Jewish Customs of Mourning

Copyright (c) 1997, Rabbi Tom Louchheim
(all rights reserved)
Congregation Or Chadash
Tucson, Arizona


I. The Funeral and Burial
II. Upon Returning from the Cemetery
III. Kaddish - Memorial Service
IV. Shiva
V. Sheloshim
VI. Avelut and Matzevah
VII. Yahrzeit
VIII. Yizkor

Definition: Mourner: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife. Other relatives are not considered "mourners" unless they are the next of kin.

I. The Funeral and Burial

Cutting Keriah: The tearing of a black ribbon or garment prior to the funeral allows the mourner the opportunity to express anguish and anger. This tear is an outward sign of grief and mourning and signifies that the mourner is confronting death head-on. The prevailing custom is to tear the ribbon on the mourner's right side, but on the left side (closest to the heart) for someone mourning a father or mother.

Pallbearers carry the casket to the grave, a custom dating back to biblical times when Jacob's children carried him to the grave. Seven stops are made while Psalm 91 is recited. The stops represent the seven stages of life (Ecclesiastes Rabba 1:1).

The El Malei Rachamim is a prayer for the peace of the departed soul and is recited or chanted after the casket is lowered into the ground.

Kevurah is the shoveling of earth into the grave. This last physical act performed by a loved one helps the mourner on the way to acceptance and reconciliation. It is often done with the back of the shovel to indicate a reluctance to perform this ritual.

II. Upon Returning from the Cemetery

It is customary to place a bowl of water with a cup at the entrance of the home for those returning from the cemetery. This is a tradition from the early post-Talmudic period. It is done "to dispel the spirits of uncleanness" which cling to one's person, these being "the demons that follow them home." It can be seen metaphiorically as a ritual cleansing from a place of death to a place of life. The mystical custom is to pour water over each hand three times.

The shiva candle is lit immediately on returning from the cemetery. It officially marks the beginning of the 7 days of mourning. The Bible teaches that "the light of God is the soul of humankind" (Proverbs 20:27). The shiva candle is therefore symbolic of the soul of the deceased.

The mourners' first meal after the funeral is called se'udat havra'ah, "meal of condolence." The meal is prepared for them by neighbors and friends and helps mourners regain their strength. Mourners are required to eat before anyone else. It is customary for the meal to include round foods such as hard boiled eggs and lentils, which symbolize the cyclical nature of life -- the mourners return from the cemetery marking their return to life after a direct confrontation with death.

III. Kaddish - Memorial Service

Kaddish is an Aramaic word which means "holy" or "sanctity."

Mourners first recite the Kaddish at the cemetery after the burial.

The Kaddish is not a prayer about death. It is an affirmation of life and our faith in God. It reaffirms the mourners relationship with God and God's will in this world.

At graveside the Kaddish is recited completely by the mourners alone. The friends and other relatives, in attendance, recite the appropriate congregational responses. Kaddish is traditionally recited in the presence of 10 or more adults.

The Kaddish is recited for 11 months less one day for parents. Next of kin can accept the responsibility of saying Kaddish if there is no one else to do so. According to Jewish legend the Kaddish is recited for this length of time because a soul that does not have enough of its own merit to enter Gan Eden, "Paradise" has one year to "earn" eternity. Each time a mourner recites the Kaddish for the deceased, the soul "earns points" in its heavenly quest. No soul is so bad that it needs a full year to acquire these points.

The Kaddish is recited on each anniversary of death (Yahrzeit), and at memorial services (Yizkor) four times a year:

IV. Shiva

Shiva means seven, and refers to the first week of mourning after burial. It is the most intense of the three periods of mourning. Shiva is a time of intense but sheltered and controlled grief. It is the second stage (the first being, the funeral arrangements and the funeral) of the "grief work" done by the mourners over a prolonged period of time. Shiva affords the mourners time to remember the deceased and to share stories of his or her life with friends and family.

The day of the burial is counted as the first day of Shiva, and the 7th day is only observed for one hour.

