mourner’s Kaddish?

Image: A yahrzeit candle. 

People sometimes refer to the Kaddish as “the Jewish prayer for the dead.” That’s almost right. The Kaddish is a prayer said by mourners, and the people who benefit are the mourners. Saying Kaddish is an ancient and important ritual, a part of the mourning process for Jews.

It didn’t start out that way. The Kaddish began as a doxology, a prayer of praise. We know that it is quite old because it is said in Aramaic, the vernacular of the Jewish People from the sixth century BCE and the eighth century CE, over 1000 years. Hebrew became the lashon kodesh [holy language]- used only for specific religious purposes.

In an early siddur from about 900 CE, the Kaddish is a prayer of praise that separates parts of the service.

To this day, in an Orthodox service, if you get lost, each Kaddish is an opportunity to find your place again, because it means that the congregation is about to move on to another part of the service. A vestige of that practice remains in the Reform service, where we say a Kaddish at two points: just before the Shema and its Blessings, and then at the end of the service. (For more about the Reform Service, see What Goes On in a Jewish Service?)

In the Middle Ages, the practice took hold for the last Kaddish of the service to be called the Orphan’s Kaddish (that’s what Kaddish Yatom means literally.) Mourners in the congregation would say Kaddish daily. While it was sometimes framed as “praying for the dead,” the function of it was that mourners couldn’t isolate themselves. Instead, they had to join 10 other Jews (a minyan) with whom to say Kaddish, usually at the daily prayer services at their synagogue.

If you think about it, it’s brilliant from the psychological perspective. Most people who observe the mitzvah of saying Kaddish for 11 months for a deceased parent report that it is a transformative experience. They are supported as they move through the stages of grief. They have a daily reminder that they do not mourn alone, but “Among the mourners of Israel.”

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
“May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” – Traditional to say to a person in mourning

For the text of the Kaddish in Aramaic, a recording of the prayer, and a transliteration, see the My Jewish Learning page.


What Do Jews Believe About Jesus?

Image: Apse mosaic in basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Built 547. A.D. Photo by Petar Milošević via Wikimedia.

“Don’t you believe in Jesus?” the young woman asked me, her eyes wide.

Whenever someone asks me that question, I have a flashback to my Introduction to Theology class at the University of Chicago Divinity School back in the fall of 1980. Langdon Gilkey, the Shailer Mathews professor of theology was beginning his lecture on Christology, the study of Jesus. He began, “All we know for sure about the historical Jesus is that he did once live and he didn’t die in bed.” Every student in that class was shocked (which I suspect was Mr. Gilkey’s intent.)

As an observant Jew, I’m willing to go a bit farther than that eminent theologian. Here is what I believe about Jesus:

  1. Jesus was a man who lived in the Roman Province of Judea in the first century of the common era (what Christians refer to as “A.D.”)
  2. Jesus was born a Jew, and died a Jew, according to the accounts of people who knew him or lived near his time (documents Christians refer to as the “New Testament.”)
  3. Sometime shortly after Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities, his followers had a series of experiences that set them on a path that would eventually diverge from Judaism.
  4. Over time, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was sent by God to save humanity from their sins. They called him “messiah.”
  5. Over time, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was divine, that is, that he was God.

When someone asks me “Don’t you believe in Jesus?” usually what they mean is “Don’t you believe Jesus is God?” or “Don’t you believe Jesus died for your sins?” The answer to both those questions is no. I believe he was a real person and a Jew like myself. I also believe that he died a very long time ago. He did not die for my sins, and he did not rise from the dead on Easter.

For those Christian readers who are thinking, “But what about the prophets?” I suggest you read another article I’ve written about the difference between Jewish and Christian concepts of the prophets, What is a Prophet?

While there is much that Jews and Christians have in common there are also important differences, and first among those is our disagreement about Jesus. For a Christian, Jesus is the messiah and most important person in history. For a Jew, he is a Jew who died in about the year 30 CE and whose followers started a new religion, Christianity.

Resources for Torah Study

Image: A study with books and computer. (Pexels/Pixabay)

I strongly recommend to my students that they find a Torah Study group and attend, at least for a while. It’s a great way to get to know a synagogue or other Jewish institution. It’s also one of the quintessential Jewish activities: there is no better way to learn how to think as Jews think. Torah is not just about the Bible; Torah is a worldview.

