Death and mourning in Judaism

Community plays an important role in the Jewish tradition of overcoming bereavement

Is death to be welcomed or feared? Is the priority the living or the dead? The Jewish tradition incorporates all these points of view. In some communities the anniversary of death is marked by fasting and in others it is celebrated with a toast 'to eternal life'.

Biblical law is scant. When Abraham comes to mourn Sara and to cry over her (Genesis 23), we are not told if he is crying for his loss or hers. Rachel's nurse, Deborah, dies and is buried under the 'Tree of Tears' in Genesis 35 but it is not until the deaths of Aaron and Moses that the community mourns for thirty days.

Sitting on the ground (or on low stools) and symbolically tearing ones clothes, removing ones shoes, all go back to biblical custom. It is the Talmud that formalizes the laws that still apply today. During the first Seven (Shiva) Days one remains at home to be visited and comforted by the community. For thirty days (Shloshim) one may not celebrate, listen to music, shave or wear new clothes. Only for a parents demise does this process last for a whole year. As does the custom of actively participating in daily service by saying the Kaddish which is not a memorial prayer so much as a celebration of life. Some suggest this is to help the soul ascend. Others say it simply compensates the community for the loss of one of its members, by reinforcing commitment.

The Shiva is the start of the mourning process. It acts as a ritualized transition from burial, shock and pain towards rehabilitation. It allows for cathartic display instead of withdrawal and suppression. It enables the community to rally round and express its solidarity and help feed and provide for the mourners during all seven days. For some it is often suffocating and an endurance but for most it is therapeutic.

In the Book of Job the mourners did not start speaking until Job invited them to. In theory that remains the case but in our world of easy words and banter the single most problematic aspect of the Shiva is the well meant but often ludicrous attempt to explain or justify the loss and give glib answers. The Talmud insists that one recognizes and accepts God in loss as in joy. In the words of Job, 'God gives and God takes.' The purpose of visiting the mourners is to express love and solidarity rather than theological certainty.

In fact, Judaism has always given priority to life, 'Only the living can praise God'. The dead have moved on to a better place. Or if according to Maimonides, they had no expectation of Life After Death, then in fact they have simply died and that is the end of it. Talk of Heaven or Hell is merely a metaphor. The dead live on in our memories and their legacy is the way we live.

Jeremy Rosen is an orthodox rabbi who in addition to his pulpits has also been a Headmaster and Professor of Comparative Religion. He now travels and concentrates on writing.
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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism