What is Rachamim?

Image: Infant in mother’s arms (samuel Lee / Pixabay)

Jews hear the word rachamim (RAH-khah-meem) at the worst moments of their lives, when they are mourning the death of a loved one. It is in the first line of the prayer for the dead:

…אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים

El, maleh rachamim…

El Male Rachamim, Prayer for the Dead

According to Alcalay, a good Hebrew-English dictionary, rachamim can mean “pity, compassion, love… mercy.” I usually prefer “compassion” as an English translation, because it seems to me to come closest to the spirit of the word. Why would I say that?

The word for uterus or womb, רחם (REH-khem) has the same root consonants. “Compassion” in English is derived from two Latin words “com” (with) and “pati” (suffer.) It seems to me that one metaphor for the kind of closeness required for “suffering with” is the closeness of a mother and the child in her body. If you starve one, the other starves.

So when we say the prayer El Male Rachamim, we begin with the statement that God is full of compassion for us. In Exodus 39, God describes God’s nature to Moses thus, and we repeat the words back to God in the High Holy Day liturgies, when we are praying for forgiveness of our sins:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ זנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

“Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and pardons.”

– High Holy Day Liturgy

The very first attribute of God listed is rachum, compassionate.

We are commanded to be holy, like God at the very beginning of Leviticus 19:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Leviticus 19:1-2

The only way I know how to “be holy” is to imitate the attributes of God, to embody them in the world. It doesn’t matter what my theology is: whether God is a person or a concept. Torah teaches me to “be holy” because God is holy, so I will use the attributes we have been given for God as a model for myself.

The first item on the list is rachum, compassionate. When have I been compassionate? When have I experienced compassion? When have you? Those moments were holy: God was there.

So when I hear the prayer El Male Rachamim I remind myself that I must comfort this mourner, I must be the compassion of God, so that this will be a holy place.

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What is the Jewish Prayer for the Dead?

Image: A sculpture of a mourning angel. (Maxpixel)

No, it isn’t the Kaddish.

Kaddish Yatom, “the Orphan’s Kaddish” is the prayer of praise said by mourners as part of Jewish mourning ritual. It has no mention of death at all, and no mention of the departed.

The Jewish Prayer for the Dead is a lesser-known prayer called El Malei Rachamim, “God, full of Mercy.” A cantor once told me that if you want a roomful of Jews to cry, just chant the first line of it. Even if they don’t know exactly what it is, they have heard it at the saddest moments of their lives, and they’ll cry. (I don’t recommend doing that, I’m telling the story to illustrate the power of this prayer.)

The text of the prayer, in English:

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence, within the range of the holy, pure and glorious, whose shining resemble the sky’s, to the soul of (Hebrew name of deceased) son of (Hebrew name of his father) for a charity was given to the memory of his soul. Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect him forever, from behind the hiding of his wings, and will tie his soul with the rope of life. The Everlasting is his heritage, and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.

When the departed is a woman, the words are changed accordingly. As you can see it is a personal prayer, and a prayer explicitly for the dead. Mourners are not mentioned, accomplishments in life are not mentioned, simply the fact that this person has died and is now with God.

The service leader chants El Malei Rachamim at funerals and at other mourning events: shiva services, memorial services, Yizkor, and at services remembering the Shoah. Normally this prayer is assented to by the congregation and mourners with the word “Amen” but it is said by the officiant. It is a public prayer, not a private prayer.

For the Hebrew and a transliteration of the Hebrew, see Kel Malei Rachamim on shiva.com (an excellent mourning resource, by the way.)

Rabbis and other officiants sometimes omit “for a charity was given to the memory of his soul,” depending on circumstances. I do not chant that line when I officiate at a funeral unless I know for sure that the family has given tzedakah in the name of the deceased, and the line matches their theology. If I’m not sure, I leave it out. I do not teach that tzedakah given after death affects God’s opinion of the dead, nor do I want to include anything in a prayer that might constitute a promise on someone else’s behalf.

For more about Jewish funeral practices and memorials, see these articles:

Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

Jewish Funeral – Why not send flowers?

Five Tips for Shiva Visits

What to Wear to a Jewish Funeral

Can I Go to Shiva Instead?

What to Say When Someone Dies

Death and the Jew by Choice

Mourning for a Non-Jewish Loved One

What is the Mourner’s Kaddish?

Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

Mortality and the Jews