Dr. N. Marshood
December 2, 2009
The Significance of Death and the Afterlife in the Jewish Religion
This paper will explore the significance of death and the afterlife in the Jewish religion; specifically, what are the rituals surrounding death, and what are the beliefs in the afterlife. Throughout history, human beings have tried to unravel the mystery of death and to imagine what lies beyond the grave. In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances (Rich 2001). I wrote about this topic because I was ignorant of nearly all things Jewish. As I grow older, the thought of my own mortality possesses me, and I wanted to explore what another culture believed. Through an interview with Rabbi Brickman of Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, I learned much. Death
Today, we have a dying man. What is to be done with him? His loved ones watch over him, and after death has been ascertained, his eyes and mouth are closed and a sheet drawn over him. The position of the body should be oriented so that the feet face the doorway. Normally, in earlier years, it would have been common for the mourners to rend their clothing at this time, but this is now done at the funeral. A candle is placed near the head of the deceased. The relatives and friends ask forgiveness of him. The mirrors in the home are covered “to de-emphasize the beauty and the ornamentation of the flesh at a time when in the same house, another person’s body has begun to decay (Lamm 2000).” Psalms are recited. Inside the room with the body,
one’s behavior should indicate the highest respect. No eating, drinking, smoking, singing, or derogatory comments about the deceased are permitted.
The rabbi is then called. He will notify the chevrah kaddisha (burial society), which will care for the body. After that, the funeral director will be called to arrange for the local attending doctor to write the death certificate and make provisions for the removal of the deceased.
“From the moment of death until burial, the deceased may not be left alone (Lamm 2000).” Therefore, the family must arrange for a male or female shomer (watcher) to be at his or her side at all times. This person will stay with the body at all times and recite from the Book of Psalms. Originally, the practice was begun to keep rodents away from the corpse, but today it is maintained out of a desire to be protective and as a sign of respect and guardianship. If it happens that the person died on the Sabbath, no candles may be lighted next to the deceased, and only the minimal arrangements for the Sabbath may be observed. The removal of the body must not take place on the Sabbath, and a watcher must be present (Lamm 2000).
If death occurs in the hospital, the orienting of the feet near the door and the lighting of the candle near the head may not be practical, but they may be resumed at the funeral chapel.
With regard to donating organs, what used to be a wary enterprise has now become accepted due to the Jewish insistence on the sacredness of human life. The exception is with the heart, which must be still pumping in order to be sustainable. Jewish law does not sanction the removal of a still-beating heart from a living person. Brain stem death, therefore, is the determinant in distinguishing between life and death (Lamm 2000).
After death, the taharah is performed by the Jewish burial society, the chevrah kaddisha. They will cleanse and prepare the body for burial while reciting prayers. Non-Jews, under no circumstances, may perform these sacred tasks of preparing the body.
So that all may stand democratically and equal in judgment before the Almighty, the shroud should be simple, handmade, perfectly clean, and white, with no pockets, so as not to hold any material wealth. The deceased should then be...
Cited: Brickman, K., personal communication November 6, 2006, Jersey City, NJ.
Gates of Prayer (1975) New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Heilman, S. C. (2001) When a Jew Dies, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Johnstone, R.L. (2007) Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion, Eighth edition.
Lamm, M. (2000) The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Middle Village, NY:
Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.
Monohan, S.C., Mirola, W.A, Emerson, M.O. (2001) Sociology of Religion: A Reader,
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Rich, T.R. (2001) Judaism 101: Life, Death and Mourning. Retrieved 12 October, 2009 from
Sonsino, R., and Syme, D.B. (1990) What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life
After Death, New York: UAHC Press.
December 2, 2009
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