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Death

By Rabbi Gershon Winkler

The sanctity of death in Judaism is best dramatized in the story of our ancestral father, Av’raham, that very detailed story of his extensive dialogue and negotiation with the Hitites over a piece of land he had chosen for burying Sarah. That he went through all the trouble and a heap of money to acquire a particular piece of property for the burial, and that the Torah spends an entire chapter detailing the acquisition of this piece of land (Genesis, Chapter 23), demonstrates how dear the dead are to us, how we do not dismiss it the land of the living with glib disposal. The ancients also tell us that Av’raham went through so much dialogue negotiating for the burial site for Sarah in order to impart to the Hitites a lesson, that death is sacred, and the dead live on, thus the need to honor them with decent burial, not arbitrary disposal.

“The soul,” the rabbis taught us some 2,000 years ago, “is in death as she is in life”

_Oral tradition quoted by 12th-century Rabbi Yehudah
Ha’Chassid in Sefer Chassidim, No. 1129.

The Torah makes no mention of what happens after death, only that we join our ancestors (e.g., Genesis 25:8 and 49:29 and 33).The Torah herself is referred to as the Torah of Life, To’rat Chayyim. The emphasis of the teachers has always been toward Life, toward Living, in the here and now. They taught about the eventual resurrection of the dead (1 Samuel 2:6, Isaiah 26:19, Daniel 12:2, Mishnah, Sotah 9:15, Sanhedrin 10:1) though not all the sages held the belief as a principle of our faith (e.g. Yosef Albo in Sefer Ha’Ikkarim Vol. 1, Chapter 29, No. 31). They taught us about the World to Come and how the soul lives on after death – yes – but they encouraged a greater focus on Life in the land of the living.

“I want to walk before God,” wrote David some 2900 years ago, “and witness the good of God in the land of the living”

_Psalms 116″9 and 27:13

They taught us about the World to Come and how the soul lives on after death- yes – but they encouraged a greater focus on Life in the land of the living.

“I want to walk before God,” wrote David some 2900 years ago, “and witness the good of God in the land of the living”

_Psalms 116″9 and 27:13

And while Life is to be celebrated, Death is not to be feared – it    is to be seen as an integral part of Being. As the 3rd-century B.C.E. sage Ben-Sira taught: “Do not fear death. Remember there were people that have been here before you and there will be people here after you. This is God’s scheme of things for all of us, so why are you so against this particular piece of the Divine Plan? (Ecclistiasticus 41:3-4). And as the Wise Woman of Te’ko’ah told King David some 800 years earlier: “We must all die; we are like water spilt upon the earth, which cannot be gathered up again” (2 Samuel 14:14).

In other words, life can never be undone. Once we are created, we are like water spilled on the ground that can never be collected again, never recalled from what it is. We instead seep deeper and deeper into Being-ness; we live forever.
Therefore, while we are taught of the importance of grieving over a dead close of kin, we are also warned against excessive grieving. The Talmud puts it this way: One who grieves to excess over the death will soon grieve over another death (Babylonian
Talmud, Mo’ed Katan 27b).

What happens after death? We cannot know. Like Moses told us more than 3,000 years ago: “The hidden things are for Hashem our God; the revealed things are for us and for our children”

_Deuteronomy 29:28

What we do know from our ancestors, however, is that we return to where
we came from, to God who made us. That even when our bodies give in, our soul lives on.
“Whom have I in the Heavens,” wrote King David, “but you, O God. And I desire nothing
here on earth but you. Though my flesh and my heart fail, God is my rock and my thread
of continuity forever”

_Psalms 73:25-26

Judaism has many practices around the dead and the dying. What happens to our soul after we die is called hash’eret nefesh, meaning: “the remaining of the soul,” that although the body is gone from life, the soul remains in life. To protect the
departing soul from bad spirits that might be hovering about to harass this rookie who’s just left home, so to speak, the body is placed on the earth immediately upon the last breath (Sif’tei Kohen on Shulchan Aruch, Yorah De’ah 339:4).

