Today is February 21, 2019 -

The Blessing of Jewish Ritual

By Rabbi Steven Abraham

The following are excerpts from Rabbi Abraham’s Yizkor Sermon.

Judaism is full of rituals from cradle to grave. At 8 days old a Jewish boy is circumcised; every Shabbat we make Kiddush and say HaMotzi; at 12 and 13 our children have a b’nai mitzvah; we are married under a chuppah. Jewish ritual is how we mark time, both in happiness and in sorrow. And when those closest to us die, Judaism has a set of rituals, not to take away the pain, not to bring back our loved ones, but to help us grieve, to help us mourn, to help us remember.

The blessing of Jewish ritual, and most importantly those surrounding death, are that they require a community. I remember my Cantor growing up had an insert in his siddur of all the names of those people who had died and whose families asked him to say Kaddish on their behalf. It was his honor, he once told me; I imagine him never telling the family that in truth, while it was his great privilege, it was their greatest loss.

As a rabbi I see part of my job as the protector of a 5,000-year-old tradition and yet at times, I know more than anyone, that it needs an update. Yet if there is one ritual that I hear from families over and over again how well our tradition gets it – it would be Shiva. I would contend that our rituals of mourning are some of our greatest treasures.

That is my hope today, to explain the beauty of Shiva, so that when the time comes, whether in our own lives or for our friends, we can be there as a source of comfort, calm and thoughtfulness. If a family chooses to reinvent this ritual I am open to that, however we must know what our tradition asks of us, before we make it work for us.

Shiva comes from the word shiv’ah which means seven. At the end of Genesis we read that Joseph mourns the loss of his father, Jacob, for seven days. In that same vein we sit Shiva for seven people (mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter and spouse), our first-degree relatives.

Shiva begins immediately after burial, which is why it was typical for families to have the funeral, whether beginning at the synagogue or taking place at the cemetery and then return home for a meal of consolation prepared by family and friends. Customarily a few close friends or family who are not mourners would accompany the family home to see to it that the family was taken care of. The custom of being at the synagogue for a meal following the service has its place, and when it allows the mourners to see family and friends, to reminisce and be in good spirits… this is fine. Yet, it must be made abundantly clear that while this is an option for families, it is not an obligation or our custom. We as a community are supposed to be there for you the mourner, not you picking up the tab for us.

The week of Shiva is about providing comfort to the mourners. The community comes to serve the mourners, and to help them fulfill their obligation of reciting Kaddish. Some say an imposition; I say a mitzvah. Some might say that having people coming in and out of the house for a week is a bit much, but I see its beauty. Our tradition asks us to recite Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that can only be said in a minyan… it is built in community to support us at our time of need. I believe that the love and compassion in the home far outweighs the hassle. You will meet friends, hear stories, and perhaps even see pictures of your loved ones that you never encountered before. Some will say, but Rabbi, my loved one lived out of town, no one knew them…I understand, but your friends, colleagues and fellow congregants will want to show up and pay their respects to you. Our obligation as a community is to you the mourner, not just to the person who has passed away. It’s not trivial or trite…it is what we do as Jews.

I imagine almost everyone in this room has visited a Shiva house before, yes it’s awkward, what are you supposed to say? There are a lot of traditions surrounding our mourning practices, all with their own beauty, yet if we never talk about them, how are you supposed to know? Here is one more for you: when you enter a Shiva house you are not supposed to speak unless spoken to by one of the mourners, giving the mourner the option of whether they want to speak or to remain silent. The rabbis of old knew that there were no words that could console, to ask “how are you” is futile at best, inconsiderate at worst. Some families need idle chatter, some require silence… regardless of which, the tone is set by the family and not the visitor.

Here is one last opportunity and possibly the greatest mitzvah of all, and that is taking part in the chevra kadisha. When someone dies in our community, the body is prepared for burial, not by paid employees, but by volunteers. All of the rites of burial are performed by members of our community, a silent group that goes about their business without any fanfare of acclaim, but to whom we owe a great deal of thanks. Thankfully we have these groups set up, but we are always looking for people to help out. Never worry about your level of knowledge or experience, the most important part is stepping forward. These are some of our most sacred Mitzvot, as they cannot be repaid by the person for whom you are caring.

On Kol Nidre I spoke about the obligation we owe to the world, this morning I want to challenge us to step up in how we care for our friends and family, who are in this room today, during difficult times. Not only must we care about the stranger, we must also care for our neighbor.

Click here to read the full version of Rabbi Abraham’s Yizkor Sermon.