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What Are the Jewish Customs of Mourning?

man grieving (photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As we at The Fellowship grieve and send condolences to the entire Eckstein family upon the loss of Rabbi Eckstein’s father, Rabbi Simon L. Eckstein, it is of interest to know the Jewish traditions on death and mourning, and how these rituals bring comfort to family members. Below is an excerpt from Rabbi Eckstein’s definitive book on Judaism, How Firm a Foundation, about many of the customs and traditions associated with mourning the death of a loved one.

Honoring the Deceased

When God breathed a divine soul of life into man's body, it was transformed from mere matter into a holy vessel bearing the image of God. Since man is, therefore, not only an earthly but also a divine being, his body must be treated with the utmost reverence and respect. This doctrine underlies virtually all of the Jewish laws relating to burial. It forms the basis of the Jewish concept of kibbud hamet, or “honoring the deceased.”

Before dying the Jew is to confess his sins and then is to recite the Shema, “Hear, 0 Israel, the LORD our God the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). As a sign of respect, we are not to leave the body of the deceased unattended from the time of death until the funeral. It is also customary to recite psalms when in its presence.

Most communities, have a group of men and women called the Chevrah Kaddisha, or “Sacred Society,” which assumes the responsibility for the preparation of the body — washing and dressing it and for the burial arrangements. (In some communities these acts are done by the funeral home.) Members of the Chevrah Kaddisha do not receive any remuneration for their services. Their deeds of loving kindness are, however, regarded by Jewish tradition as among the holiest and most meritorious possible. God Himself, note the rabbis, participated in burying Moses. (See Deuteronomy 34:6.)

Equality in Death

The body is thoroughly washed (this is referred to as the taharah, or “act of purification”) and clothed in a plain white linen garb called takhrikhim, or “shrouds.” Men are buried with their tallit over their shrouds. This custom of dressing the dead in takhrikhim originated in Talmudic times when the affluent went to extremes lengths to bury the dead in ornate, expensive clothing, bringing shame and embarrassment to the poor. This often prompted the poor to spend beyond their means in order to compete with the lavish arrangements made by the rich.

To show the equality of rich and poor alike in death, and the transitory, ephemeral nature of material possessions, the rabbis decreed that all Jews be buried in the same unadorned white shrouds. Similarly, since the rich buried their dead in expensive, ornate beds while the poor could afford only plain, wooden boxes, the rabbis decreed that all Jews be buried in plain, unadorned wooden caskets. Through such laws the rabbis sought to teach the true nature of the mitzvah (command) of honoring and burying the dead.

These and many other Jewish mourning laws and customs that evolved over the centuries and are practiced today serve to honor the deceased, to console the living, and to help mourners accept the reality of death. They provide great cathartic value by giving vent to the mourner’s feelings of grief. They help alleviate the mourners’ anguish and renew their commitment to God and everyday living. In fact, Jews are prohibited from mourning excessively and from wallowing relentlessly in grief. (The Talmud derives this law from the verse, “Weep not [in excess] for him who is dead, nor grieve [too much] for him” (Jeremiah 22:10, ESV). Jewish mourning laws and customs also generate a feeling of solidarity among family members and friends by providing them with an opportunity to reflect upon the course of their lives, relationships, and commitments.

“Dust to Dust”

Only burial in the earth is permitted by traditional Judaism. This is derived from the biblical passages such as, “ . . . for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19), and “Be sure to bury it [the body] that same day . . . ” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Cremation or burial either above ground or at sea is strictly forbidden. All parts of the body must be buried; nothing may be discarded. (The question of the permissibility of transplants revolves, in part, around this law.) The blood also must be buried, and for this reason, embalming is forbidden. Since autopsies are regarded as a desecration to the body of the deceased, they are strictly prohibited unless they contribute in some way to the saving of another human life.

It is customary for the funeral to take place with 24 hours after death, in keeping the biblical edict not to leave a corpse lying unburied (see Deuteronomy 21:23 above). The period may be extended for an additional day, however, to enable family members from out of town to attend. Burials are nor held on the Shabbat or on most other festivals.