The connection of soul and body remains for a while, so that if the body touches the earth, she will repel the spirits from approaching the ascending soul. In fact, the soul still sees the body from its spiritual abode even long after death
(Sefer Hassidim, No. 1163). The windows are opened as well, to allow for the soul to make its exit with ease (Ma’avar Ya’bok).

Close of kin tear their garment in respect to the fact that the body had been the garment of the soul all these years and the two are now separated, torn, from one another (Responsa of B’er Moshe, Vol. 2, No. 117). Thus the ancient rabbis instructed that the garment tearing be done immediately upon the departure of the soul from the body, to mark that separation (Babylonian Talmud, Mo’ed Katan 25a).

These days, the ripping of the garment is done prior to the burial or at the burial or upon hearing of the demise. But the earlier tradition reflects a time when our people were more in tune with the actual moment of the soul leaving the body.
In fact, there is a rule that if a person is dying and there is noise outside, such as wood cutting, etc., that the wood cutter is ordered to cease from his or her work in case the soul is having trouble parting from the body due to the distracting noise
outside (Sefer Hassidim, No. 723).

The person who is dying, whose soul is ebbing from its home in the body, is draped in a tallit. The bystanders help them to wash their hands ritually, three times over the right, three times over the left. The dying person then does a little
Yom Kippur either verbally or in their thoughts, reflecting on their life, asking for forgiveness for having wronged people, etc., and if they are able to, they recite Psalms 4, 6, 121, 145. As they feel themselves at the door of death, they recite Psalm
22 and 29 (13th-century Rabbi Moshe ibn Nachmon, quoted in Choch’mat Ahdam, No. 151).

The dying person then lifts his or her hands to the heavens and declares: “Creator of the universe. I hereby actively and with integrity accept upon myself Death, and I do so with joy and with whole-heartedness, to fulfill the mitzvah that incorporates all mitzvot by joining myself with you and becoming one with your sacred Name. Bring me into the mystery of the Feminine Waters (may nuk’va), so that I might by my death unify the Sacred Wellspring with the Shechinah in awe and in love, and draw forth from Above to Below, level by level, from your Flux, so that my rising from earth
to heaven be a bonding between creation with creator. May my respite be in peacefulness. Sh’ma yisro’el, ah’do’nie elo’hey’nu ah’do’nie e’chad!”

_13th-century Rabbi Moshe ibn Nachmon,
quoted in Choch’mat Ahdam, No. 151.

When the soul leaves the body, the visitors place the body on the earth immediately, and cover the body with pure white linen, and recite the Adon Olam prayer, and the Sh’ma, first line, and Ah’do’nie hu ha’elo’heem (“The Infinite One is the
Source of all Powers”) seven times, and ah’do’nie melech, ah’do’nie moloch, ah’do’nie  l’olam va’ed (“God reigns, God has reigned, God will always reign forever and ever”).

The body is then taken to be washed, first by pouring water over the frontal part, one pours another washes or scrubs where the water has been poured. The body is then turned on its left side and the right side of the back is washed, then on
the right and the left side is washed. The body is never placed face down out of respect. The body is then immersed in a ritual pool, a mikveh, after which it is clothed in a pure linen sheet and placed in a purely wooden casket void of any
artificial treatment or steel, including nails. If the deceased had a tallit, it is placed over them as well. The bottom of the casket is slid from underneath after the casket is lowered into the earth, so that the body will return to the earth more organically and expediently.

We then place the left hand on the grave and recite from Isaiah, Chapter 58, verse 11: “God shall guide you always; God will take away your thirst in the parched places of your being, and give strength to your bones. You shall become like a
watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.” There are many rituals involved in all this, I am only referring to a few. The idea of washing the body is not  only out of respect to the garment that had clothed and facilitated the soul, but
because, as the 12th-century Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Chassid taught: “When we come into this world, we are washed; likewise should it be that we are washed when we leave this world.”

