Washing of the body is called Tacharah and this involves several things. White clothes for the deceased are obtained and the digging of the grave. Burial is the same day as death because delaying degrades the body and contaminates the environment (Deut 21.23). Exceptions can be made when delaying is called for in the interest of honoring the deceased. The body is never left unattended. Embalming and autopsies are forbidden because mutilating the body is considered disrespectful. However, there some rabbi’s feel that autopsies are allowed if it saves another life with organ donations. The saving of a life supersedes any commandment or ritual. It is also allowed if the deceased gave permission. Cremation is prohibited. Funeral eulogies are omitted on the Sabbath, festivals, during the month of Nisan and minor festivals. There are no burials on the Sabbath
Mourning customs begin immediately after the burial for seven days, called Shevah (meaning a “seven”). This is divided into two parts, just like the Birth-pains (Tribulation period). The first three days are days of intense grief, and no work is done. The remaining days is considered a time for eulogizing and “remembering.” The mourners do not go out of the house, and this has been the practice since the first century. Beds and couches were turned over on their side and mourners sat on the ground, but this ultimately changed. A cloth or veil was placed around the face and head like a veil. There was no public display of mourning on the Sabbath. Sholoshim is a practice that lasts for 30 days. All prohibitions are lifted except rejoicing, places of amusement and wedding feasts. For a parent, mourning lasts for a year.
There is a rationale for these mourning rites. It is to pay respect to the deceased and they guided the mourner through bereavement. It “contains” rather than “suppresses” normal grief so that it does not become destructive. These rituals allow the mourner to “act out” his grief and multiple reactions, thus ridding himself of negative and destructive impulses. The emotional composition in a state of mourning is a blend of love, grief, guilt and isolation. A eulogy (remembrance) is important in expressing love. His sense of grief is expressed by submission to the restraints that were normally acceptable. Guilt is normal and the tearing of a garment helps “vent the guilt and helps subside the impulse to self-destruct or “hit something.” Later, the garment will be mended.
Foods were provided in what was called a “condolence meal” because the mourner does not want to eat sometimes. It was customary to bring the food, but one must eat as well. Eggs were given because they were “round” and it spoke of eternity and it alluded to the resurrection. Some said that there were two classes of mourning rites. There were those that “deny pleasure” and there were those that “afflict.” Some rabbi’s said that the first one is biblical, and the second rabbinical.
Isolation is done because people feel out of place, and they don’t feel right about things. Aaron felt this in Lev 10 after his two sons died. He could not eat of the offerings that he was supposed to eat from because of what happened. Moses understood his feelings, and let him be (Lev 10.17-20). Some people feel like they are being punished by God and this creates apprehension about further punishment. We need to be flexible with a mourner because our experience with death may not be their experience. The word “niddui” means to be placed under a ban. Lepers were under “niddui” and a mourner in many ways can be compared to them. There is no moral implication to this, but the restrictions are similar, such as hiding the face and head and isolation. It is good to give a mourner a chance to be isolated. Once he passes Shevah, and “unwraps” his head, he will have the feeling of “coming out” once again. After seven days, he resumes normal activity and is socially visited, comforted and included in communal activities. It is customary to place grass and soil on a grave prior to leaving the site. This symbolizes the participation of each person in the mitzvah (good work) of burying the deceased. It was customary to give condolences at the exit of the cemetery by saying “May the Almighty comfort you, as he comforts all who mourn in Zion.” This custom changed to forming double rows, and the mourners passing between them.
While leaving the cemetery, it was customary to wash the hands before entering the house. It was thought it was for sanitary reasons, but later scholars saw it as a reenactment of a rite found in the Torah where the elders of a town found a dead body. They pronounced “Our hands did not shed this blood” (Deut 21.6-7). In medieval times it took on great ritual significance. They washed their hands three times and said Psalm 90.1-6. Psalm 91 was also recited because verse 10 was significant. Remember, this was Europe, and Europe was full of disease and plagues in medieval times. There was a reluctance to bear bead news about a death. A shofar was blown to assemble the people in ancient times to a funeral. In medieval times. water containers were dumped, which at first was because the water was bad and for sanitary reasons, but later this was used to signal a death (poured out like water-Psa 22.14). A memorial candle was lit for seven days (Prov 20.27).
A “minyan” is ten people and when a person died without mourners, a minyan was gathered and they came to the deceased house to perform Shevah and receive condolences. Professional mourners were utilized in the first century and they came, not only for the above reasons, but to honor the deceased and showing respect. It was considered a great honor for mourners to be all over a particular city for the deceased. King Herod tried this according to Josephus. He wanted all of Jerusalem to mourn him, but he also knew they would be happy when he died. So, he imprisoned all the scholars in Jerusalem, and ordered the guards to kill them all when he died. When the people mourned the scholars, it would appear that they were mourning for Herod. The guards didn’t do it as soon as they knew for sure he was dead, and the scholars were released.
A “kinnah” is a lamentation. Poems and prayers are sung as part of the ritual. The book of Lamentations is called “Eichah” (meaning “how”) in Hebrew because that is the first word of the book. It is a “kinnah” for Jerusalem who is personified as a person close to Jeremiah who has died. The Jewish prayer book has what is called the Mourners Kaddish. This is not a prayer for the dead, but it looks forward to the Messianic Kingdom, with its promise of resurrection and the assurance of immortality. In its original form, the Kaddish is of great antiquity. It predates the Temple and it is echoed in what is called the “Lord’s Prayer” in Matt 6.9-13. Mourners will stand and say it in the Synagogue service. In the first century, it was done by the reader of the Torah. This prayer announces the greatness of God, even in times of mourning, and is like another prayer called the Borchu. One should “remez” about the Kingdom of God when reciting or hearing it.
Another ritual is called “Yachzreit” and this is done on the one year anniversary of the death of a parent. This involved fasting, a memorial candle, leading a congregational service, the Kaddish, visiting the gravesite, an aliyah to the Torah, charity and a memorial prayer. By the second century, monuments were common. The general feeling was that they were good. Rachel had one in Gen 35.20 and Absalom had one. The grave markers of King Uzziah are in a museum. Tombstones in Judea dating back to Joshua, with shofars signifying the resurrection, have been found. Markers on graves were to warn the kohanim (priests) to stay away and were put up soon after the Shevah. The modern custom is one year, then a marker is put up. In Gen 50.22-26 we read about the death of Joseph. He wanted to be taken back to the land because it was believed that the resurrection would start there, particularly at Machpelah (Pirke Mashiach 3.73-74; Rosh ha Shannah and the Messiaic Kingdom to Come, Hatikca Ministries, p 59, TBN Edition). Jewish people are buried in Jerusalem, on the east side, because Messiah will come from the east.
NASB and KJV
Lifecycle tape series by Hatikva Ministries
Hertz Authorized Daily Prayer Book
Associates For Scriptural Knowledge article on Marriage, Divorce and Living Together in the Bible
The Two Babylons