The God Squad: What happens at Jewish burials
Q: I have enjoyed reading your column for years and have learned a lot about the different religions in our world. A person I work with, who is Jewish, lost his mother recently. Due to the current pandemic, I had the opportunity to watch his mother's service via Zoom. I was surprised to listen to their version of the 23rd Psalm. But what interested me the most was the grave site. The lowering of her casket, the removal of all items around the site, including the railing. My question is, why is the first shovel of the soil, upside down and afterward it is used properly? This happened with each person replacing the soil. Also, I have never attending Shiva, what is the proper etiquette for attending and what should you wear? Thank you for you enjoyable column. — G in Harrisburg, PA)
A: In a Jewish funeral filling the grave with earth — I never call it dirt — is a commandment for the mourners. In Jewish law, a mourner is only a father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse. Grandchildren and in-laws and even close friends are not technically mourners, although it is a blessing for them to also fill in the grave after the mourners. The mourners also tear their clothes or, more commonly, wear a black ribbon for 30 days that is torn at the grave. Mourners who have lost a parent wear the ribbons on their left side and on the right side for all other deaths. The mourners fill in the grave.
When that task is too difficult, three shovels full of earth fulfill the commandment. To differentiate between normal shoveling and this sacred act of filling a grave, the shovel is turned upside down for the first shovelful. Also, it is a sacred duty to be buried in Jerusalem and since that is not possible in remote burials, often a small bag of earth from Jerusalem is placed in the grave. After the grave is filled or partially filled, two lines of people attending the burial are formed leading away from the grave. The mourners pass between the lines on their way back to their cars.
This, and the shiva rituals, helps to remind the mourners that they are not alone in their grief but are surrounded by loving friends and family. The shiva lasts seven days but it has become the custom for many Jewish families to just sit for three days. Prayers are said at the home so the family does not have to travel to the synagogue. It is the custom in some Jewish homes to cover the mirrors in a shiva house so that the mourners do not have to worry about how they look. Their only concern should be dealing with their grief.
It is also customary in some shiva houses for the mourners to sit on low boxes or low chairs. When you visit it is customary to bring sweets, unless it is a kosher home in which case you need to bring only kosher food. The correct greeting for mourners is, “May God comfort you among the mourners of Israel and Zion.”
Many Christians have commented to me that the Jewish shiva rituals, which surround the mourners with friends during the first days of grief, are a real comfort and a beautiful ritual practice. I agree. Just showing up modestly but not formally dressed is in itself a great comfort and blessing. Your asking is a wonderful tribute to your kindness. By the way, what was the difference in the 23rd Psalm?
And yet more wonderful and thoughtful and spiritually rich New Year’s resolutions from wonderful and thoughtful and spiritually rich readers…
From J in Milford, Connecticut:
I have found this resolution easiest to keep however mundane. I throw out one thing I own every day. I keep a list with the date, items discarded, and where they go. It doesn’t have to be each day so long as the year-end total is 365. I divide by 365 to get the percentage of success. It can be more than 100 percent. It lifts my spirits to clear out items I don’t need. Many of them go to charity such as Goodwill. New cotton material remnants go to a group who make quilts for the needy. Some go to my church’s regifting sale or to someone who can use it. Newspapers and magazines don’t count and are just recycled. I’ve been doing this since 2003. Someone I told about my practice said to me, “Your house must be immaculate.” I replied, “It isn’t, but it would be much worse if I had not. It feels good and it’s measurable. Keep the great columns coming. Be well and stay safe,
MG: Well, dear J, your house may not be immaculate, but your soul is. God bless your compassion.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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