Here are some resources I highly recommend for beginners:

Sefaria.org – This online library of Jewish texts is a miracle of technology. “Sefaria” is a play on sefer, Hebrew for “book.” Seforim (suh-FOR-eem) are Jewish holy books. Sefaria.org offers a growing selection of Jewish holy texts for study along with other resources. It has a full Tanakh, with English translation, as well as all the major works of rabbinic literature and more. Some books are only partly translated, but don’t despair – scholars are working on them all the time! Click on the horizontal lines in the upper left hand corner of the screen to reach the Table of Contents. Give yourself time to click and explore. If you prefer to learn in more directed ways, scroll to the bottom of the screen and under “About,” click “Help,” which will take you to a series of videos illustrating ways to use the site.

Mechon-Mamre.org is an older, less complicated website offering resources for Torah study and other Jewish texts. I particularly like the Hebrew font they use; it’s very simple and clear.

Maps of Biblical Israel – One unique thing about Torah study is that our sacred text is rooted in the geography of Israel. This website was assembled by Christians (as you can see from all the mentions of “Old Testament” but the maps are very handy.

hebcal.com – For “Parashat haShavua” (weekly Torah readings) this website is a wonderful tool. This is the Swiss Army knife of Jewish calendars: you can click on the weekly portion and get the readings, with links to commentary and sermons online. It will also do date conversion (want to know what day in the Jewish calendar was your birthday?) It’s wonderful.

And finally, a wonderful book:

What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives by Stephen Lewis Fuchs – This little book (less than 100 pages) is a series of short essays in which Rabbi Fuchs offers insights for modern readers on the ancient stories in Torah. While they are written primarily for beginners, they bring depth as well as simplicity to the project of learning Torah as an adult.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and look forward to requiring it for my Intro students during the Winter “Israel & Texts” sessions of the course. Rabbi Fuchs makes a case for a living, vibrant Torah that helps us to understand our lives today.


Where Does One Begin Learning about Judaism?

Image: A class at Temple Sinai, in Oakland, CA. Photo by Linda Burnett.

For the beginner, the bookstore and the Internet offer an unlimited array of information about Judaism. I remember when I began my own Jewish journey, I was tempted by every interesting-looking book I saw. The Internet was only in its infancy, but I’d have read every website I could find.

There are several problems with this approach:

  1. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Not every book is well written, and the Internet is the Wild West. Just because someone calls themself “Rabbi” doesn’t mean they have a degree from a reputable rabbinical school, or ordination from a recognized group of Jews.
  2. There are many valid approaches to Jewish tradition. Even good books and websites will appear to contradict each other, because there are many different ways to be Jewish.
  3. “Judaism” is an enormous topic. Even the greatest scholars cannot master it all. For the beginner, it’s a little like trying to drink the ocean.
  4. Some topics aren’t beginner topics. If you haven’t learned some basic Torah (which is different from Christian Bible,) meaningful study of Talmud or Kabbalah is only going to be frustrating.
  5. The upsurge of interest in Judaism has spawned a vast army of people interested in making a profit from beginners. Be sure of someone’s credentials before you part with any money.
  6. Even good books or websites can mislead or be misunderstood. A teacher or a community of learners can help process information and avoid misunderstandings.

So where is the right place to begin?

Here are some choices for beginners, in the order I recommend them for people who think they might be interested in conversion:

  1. Take a class. You can find classes by calling a synagogue. If you can’t find a synagogue, see if a local college has a class. Some beginner classes are called Taste of Judaism, some are called Introduction to Judaism, some are called Basic Judaism. My own class is called Introduction to the Jewish Experience. Almost every synagogue will have a Torah Study group, and if you attend regularly and listen, you can learn a lot not only about Torah but about Jews. You are not committing to anything by taking a class.
  2. Find a synagogue, and make an appointment to talk to the rabbi. Be honest about why you are interested (you want to learn about Judaism out of curiosity, or you are thinking of conversion, etc.) Random rabbis on the internet are NOT the same thing – a rabbi who serves a congregation has been vetted by someone. For tips in finding a rabbi, read 7 Tips for Finding Your Rabbi. Again, there is no commitment implied in simply making an appointment to talk.
  3. Read, but pick your books and websites carefully. A number of sources offer good lists of books. There’s an excellent list at Judaism 101.  You can see my own list at Good Books for Basic Judaism.I also recommend websites at Learn About Judaism Online. The Reform Judaism website offers its own list of books. Rabbi Josh Yuter, a Modern Orthodox rabbi offers a great list for those interested in Orthodox Judaism. I went to the local Jewish book store (back before Amazon took over the world) and the owner of the bookstore recommended reading to me. If you have a local Jewish bookstore, you are fortunate indeed.

