Jewish funerals are rich in rituals, customs and traditions. There are three main churches within Judaism: orthodox, conservative and reform. Depending on the beliefs of the family of the person who died and how they live their faith the funeral laws they abide by and how they mourn will differ.
If you – as a non-Jew and not familiar with the religion and its customs– have been invited to a Jewish funeral, this guide will give you an overview of the traditions and an understanding of the etiquette. We will cover:
- Jewish beliefs about death, dying and mourning
- what you need to know if you are attending a Jewish funeral – including the appropriate dress code
- what gifts you can bring and if you should send flowers
- Shiva and Shloshim – the Jewish mourning periods and their customs
- the most common questions about Jewish Funerals
Jewish beliefs about death
Jews believe in the immortality of the soul and a life after death. Every custom and law of the Jewish religion has at its core the belief and message that “we are not alone”. Dying and mourning should therefore always happen amidst a supportive and loving community.
If someone is dying it is very important – by Jewish custom and by law – that they’re not left alone. At least one person should stay at their side at all times to help reduce loneliness, anxiety and fear. Once the person has died, their body will be washed and prepared for burial which usually occurs within 24 hours of the death. Jews believe that it’s disrespectful to the deceased to leave the body unburied. They also believe that the soul is in a state of anguish and anxiety until the body is interred. That’s why a speedy funeral is of great importance – they are however prohibited on Sabbath or on certain holidays. Another reason why a burial might be delayed is if close family members have to travel from far away and can’t make it on time.
Attending a Jewish Funeral
A Jewish funeral can be held at a chapel on the grounds of the cemetery, at a funeral home or at a synagogue. It is often officiated by a Rabbi but doesn’t have to be. Any Jewish person can perform the funeral ceremony. It usually starts with several readings before one or several people give a eulogy. This is followed by reciting prayers that end with “Amen” and reading psalms. Music is prohibited. After the funeral service, there’s a procession to the burial site. A Rabbi will say prayers and the casket will be lowered into the ground. It is custom that family members help fill the grave by covering the casket with a shovel full of earth. There is no viewing or an open casket at a Jewish funeral as mourners are forbidden by law to look at the deceased for a number of practical and mystical reasons. Jews are buried in very simple wooden, untreated boxes. Sometimes there are holes at the bottom to speed up the decomposition process of the body.
What to Wear: Dress Code & Colours
It is not required to wear black at a Jewish funeral. You will want to wear clothes in dark or subdued colours, though. The general dress code is modest and low-key. You don’t want to wear anything that attracts attention. If you are going to an Orthodox funeral, you should wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees. If in doubt, choose an outfit that’s on the conservative side. As you will very likely attend a graveside service make sure to wear comfortable shoes. You will find that family members of the deceased wear a black ribbon that’s either being cut or torn to symbolise the loss and show their grief.
Men’s Funeral Dress & Colour Code
Men are expected to wear dress pants and a dress shirt, a jacket and a tie. In recent years it has become more acceptable to swap the dress shirt for a smart golf or polo shirt and wear slacks and a sport coat or blazer instead of a suit. Male guests must cover their heads with a yarmulke or kippah during the funeral service and burial. Don’t worry if you don’t own one – they will be provided on-site.
Women’s Funeral Dress & Colour Code
Women can wear a dress or a skirt of conservative length and a blouse with a coat or cardigan. A business suit is acceptable as well. Again, aim for modest, business casual and low-key. You may be asked to cover your head – if you don’t wear a hat, consider bringing a scarf to cover your hair with if necessary.
Sending Flowers & Bringing Gifts
What sympathy gifts are appropriate for a Jewish family in mourning?
Sending Flowers to a Jewish Funeral?
Whereas funeral flowers have a long tradition in most other religions, you won’t find them at Jewish funerals. Judaism considers the beautification of oneself or one’s surroundings as well as the celebration of life in any form as distractions from the mourning and healing process after the death of a loved one. Some Jews also believe that the life cycle of a flower should not be cut short – it is considered a waste of God’s bounty. Jewish funeral traditions also place importance on equality in death. That’s why they bury the wealthy and the poor alike. Therefore, exuberant flower bouquets and wreaths are not appropriate.
