Folk Ritual – Jewish

Jewish Funeral Rituals:

“Immediately after the funeral of a close relative, Jewish families observe a mourning period of seven days and are said to be “sitting shivah”. Immediate family members remove their shoes, don slippers, and sit on stools or hard benches, customs derived from ancient mourning rituals. All household wall mirrors are covered with sheets. As a symbol of grief, mourners wear garments with a rip in the label and, during this shivah period, mourners remain in the house and do no work. A minyan comes to the house, morning and evening, to hold services and enable the mourners to recite a prayer for the dead called “the Kaddish”. Friends pay visits out of respect to the deceased and to honor the mourners. The first meal served to the mourners when they return from the funeral is prepared by neighbors and customarily includes hard-boiled eggs, which are said to be symbolic of the need for the mourners’ lives to go on.  The anniversary of the death of a family member is called the “yahrzeit” and is commemorated by having a memorial candle lighted in the home and another in the synagogue from sunset to sunset and by reciting the prayer for the dead (the Kaddish). Orthodox Jews fast all day at Yahrzeit.”

Irving, born and raised in New York City, learned these Jewish customs somewhat through experience of going to funerals.  “Particularly, after the Second World War, when Jewish American soldiers had ceremonies back in the states is when I picked up most of the customs.  I’m not too religious but after going to several funerals and talking to the mourners myself, I have learned these customs.  I’m not too sure where or when the funeral rituals began, but I believe that the meaning behind a seven day mourning, is to honor one’s life through an entire week, representing an entire lifetime.  Especially at an older age, I have become overly depressed by attending funerals and would rather send my prayers and regards to the family members of the deceased.”

The Jewish funeral rituals differ greatly from many cultures.  It doesn’t celebrate the dead or mourn for just one day; instead, it is a weeklong ritual to honor the deceased and their life to its entirety.  Family members sitting on hard stools might symbolize the idea of not being relaxed and comfortable, almost as if to suffer slightly just as the deceased did.  I am very baffled by the covering of the household mirrors.  The Jewish religion is not known for believing in spirits, which would be one way to look at the mirror ritual as a way to have the dead reappear.  My hypothesis is that by covering the mirrors, anyone in the household is prevented from looking at themselves, and more specifically reflecting upon themselves.  It further emphasizes the reflections, thoughts, and prayers to all be dedicated toward the deceased.  I think that idea carries over into the fact that no one in the house is supposed to work the entire week; instead, time should be focused on mourning and honoring the dead.

I particularly find it interesting that there is an annual ritual, honoring the day that the person died.  I feel it is a way for those who are alive to never forget those who passed.  The candle represents light and hope for the future, and is the only bright part of the funeral/death ritual. The overall Jewish funeral ritual is packed with symbolism, mourning, and honoring that lasts more than just a single day unlike most cultural funerals.