Celebrant Views

Views on Death : Judaism

Jewish funerals

Episode 2 : Views On Death – Judaism

As a daughter of a Jewish mother and father, I know very little about my roots.  I am not ashamed to say I am an atheist, but I am ashamed to say that growing up I showed a fair amount of distain and disinterest into my roots and the cultural practices within it.  My parents, agnostic and militant atheist respectively, did not practice the religion into which they were born, practicing purely those parts and on those occasions their parents and siblings were there as witness.  Growing up was within an environment of embarrassment at being ‘Jewish’ and shame  and secrecy at not practicing it and celebrating Christmas (in its commercial rather than religious practices).

It is only since training as a Celebrant and then beginning my training as an End-of-Life Doula that I became more interested in understanding different cultures and their religious rituals around dying and death.
It seems appropriate to focus on my own heritage for Episode 2

What is Judaism?

Judaism originated approximately 4000 years ago in the Middle East.  It’s teachings believe in one God, to which  followers of Judaism have a covenant. The covenant between God and Jews is the basis for the idea of the Jews as the chosen people. The first person to create a covenant with God was a Hebrew named Abraham. Abraham becoming the father of the Jewish people. God named Abraham’s grandson Israel. All Jewish people are Israelites, descended from Abraham.

Judaism is led by the Hebrew Bible, or TaNaKh made up of 3 sections

  • The Torah (T) : the first five books of the Hebrew Bible is also followed by Christians, it is the Old Testament. The Torah has 613 commandments which are called mitzvah. They are the rules that Jews try to follow. The most important ones are the Ten Commandments given to Moses, who is considered the most important Jewish prophet
  • The Nevi’im (N) :books of the Jewish prophets such as Joshua and Isaiah.
  • Ketuvim (K): a collection other important writings.

Judaism focuses on relationships: the relationship between God and humankind, and between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.  Judaism has no dogma, no formal set of beliefs that one must hold to be a Jew. In Judaism, actions (613 commandments) are far more important than beliefs, but following Rambam’s 13 basic principals of faith.  Despite the faith believing that all Jews are descendants of Abraham, Judaism is believed to be passed down the maternal line whatever the religion of the father.

What does Judaism say about life and death ?

One of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism is that life does not begin with birth, nor does it end with death.

Jews believe life is the integration of soul (the self) and body (the physical vehicle) into a single entity. Death is the dissolution of body and soul into two separate entities: a separation of the spiritual self from that which was once a vehicle to that self.  Whilst the body will inevitably frail and disintegrate; the soul is eternal and indestructible.

However, the body is still very important and must be treated like a sacred object and with profound respect.  It will be rebuilt and restored to be the vehicle of another self.
The self (soul) we knew and loved  on this earth continues to exist after death, with continued awareness of the lives of those still living so continues to be the recipient of our love and the positive actions we do on his or her behalf.

The soul’s journey can be grouped into four general phases:

  1. the wholly spiritual existence of the soul before it enters the body;
  2. physical life;
  3. post-physical life in Gan Eden (the “Garden of Eden,” also called “Heaven” and “Paradise”);
  4. the “world to come” (OLAM HABA) that follows the resurrection of the dead.

Funeral Practices in Judaism

  • In Jewish tradition, burial should happen as soon as possible after death, ideally the next day.
  • The coffin should be simple to show equality.
  • Upon death, the body is washed and prepared for burial.
  • Between death and burial the body is not left alone. The watchers are the CHEVRA KADDISH.
  • The Kaddish Prayer is  recited by the closest male relative, its aim to focus everyone onto God at a time when they might feel furthest from him
  • Those closest to the deceased (siblings, spouse) are referred to as “ONEN” – those who have experienced a death of a person yet to be buried. They must focus on making preparations for the burial above anything else.
  • It is customary for the grieving to tear their clothing  as a visible symbol of their loss and grief.
  • Making sure that a Jewish person has a proper burial is not only an act of kindness, it is also regarded as an honour and a sacred duty. The deceased will always be buried. A headstone is very important in the role of remembrance.
  • sitting shiva
Mourners will sit in SHIVA for the first 7 days.  It is traditional to not leave the house but create a MINYAN for communal worship at home.
  • If it is the loss of a parent, mourning lasts a full year.  This period is AVELUT
  • The night before the anniversary of the death (the YAHRZEIT),  a candle is lit and kept burning for 24hours, the Kaddish is recited and it is common for the family to fast and mourners to make charitable offerings

“And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art” 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel


Before descending into a human body, every Jewish soul basks in the light of the SHECHINA in the upper levels of Gan Eden, in heaven itself.  After death the soul returns to the lower levels and works its way up .  Whilst Judaism believes in ‘heaven ‘ and ‘hell’ these are very different from the Christian doctrines. Life is not lived just for the bliss of the afterlife, as so many mistakenly think. Life is lived for life itself. The purpose of life is for something so great that can only be accomplished down there.


For episode 1 follow this link

Source information:  The Chabad   

and BBC Bitesized 

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