By: Jonathan Feldstein
Recently, I have been impressed with the growing number of Christian friends who have reached out to learn about Jewish customs regarding death and mourning. More and more Christians understand how Judaism and Jewish traditions are central to Christianity, and how much of the Judaism that was part of the DNA of early Christianity has been stripped away. People going through loss are looking for a solid foundation through which to mourn that’s biblical.
Also, the fact is that Jews do mourning well. We have been mourning for 2000 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple. This is evident in many customs but none more vivid than at a wedding. It’s normal for people celebrating a wedding to feel grief of the absence of loved ones who have passed. Jews do that as well. But at every traditional Jewish wedding we also mourn the destruction of Jerusalem. We recite or sing Psalm 137:5. And the glass that you see Jewish men stomp on at their wedding is symbolic that even on the days on which we celebrate our greatest joy, part of us is broken as we also mourn our greatest loss. And we pray for the complete rebuilding of Jerusalem.
I’ll never forget the conversation I had when I realized that Jews have a lot to teach Christians about death and mourning. I pulled off the highway between Austin and Dallas to be able to speak with a friend who lost his father the week earlier. We scheduled a specific time, and I wanted to be sure I had good phone reception.
My friend is a pastor. He confided in me things he couldn’t say to others, certainly not in his church. He shared with me about his father, and how as a Christian he believed that his father was in heaven. That’s a comfort indeed, but he still felt tremendous loss and grief. He particularly found it glaring how in the immediate days after his father’s death, he received endless messages congratulating him on his father’s “graduation.” Theologically he understood, he even taught this. But when I spoke to him, I spoke to a son who simply grieved his father’s death and would not be able to embrace him or be with him again, not this side of heaven at least.
Our conversation was comforting and cathartic. He needed to be able to mourn but couldn’t do so as a pastor the way he needed. He felt he had a public role to play. I was glad to be able to be a comfort to him, not just because of our friendship, but because Jews see comforting mourners as a biblical imperative.
A year ago I visited my friend Tom for the last time. We knew that short of a miracle from God, Tom was dying. I dove hours outside DC through the rolling hills of Virginia. I drove so far (for me at least) that with every dip between the hills, I lost phone coverage, and with that my GPS connection telling me where to go. I worried about getting lost and not having a connection even to make a call. Eventually I made it.
I visited with Tom’s wife, Priscilla, who has always been like a surrogate mother. She was prepared for what was coming. Her faith comforted her on so many levels, but she was sad about the loss that she was expecting. We spoke about Jewish customs of death and mourning, and I promised to write something that she could read and absorb on her schedule.
Tom was weak and clearly not well, but his embrace was firm and full of vigor. I don’t remember what we spoke about, but it made me happy that my presence made him happy, and that I had the privilege to visit him. Parting from someone who you don’t expect to see again is awkward and sad. “See you again,” I said. Tom nodded and smiled, “See you again,” he echoed.
Central to Jewish mourning is shiva, the proscribed week-long period that begins immediately after burial. Once, a Christian friend who also had suffered death of a loved one asked me, “How do I do a shiva?” The terminology was wrong, but the intent was solid: to find a structured way to go through the mourning process. Looking to Jewish customs, traditions that have endured over thousands of years based on solid biblical foundation, is at least as good a place to start as any.
Many Christians are growing to realize that what they think is simply the legalistic side of Judaism (or how that appears from the outside), is not that, but imbued with significant meaning.
Another time a Christian friend “invited” me to her shiva. The thing is that for Jews, no invitation is necessary. Jews know when someone dies, after the funeral, you just show up. The mourner typically stays in his/her own home, or where his/her loved one lived, and receives people coming to express condolences and comfort. It’s part of being in a Jewish community. When my parents died, I was overwhelmed by how many people simply showed up, and for those who were too far away, went out of their way to make a phone call.
One of the “best” calls was from my friend, Josh. I answered the phone and he said, “Hi Jonathan, it’s Josh.” Nothing more. We did talk, but Josh understood the point of shiva is not to talk and say things that might be inane. During shiva you’re not supposed to speak until/unless the mourner speaks to and engages you. Maybe he/she will want to speak about sports, politics (hopefully not), food, faith, or ideally about the loved one they lost. You’re supposed to take the lead of the mourner.
Definitely don’t ask “how are you doing?”
Once I sat silently during the shiva of a woman who had lost one of her parents. We had never met but were supposed to be on the same flight to move to Israel in the summer of 2004. Since I hadn’t met her, I didn’t know what she looked like. And when I walked into the home and saw several people sitting on low stools signifying that they were the mourners, I had no idea who she was.
I sat for what seemed like hours, listening and nodding, but not saying anything. It was one of the most awkward moments I can recall. As I got up to leave I spoke the traditional words of comfort expressed to mourners, and left. No introduction. No “who are you?” And no asking which one was Sarah?
Mourning is awkward, uncomfortable, even scary. People try to help, but inevitable say and do stupid things because they don’t know what to say, and because they are uneasy or fearful. For that reason, its good to have a “playbook” by which to help mourners and their community that wants to comfort them.
Death is a part of life so its entirely normal, but something for which its hard to prepare. The pandemic has had hundreds of thousands of victims over and above what’s “normal.” Please feel free to email and let me know if it would be a blessing to you to write more about specific Jewish customs.