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The Concepts Of Grief And Loss In Judaism

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The process of grief and loss has been in existence since the earliest days of life. The development of new cultures and religions has influenced the way in which grief and loss is practiced and viewed in different communities. Specifically, one of the world’s oldest religions that influenced a new style of grief and loss is Judaism which was introduced about four thousand years ago. Jewish grief and loss styles are built upon their unique development of beliefs in religion, death, and spirituality. Judaism has immensely developed since its initial introduction and has many factors that influence their traditions with bereavement.

The creation of the Jewish religion began with followers believing that there is one God who unveiled Himself to the historic figures of Abraham, Moses, and Hebrew prophets. As Judaism was introduced in the world it also introduced the Tanakh. This is the known Jewish sacred text. The first five books of the Tanakh are known as the Torah which defines laws for people of the Jewish faith to follow and also explains the origins of the Jewish religion ( Editors, 2018). Judaism holds many denominations including Hasidic, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, Messianic, however, the three most prominent in today’s society are Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Judaism. Although there are many denominations, most share the main beliefs God has made a covenant with followers, communicates to them through prophets and rewards good deeds while also reprimanding for wrong-doing ( Editors, 2018), holiness is attained through following the laws laid out in the Torah, as well as their beliefs upon death and rituals carried out after one has died.

Judaism holds many beliefs and assumptions that influence their views of death and the afterlife. Followers of the Jewish faith believe that there is one God who holds life and death in His hands and that if death were to occur it would be a part of His plan. It is also demonstrated that, “… the notion that the soul will live on and that resurrection awaits is a cornerstone belief in Judaism” (Rubin, 2014, p. 83). God plays a major role in all Jewish views in the afterlife in which He is seen as the overarching power as well as the arbitrator of life. (Rubin, 2014). Traditional Judaism teaches that once an individual passes on, the deceased’s soul continues to the afterlife and faces judgment from God. However, no single teaching has been declared definitive and there are still mysteries to be learned about the afterlife.

As for children they can participate in post-funeral rituals if they want, however, it may seem a bit inappropriate by others. Shiva is the period of mourning right after the funeral where individuals stay in their homes for seven days but, “Children may go back to school for some period if both parents and child make this decision together (Grollman, p. 33). Therefore, it is not essential for them to seclude themselves in their home to grieve but can go back to their normal day to day schedule. The dying process is seen to be a public event while the grieving process is a private one. In a Jewish individual’s last days of life, people close to them gather around to say their last goodbyes and pray over them in this transition from life to the afterlife. “…may wish to recite the last confessional, the Vidui, with the help of family, friends, or a rabbi” (Wolfson, 2005, p. 7). Surrounded by family, close friends, and a rabbi may aid an individual in passing on peacefully.

As for the grieving process, immediate family members typically mourn the death of a loved one privately in their own home but do accept the condolences from friends and the community. The first week that is observed for mourning after the burial, members of the family do not prepare food for themselves but do accept it from the community. Comforting survivors of the bereaved is highly valued in the Jewish religion. “Judaism understands that we are a community of mourners. At a certain point in our lives, we all become bereaved.” (Wolfson, 2005, p. 324). Comforting those currently in mourning is seen as a mitzvah, a religious obligation, and in return prepares others for any future bereavement experiences one may have. As for the social stigma surrounding death and dying in Judaism, there isn’t much. Death is seen as a natural occurrence in life and in fact, “Judaism rejects the denial of death. It asserts boldly and truthfully that we are formed from dust and to dust we shall return…” (Wolfson, 2005, p. 4). Furthermore, there is not much stigmatization around those who are grieving but even if there is, modern Judaism followers understand that it should be eradicated. “Grief must be viewed, according to modern psychology… as a therapeutic process that nature itself has provided to help the mourner face up to and accommodate himself to his loss” (Matz, 1964, p. 350). Therefore, there is not much negative association surrounding the topic of death in Judaism.

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Cultural death practices such as body preparation after death, viewing, funeral arrangements, and rituals in Judaism are similar among most denominations. Upon death, the cultural body preparation of the deceased is known as Taharah. In this process the body is washed by members of the family, men wash male family members while women wash female family members. Then, purification of the body occurs, “… by fully submerging the body in a “mikvah” (ritual bath) or by pouring a continuous stream of water over the body” (Jewish Funeral Traditions). The ending of this act ends the purification ritual.