It is customary during Shiva in order to focus complete attention on one's grief:

There is no mourning on the Sabbath (from Friday afternoon until Saturday night after dark) or Festivals. These days are still counted as part of the seven days of Shiva.

If a mourner's livelihood is at risk if he or she is away for the full seven days, three days of Shiva may be observed.

The arrival of any Festival annuls the remainder of Shiva no matter how minimal a period of mourning was observed. If a burial took place in the midst of a Festival, since Shiva is not permitted, it begins after the festival.

Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day. The candle is blown out in silence. The mourners take a walk around the block, as a way of taking a first step back into the world. There are those who suggest that the soul of the deceased abides with the mourners. The soul is there to comfort the family. This first walk is for the mourners to escort the soul out of the house, indicating that they are going to be all right.

V. Sheloshim

The second period of mourning is less intense. Sheloshim means "thirty". This period includes the Shiva period plus the following twenty-three days. The mourners return to their "normal" routine and activities. However, attending celebrations, weddings, places where there will be music and dancing, is prohibited. In some communities, those mourning for a parent do not attend celebrations for a full year following the death.

It is customary to go to services every day to say Kaddish, or attend services every Shabbat with the same intention.

Some follow the custom of not visiting the grave until after Sheloshim, others after the Shiva period.

VI. Avelut and Matzevah

Avelut means "mourning" and refers to the 12-month period observed only by people who have lost a parent. Kaddish is recited for eleven months.

A matzeivah, "tombstone" is placed on the grave and dedicated in a ceremony called "unveiling". This dedication of the stone marker may be done anytime between the end of Sheloshim and the anniversary of the death. A cloth is removed from the stone in the presence of the immediate family and friends. Special Psalms and prayers may be said.

The top of the stone often has the Hebrew letters pay and nun standing for "Here lies buried". On the bottom are five Hebrew letters, tuf, nun, tzadi, bet, hay, meaning "May his (her) soul be bound up in the bond of life eternal."

The custom of leaving pebbles may date back to biblical days when individuals were buried under piles of stones. Today, they are left as tokens that people have been there to visit and to remember.

VII. Yahrzeit

Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning "a year's time". Each year the anniversary of the death is commemorated according to the Hebrew calendar. This day is observed as a solemn day of remembrance. On the first anniversary the Yahrzeit is commemorated on the anniversary of the day of the funeral. From then on, it is observed on the anniversary of the day of death. This signifies the end of the mourning period and is helpful in bringing closure to the family.

A Yahrzeit candle is lit on the eve of the date in the home, symbolic of the soul and spirit of the deceased. It burns for 24 hours.

It is customary for mourners to attend synagogue beginning with the evening Ma'ariv the night before, followed by the morning service and concluding with the Mincha afternoon service. Here the Kaddish is recited. One may attend services on the closest Shabbat before the anniversary date, to receive an Aliyah to the Torah (the El Maley Rachamim, the special memorial prayer, may be recited at this time), or other honor.

Tzedakah, "charity" is appropriate to be given in memory of the deceased.

If one forgets to observe the Yahrzeit, it should be observed when remembered.

VIII. Yizkor

Yizkor means "remember" and refers to the memorial services held on Yom Kippur, at the end of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. Communal and individual prayers of memory are read. The central prayer begins with Yizkor Elohim, "May God remember" the souls of the deceased.

Yizkor services are attended by anyone who has lost a parent, child, sibling, or spouse. The sermons remind us of all of the attributes, faith, character, piety of the deceased as a model for living for the survivors.

When referring to the deceased many say the name of the person followed by alav hashalom for a man, or alehah hashalom for a woman (literally, "On him (her) peace"). These phrases demonstrate respect and reverence for the deceased.


and Congregation Anshei Israel, upon whose pamphlet this is based.

Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Congregation Or Chadash
630 N. Craycroft, Suite 232, Tucson, AZ 85711

See also Rabbi Kenneth Cohen's sermon "Good Grief"

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