Ultimately, every Jew needs a rabbi or teacher, and that is true for people curious about Judaism, too. Books can’t help you refine your questions, or point you to a resource that is particularly good for the individual you are. Of the choices above, (1) and (2) are by far the best – (3) is a poor substitute for a real live teacher.

Some of our ancient sources are quite firm about the value of a teacher:

Joshua the son of Perachia would say: “Get yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and give every person the benefit of the doubt.” – Pirkei Avot 6:1

Whatever route you choose, I wish you a joyful Jewish journey!


The Mitzvah We Don’t Do Often Enough

Image: President Obama visits a shooting victim in 2012. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia.

Visiting the sick [bikur cholim] is the mitzvah that everyone knows about and too few of us actually observe. We learn about this commandment by example: when Abraham was recovering from his DIY bris, God went to visit him (Genesis 18.) Later in the Torah, we are commanded:

And you shall walk in [God’s] ways – Deuteronomy 28:6.

Maimonides, a physician, saw the mitzvah of visiting the sick in the commandment:

You shall love your fellow as yourself. – Leviticus 19:18.

As with any challenging mitzvah, the tradition gives us many guidelines about it. Some advice from the tradition:

  • The patient who gets few visitors should be our first priority. Someone who gets lots of visitors is not in as great a need.
  • Check ahead of time to see if a visit is welcome at this time. Not every sick person wants or needs visitors.
  • Do not bring bad news to a sick person. We should leave our own sorrows or misgivings at the door.
  • We should listen more that we talk, because we may get clues to other needs.
  • Unless we have a medical degree (I don’t – do you?) we should not second guess the physicians or make medical suggestions. Undermining a patient’s faith in their physician can be extremely harmful.
  • Be aware of the needs and wishes of the sick person. Better to leave a little too soon than to overstay your welcome.
  • When a visit in person isn’t possible a phone call or similar contact may still be possible.

Some may ask, what DO I talk about on a visit to a sick person? Here are some ideas:

  • Ask, “How’s it going?” and then sit quietly and let them talk.
  • Ask, “Is there anything you wish you had here?” and listen to the answer.
  • Ask, “Are there messages you’d like me to give anyone?” and listen.
  • Ask, “Can I do anything for you / get something for you right this minute?”
  • Bring good wishes from another person who is unable to visit.

The goal is to lighten the isolation that often comes with sickness. Especially in a hospital setting, the sick person often is subjected to tests and poking on the hospital’s schedule. Letting them boss you around (“fluff my pillow?” “get me a glass of water?”) can be a tremendous gift.

One other thing: In all sickroom settings but especially in the hospital, germs lurk that can be terribly harmful to the sick person and to others. WASH YOUR HANDS – before a visit, after a visit, after touching elevator buttons, after the bathroom, after touching anything in the sickroom. Hand sanitizer is better than nothing, but there’s no substitute for a 20 second scrub with soap and water!

While there is no blessing to say when visiting the sick, there is a blessing for the washing of hands:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadaim.

Blessed are You, Eternal, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to wash our hands.

While this blessing originally was for the ritual washing of hands connected with sacrifices and meals, I like to use it to sanctify the act of preserving life via handwashing. Some other authorities may differ with me on this, but I believe it is so important to wash my hands carefully in a sickroom setting that it merits the blessing. (For more about the mitzvah of hand washing, read the article about it in My Jewish Learning.)



Why I Don’t Do “Race.”

Michael Twitty is an observant Jew, a teacher of Torah, and an eminent food historian.

I am reposting an article from Michael Twitty’s blog Afroculinaria because it is a beautiful teaching about racism, a subject that surrounds us but which most of us don’t understand.

I encourage you to read it and pass links to it among your circle of friends. I also encourage you to click the “Donate” link on the right side of Mr. Twitty’s blog. Supporting a teacher of Torah is an important mitzvah, because it preserves Torah for the next generation.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar



The minute I say that I’m African American people cast that word “race,” on me faster than the net that they used to catch Kunta Kinte in Roots.

Race is a dangerous concept and it’s source, the evolution of the Western response to human differences and diversity, from treating non-Europeans as titillating alien curiosities to enslaved chattel, colonial subjects and global pawns in a game of winner take all; is the end result of 2000 years of wrangling over what human means, what the divine means, what our destiny means when it doesn’t look like us.

African American is not a race. African American is a cultural designation. It’s as socio-political as Black, Negro, Colored, before it. Its an old term, first appearing in print in America in the late 18th century. Jesse Jackson didn’t invent it and please don’t bore me with “you’re not African,” because it’s…

View original post 1,465 more words