What gifts to send or bring to a Jewish Funeral?
Instead of flowers, it is a Jewish custom to bring or send a food basket to the bereaved. They are sitting Shiva for seven days after the funeral and are to abstain from any and all household chores. Therefore, having all meals taken care of for themselves and making sure there are snacks for those who are visiting and supporting them is a great act of kindness. A meat platter or fruit basket, baked goods, a cooked meal (make sure it’s Kosher), chocolate or nuts are excellent choices. Alternatively, you can make a donation to a charity or plant a tree in Israel.
Sitting Shiva: The first Jewish mourning period – laws & customs
Judaism provides a very structured approach to mourning. Shiva – the first seven days of mourning – begin immediately after the funeral. The closest family members of the person who died gather in a house to sit Shiva – usually for a spouse, a parent, sibling or child. A candle is lit that will burn for the whole seven days. The bereaved sit on low stools, small chairs or cushions, follow mourning rituals, customs, and practices, and recite prayers. During Shiva, the immediate family is not supposed to leave the house except for specific emergencies. They abstain from following their normal daily routines like going to work or doing chores around the home. While they focus on mourning the loss of their loved one, they allow extended family, friends and colleagues to comfort and support them. Any activity that might distract from or interfere with the intense mourning during the seven days after the funeral is forbidden. When sitting Shiva one is not supposed to
- Shower or bathe for pleasure (one may however wash one’s face, hands and feet and brush one’s teeth), shave, get a haircut
- Use perfume, oils, lotions, cosmetics or wear jewellery
- Wear fresh clothes (one is only allowed to change one’s underwear and socks as needed) or leather shoes
- Sit on normal chairs or furniture
- Greet others with “Hi” or “Hello” – instead one only nods their head in acknowledgement of another person
- Listen to or play music
- Indulge in any form of entertainment like watching movies, reading books, joining social gatherings, attending concerts, etc.
- Engage in marital relations
- Or study the Thora apart from passages on mourning
On the morning of the 7th day, the mourner(s) end(s) sitting Shiva by getting up from their low stool or chair and taking a walk around the block or its equivalent. After retreating completely to give themselves time to mourn their loss they are now slowly re-entering society.
Shiva is followed by Shloshim. This is the second mourning period. It encompasses the first 30 days after the funeral and already includes the seven days of Shiva. So, once Shiva ends, there are 23 days of Shloshim left. The restrictions that Jews abide by during this period are less strict than during Shiva. They are for example allowed to leave the house, go to work, participate in most day-to-day activities, put on makeup, perfume and jewellery, wear leather shoes, sit on regular chairs, study Torah and engage in marital relations again. However, one may not wear any new, freshly laundered or ironed clothes, shave, marry, attend a wedding or other festivities, go on pleasure trips, to concerts or listen to music, receive or send presents, shower or take a bath, get a haircut or cut one’s own nails during Shloshim. There are also restrictions on how other people can greet the mourner.
Common questions about Jewish Funerals
How long does a Jewish Funeral last?
A Jewish funeral usually lasts between 15 and 60 minutes.
Is the ceremony at a Jewish Funeral in Hebrew or English?
The ceremony will be mostly in English but certain passages will be in Hebrew. The rabbi usually gives a brief summary of what’s been said in Hebrew.
Do Jews always have a burial or is a cremation possible as well?
For Orthodox Jews, cremation is forbidden. The body of the deceased will be buried intact in a simple, untreated wooden box. Within conservative Judaism, cremation isn’t an accepted practice either. Among reform Jews, cremation has become an option and a Rabbi can and usually will officiate the funeral.
What is Chevra Kadisha and what role do they play?
Chevra Kadisha is the Jewish Burial Society. It’s a volunteer group of dedicated men and women who are specifically trained to wash, prepare and dress the body of the deceased for burial and make the necessary funeral arrangements. Their duty is considered sacred. The Chevra Kadisha will also protect the body of the deceased from desecration.
Can they be embalmed?
Embalming or cosmetic procedures are not allowed unless required by law. Anything that would slow down the natural return of the body to the earth is prohibited.