Upon learning of a death (or at the funeral), the mourner recites the blessing, “Blessed art thou, 0 Lord our God, Master of the universe, the true Judge.” The immediate relatives of the deceased perform the act of keriah in which they tear their garments, with children tearing the portion covering their hearts, symbolizing the emotional tear in their hearts. It also recalls the ancient Jewish custom of rending one's clothing and wearing sackcloth as a sign of grief and mourning.

Stages of Mourning

Interment is followed by three successive stages of mourning that decrease in intensity, and gradually bring the family members from the solitude of their anguish back into the community. The first period, known as the shivah, meaning “seven,” refers to the seven days of deepest mourning commencing after interment. Members of the immediate family of the deceased remain at home and do not attend work or even synagogue (except on Shabbat and festivals when most mourning laws are suspended).

Instead, friends and relatives visit the mourners’ home and conduct daily prayer services there. As a sign of their grief, the mourners sit either on the floor or on low stools rather than on regular chairs. It has, therefore, become customary to characterize a person in this first period of mourning as “sitting shivah.”

Mourners in this first stage may not wear leather shoes or cosmetics, shave, cut their hair, or engage in sexual relations. They are to remove themselves briefly from the pleasures of life and to experience grief and sorrow. Mirrors are covered in the mourners’ home to symbolize that life and beauty are but vanity and transitory and also to show that God’s image, which is evident in man, has been diminished from the world with the death of that person.

The second stage of mourning, less intense than the first, is known as the sheloshim, meaning “thirty,” and refers to the period from the end of shivah through the 30th day after burial (totaling 23 days, since the first seven days of the shivah are included). During this time, mourners are permitted to work, wear leather shoes, and sit on regular chairs, although they are still to refrain from shaving, having their hair cut, listening to music, and attending parties or celebrations. In the third period, extending from the end of sheloshim until 12 months after the death, most earlier restrictions such as shaving and having haircuts are lifted and only a few restrictions such as listening to music remain in effect.

Prayers for the Dead

Immediate family members attend daily prayer services and recite the mourner’s kaddish, or “prayer for the dead,” throughout all three stages of mourning. Few prayers in the Jewish liturgy can equal the kaddish in terms of the depth of emotion it elicits, in spite of the fact that it includes no reference whatsoever to death and that it is recited in its original Aramaic language, which most mourners, in all likelihood, do not even understand.

The kaddish glorifies God and expresses the hope that He might soon establish His kingdom of peace in the world. It is a declaration of faith in both God and redemption, in the face of personal loss and grief. Indeed, at the very moment of such anguish and despair, we are bidden to testify faithfully, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).

Through the kaddish, the mourners, like Job, renew their commitment to sanctified Jewish living. They profess that “though he slay me, yet I will trust in him” (Job 13:15, KJV). The kaddish inspires the mourners to reflect upon their lives and faith, and also to provide them with the daily opportunity to remember their loved one.

Novelist Herman Wouk described the almost mystical power of the kaddish in the following way:

This narrative of the facts hardly explains the hypnotic power of Kaddish as a custom. For one thing, there is the prayer itself. It is a beautiful dithyramb [passionate poem] with strong rhythms and stirring sounds. For sheer word-music it is admirable, and though perhaps one mourner out of five knows what the words mean, the utterance itself is moving. There is the emotional impact of speaking it together with others who have recently suffered death in the family. There is the powerful aura of respect for the dead with which long custom has impregnated the kaddish. The mourner who speaks it feels an instinctive solace and release in the act, as though for the moment he is stretching his hand to the far shore and touching the hand of his departed. I am not saying that this is a rational feeling, but it is a strong one.

The Gravesite

A matzevah, or “tombstone,” is erected at the gravesite after either the 30-day period or the one-year period of mourning. Annually, the mourner observes the anniversary of the death with the yahrzeit, named after the German term meaning “time of year.” This custom, originating in the early 1400s, provides the mourners with a day to remember their departed loved one. It is one of the most widely observed Jewish practices today.

Year after year on the day of the yahrzeit, family members recite the kaddish, recall the life of the deceased, and reflect upon their own lives. Most Jews have as their deepest and most fervent prayer, the hope that their children will, in turn, recite the kaddish after them. A memorial lamp lasting for the 24-hour duration of the yahrzeit is lit in the home to symbolize that the memory of the deceased has not been forgotten and that while our bodies dies, our souls live on eternally.

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