After Taharah is complete, the deceased is then dressed for burial in his/her everyday clothing. “Adult males usually wear a talit (a prayer shawl) and a yarmelka (a head covering). Others are buried in tachrichim (plain shrouds) to emphasize equality in death” (Grollman, p. 30). The deceased should be buried as soon as possible meaning within a few days of death. The family plans the funeral usually making it as simplistic as possible. Extravagant decorations or settings are not to be made and even “… flowers are generally not part of the Jewish funeral” (Grollman, p. 29). Initially, funerals mainly occurred in the home, however, now they are usually carried out in a synagogue, the Jewish house of worship. Jewish traditions do not execute viewings of the body or wakes in the burial process as it is against Jewish law unless it is requested to be done so in private. Instead, the family will participate in ritualistic events such as keria. Initially this act involved tearing a piece of clothing but has been changed to tearing a piece of black ribbon to symbolize mourning. “The torn garment or black ribbon is usually worn after the funeral for seven days and for some, thirty days” (Grollman, p. 32).

The first seven days of mourning after the burial are known as Shiva. In this time, the family of the deceased stay home and mourn for their loved one. Many rituals are carried out during this time in which “… some may wash their hands, which…symbolically indicates that our hands are clean of death… a light, or shiva candle, is kindled and remains burning for the entire seven days… The practice of covering mirrors [is held to inhibit self-reflection]… The bereaved recite the Kaddish prayer “May God’s name be magnified and exhalted…”, a pledge of rededication…” (Grollman, p. 33). After the first seven days pass, the next thirty day period after burial is recognized as Shloshim. In this time, mourners typically transition from their mourning process back to their normal living. However, cheerful social events are to be avoided out of respect to the deceased and the bereavement process. In addition, other practices like grooming, such as shaving or cutting hair, are to be not carried out during this time.

After the family-centered grieving rituals of Shiva and Shloshim are practiced, the period of bereavement for mourners is typically expected to have ended. Children who lost a parent are expected to conclude mourning twelve months from the day of death. Friends and communities of the bereaved seek to help comfort them in their mourning. Although these set periods for bereavement are given in traditional aspects this does not mean those of the Jewish faith cannot continue grieving the death of loved ones. Modern views of Judaism seek to aid those who are in bereavement through counseling and grief support groups. Jewish views on support groups are seen through a religious scope as they are typically offered by local Jewish community centers or synagogues which are carried out by a rabbi. Grief is religious-focused and is seen as stages that involve ranges of rites and passages. Through reflection and adaptation, “…its purpose is to promote personal growth and reintegration into the community”… and “In bereavement… Judaism teaches how to give expression to one’s sense of loss, how to regain one’s composure, one’s zest, indeed inspiration for one’s own life and that of future generations” (Gerson, 1977, p. 272). Contemplation, improvement, and different outlooks on life following bereavement is expected, however, Jewish followers also acknowledge that while they can cope with grief they don’t leave it behind which is demonstrated through their celebration of Yahrzeit, the anniversary of their loved one’s death.

Communities and a positive support system are always essential in grieving the death of a loved one. In Judaism, community can be found where the synagogue is. When Judaism began to first be practiced, the holy Temple was built in order to have a gathering place for everyone to worship. However, it was destroyed and later on a second Temple was built in its place but was also destroyed eventually. People began to turn to their local synagogues as a place to gather and practice their beliefs with others in the community. The practice of Sabbath is performed which is acknowledged as a day of rest and prayers that begins Friday afternoon and ends Saturday night. “On the first Friday after the funeral, mourners go to the synagogue and publicly recite the Kaddish prayer” (Maltz, 1964, p. 346), and is done so every single week on Sabbath for the rest of the year following the death. After this is done they also will recite the Kaddish prayer on Yahrzeit for years and years to follow to commemorate the dead where each time they will light a candle. In addition to joining at the synagogue to remember their loved ones, close ones mourning the death of a loved one may also meet with a rabbi to discuss their feelings of grief and how to move forward with life. Therefore, the synagogue acts as a place of community for the bereaved where they feel comfortable to express their emotions, struggles, and questions about religion and death, and ultimately a place where there is no judgment surrounding the grieving process.

Grief and loss can be experienced in any number of ways by individuals. Different cultures or religions can influence the way communities experience the grieving process by having unique rituals, beliefs or lack thereof about death and the dying process, views on grief counseling, and resources to aid with the bereaved. One religion, in particular, that has influenced the grief and loss process is Judaism. Followers of Judaism have naturalistic views of death with cultural-specific rituals, perspectives, and healing processes. Overall, mourning in Judaism can be seen as a rite of passage in which individual growth after experiencing bereavement is attained.

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