Understanding the religion and traditions a loved one observed in life can help you best honor them as you grieve their loss. In Judaism, the blending of families and interfaith marriages has contributed to some changes in observance—from strict observance in Orthodox and Conservative movements to the more liberal Reform Judaism.
Families may choose to modify traditional funeral customs, personalizing them to meet the family’s preferences. For example, most Jews will sit shiva or set aside time dedicated to intense mourning. The Conservative tradition is to sit shiva for seven days, while Reform Jews may pare that back to three days. Though some families no longer strictly follow Orthodox Jewish mourning rituals, there are still many who adhere to the traditions and customs established in the Torah.
The five stages of mourning in Judaism
- Aninut: the period from the time of death to the burial.
- Shiva: the first week after death.
- Sheloshim: the first month after a funeral, including shiva.
- Shnat ha-evel: the 11 months after sheloshim, essentially the first year after death.
- Yahrzeit: the , per the Hebrew calendar, of the death of a loved one.
Jewish mourning rituals
Jewish mourning rituals are structured to provide healing and comfort during a time of immense sadness. Though traditions may be personalized depending on a family's level of observation, Orthodox and Conservative Jewish families usually observe the following mourning rituals:
During aninut, someone who has lost an immediate relative is referred to as an onen. Because Jewish tradition recognizes the days right after a death as a time of great pain, an onen is usually freed from the responsibility of performing mitzvot, or religious commandments such as recitations of prayers. There are exceptions, however, such as during Shabbat or on Jewish holidays.
Everyone—even close friends or relatives—is encouraged to wait until after the burial to offer and support to the onen. Funeral guests traditionally say the following words of consolation as the family leaves the cemetery: May the Almighty comfort you among all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
The funeral and burial
Tradition, custom and Jewish law call for a funeral to take place as soon as possible after a death. Some families may try to hold a burial within 24 hours, but others opt to give faraway loved ones time to travel. These families prioritize the gathering and community over strict traditions.
Regardless of timing, the funeral director helps the family coordinate preparation of the loved one for burial, including ceremonial purification, or ritual washing, and dressing the loved one in shrouds. The service is held at a synagogue, funeral home or cemetery. There's usually a , as well as and the El Maleh Rahamim (G-d Full of Compassion prayer).
According to tradition, during the reciting of Baruch Dayan Emet (G-d Is the True Judge), mourners either tear their clothing or a piece of cloth provided by the funeral director or rabbi. The tearing symbolizes the ending of the physical relationship, alongside the continuation of emotional and spiritual relationships with the loved one.
A follows the funeral if it took place somewhere besides the cemetery. As the casket is lowered, mourners take turns filling the grave with soil. This act is considered a loving gesture that unites the living. Some consider it a comfort, as if they are tucking their loved one in with a blanket of earth.
Meal of consolation
As families of all kinds of backgrounds will, Jewish families tend to gather together to eat after a loved one's funeral. At the meal of consolation (seudat havra’ah), round foods—like bagels, bread and hard-boiled eggs—are part of the menu. Their shape represents the circle of life.
The meal usually takes place at the home of the person who has died, but it could also be at the home of a family member, friend or neighbor. A bowl, pitcher of water and towels may be placed outside the door to the home so that ritual hand washing may be performed. This custom is based on a Biblical concept.
The meal of consolation marks the start of shiva.
Shiva means seven in Hebrew. In Judaism, the first seven days after a death are set aside to focus on your feelings and begin to heal without worrying about daily tasks or responsibilities. For this reason, the community gathers to help mourners meet their needs, such as by bringing food and gifts. People may also gather to pray and provide company.
The mourners, or the child, parent, spouse or sibling of the loved one who has died, may be restricted from leaving the house, grooming, bathing, shaving and participating in joyful activities during shiva. However, on Shabbat (the Sabbath), mourners are encouraged to pause and meet with the congregation to say Kaddish—a mourning prayer that praises God.
Sheloshim means 30 in Hebrew. The word is also used to describe the first 30 days following a funeral. After shiva, mourners may return to work but will still skip joyful social events like parties or concerts.
Sheloshim is the complete mourning period, unless the person who has died is your mother or father. This doesn't mean that the feelings that accompany the death of a loved one must end or go unacknowledged after this time; it's merely that the traditional restrictions around socializing are lifted.
The mourning period for a parent in Jewish tradition is a whole year. In Judaism, fathers and mothers are highly regarded and respected, and it's felt they are due special honor and remembrance.
After sheloshim, the children may resume normal activities, but they will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish daily for the 11 months of shnat ha-evel to honor their parent.
The unveiling is a brief ceremony at the cemetery after the placement of the matzeivah, or headstone. An unveiling ceremony usually takes place after sheloshim, sometimes up to a year after a death. Family and friends gather at the gravesite to see their loved one's gravestone for the first time.
They may read Psalms and share memories about the loved one. They recite El Malei Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish. The service is uplifting and reflective. A rabbi doesn’t need to be there, but a rabbi may help the family plan the unveiling to ensure the loved one is properly honored.
Yahrzeit is the anniversary of a loved one's death, according to the Jewish calendar. It’s usually observed by lighting a 24-hour yahrzeit candle at home. Some choose to personalize this custom with a picture of the loved one or poems placed by the candle. Typically, the family recites the Mourner’s Kaddish at the synagogue.
The first yahrzeit marks the end of the five stages of mourning in Judaism.
Advance planning as a mitzvah
Mitzvah means commandment in Hebrew, and the word carries the sense of a good deed. Planning ahead for your funeral and burial can be thought of as a mitzvah, or act of kindness toward your family. Whether you observe Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Judaism, Dignity Memorial® experts are here to help you personalize a service that honors your family’s customs, traditions and beliefs. Let us show you how you can plan ahead.