What is reciting the Kaddish?
The Kaddish is a prayer that can only be said by a minyan (see below) which is a congregation of ten adult Jewish men. If you are a man and have lost a parent, it is a custom to recite the Kaddish for 11 months and up to 8 times a day – as a repetitive, but meaningful and concrete practice. It is a prayer of peace and for better days ahead and aims to support the mourning process. It is based on the belief that sorrow will fade over time and life will be renewed.
What is Nihum Avelim?
Nihum Avelim is Hebrew and means to console and comfort those who are grieving the death of a loved one. It is considered an act of kindness and deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. One practices Nihum Avelim by showing up, by being present and showing concern for the mourner’s distress. When making a Shiva call there is no need for words. Those who are there to comfort only speak when spoken to, when they are being encouraged by the mourner. It is their presence that is the primary source of comfort – letting the bereaved know that someone cares, that they have not been abandoned, that they are not alone. During Shiva, the mourner withdraws from the outside world – comforting and consoling them in their own home connects them to a sense of community.
How to make a Shiva call?
Making a Shiva call means to visit a person who is sitting Shiva and comforting them. It is usually extended family, friends, colleagues or community members who will come to support the mourners. The times during which the bereaved will receive Shiva calls are usually announced at the funeral or it can be found in the obituary. When you go to a Shiva house, you will find the door unlocked. You are not to ring the bell or knock as to not interrupt the mourning. You will find a basin or pitcher with water at the entrance which is for cleaning your hands prior to entering the home. It is custom to bring food to a Shiva home. You could also offer to do some basic cleaning or babysit to help the bereaved observe Shiva. Generally, it is enough though to simply be present with those who are sitting Shiva. Be prepared to listen but only offer support when you are being engaged to do so. Do not make small talk. The appropriate topic during a Shiva call is the deceased. Try and be as attentive to the needs of the mourner(s) as you can. When a person who is sitting Shiva nods at you, it’s time to leave again. Make sure you don’t overstay your welcome. Upon departure, it is custom to say “May God console you together with everyone who mourns for Zion and Jerusalem” or “May you be comforted from Heaven.”
What is Yahrzeit?
Yahrzeit is the anniversary of the death of a loved one and a day to honour and remember them. The word “Yahrzeit” is Yiddish and means “time of a year”. It is calculated based on the Hebrew calendar which differs from the Gregorian calendar that’s observed by most nations and cultures on Earth. If your loved one died after sunset, you calculate the Yahrzeit from the following day. As a symbol of the soul and to remind family members and close friends of the person who died of the fragility of life, a special Yahrzeit candle is lit at sundown and will burn for 24 hours before it extinguishes on its own. Yahrzeit is observed to remember the deceased in a meaningful way, to recall the pain of loss and to honour the memory of that person and celebrate the impact that they had on the lives of those they loved. It is a time of reflection. Jews often decide to fast, they will usually abstain from drinking alcohol and eating meat or partaking in festive activities. It is a further Jewish custom to visit the graveside on Yahrzeit to pay respects, read psalms and pray.
Why are the mirrors covered in a Shiva home?
Shiva is a time of self-reflection, of turning inwards and being with one’s grief. Jews don’t put on makeup nor do they shave during Shiva. They also don’t wear certain types of clothing. Outward appearances don’t matter when you are mourning the death of a loved one. That’s why a friend or relative will cover the mirrors in a Shiva house before the mourners return from the funeral. Another reason is that Jews believe we are vulnerable to be visited by inner demons when we are deep in mourning. This is not the time to take a long and hard look in the mirror at ourselves. We may be haunted by guilt, anger and/or regret. If there are unresolved issues in our relationship with the dead, we shouldn’t attempt to resolve them during a time of raw emotion like this. During Shiva, one should focus on feeling the emotions around the loss.
What is a minyan?
A minyan is a congregation of ten adult Jewish men that are required for certain prayers like the Kaddish mentioned above or other religious rituals. As the Kaddish can traditionally only be recited by a minyan and should be prayed every day during the seven days of sitting Shiva, it is a very kind and thoughtful thing to time your Shiva call with other men to ensure enough people are gathered together to say the Kaddish.