We are taught by the Kabbalists of old that the dead return to the land of the living when they wish, and can appear to us in any form or garment they desire. (Sefer Hassidim, No. 1129); that they sometimes will come to us, and communicate with us but only when they want to. They don’t appreciate being conjured up (I Samuel 28:13), and when they do visit us they will visit us in dreams or while we are awake (Sefer Hassidim, No. 1128). They are not allowed to reveal to us secrets of the heavens, though (Sefer Hassidim, No. 1133), and if they come to us in our dreams and offer us something, there are two schools of thought about whether we should receive
it: the Talmud says no, the Zohar says, go for it, it’s a good omen (Vol. 4, folio 180a).

The dead roam around the world at times, curious about what’s happening here, and what fate looms ahead for us living folks (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 18b). At times, they even come to us to advise us, and well-meaningly will suggest we follow
them. But this can cause us to die, we are taught, so if that ever happens, say three times: “I want to be in this life, in this world. Do not come back, neither to me, neither to my children, etc. ever again” – and say this barefoot (Last Will and
Testament of 12th-century Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Chassid,, No. 9).

Death itself, we are taught, has no meaning unless Life has meaning. If one is not able to live, one is less able to die. Alexander the Great asked the sages of the nehggev 2300 years ago: “If one wishes to die, what should one do?” They
replied: “One should live.” Meaning, the quality we invest in living later translates into the quality we reap in dying. Or as the Talmud puts it: hi al’ma k’bay hee’lu’la dam’yeh, “This world is like a house of celebration” -the more we celebrate living, the
better prepared we will be for the transition to dying, because the empowerment gained from the celebration of life will carry us through the transition of death. Akin to the strength we gather from a party for what awaits us after the party.

“Sleep is one-sixteeth of death.”

_Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot
57b

The most potent experience in the body is that of sexual climax. Why? Because it is the closest glimpse we have of the realm beyond Life. What is the mystery of sex? Usually the body experiences blissfulness from what it takes in. But in sex, the body experiences bliss by what it sends out, surrendering of itself – which is what happens at death, when the body sends out the soul, surrendering of itself. Thus, the sages taught that sexual climaxing is akin to the bliss waiting in the next World
(Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 57b)

Three days are for weeping

Seven days are for grieving

Thirty days are for eulogizing

Eleven months are memorializing

After that, don’t behave as if you have a greater compassion than God.

_Babylonian Talmud, Mo’ed Katan
27b

As is written in Jeremiah 22:10 -” Do not cry for the dead, and do not lament for them. Weep rather for the one who is dying and shall never again return to the land of the living.” Grieve for the one who is dying, to get it out of your system, as is written: “Weep rather for the one who is dying”

_Jeremiah 22:10

Ancient Jewish Prayer for the Dead

Compassionate One,

remember now

the precious soul of

_________ (name of person who died)

who returned

to the realm from which he had

originally come to spend time

with us in this life. May his/her

soul be intertwined with your
great spirit, the source
of all life,

and in the warmth and serenity

of your wings. May his/her spirit be

joined with the spirits of our

ancestors Sarah and Abraham,

and with the spirits of other

great women and men who now

dwell in the Bliss of Paradise.

Source of all Blessing are you,

Yah, breath of all life, who created

__________ (name of person who died)

and graced us with the gift of his/her

presence in our lives. You chose

to bring him/her into being on our plane,

and you chose to call him/her back to

your realm, in your own

mysterious way. We thank you, Creator

of life and death for the time we had

with our beloved and ask you to comfort

us now for our sense of loss in our lives

and for our somber encounter with our own

mortality in this moment. Renew in us

the faith that – in your unending love –

death is but a journey of the spirit from

the finite realm of physical being to the

infinite realm of your eternal embrace.

For the soul of the human is a spark of

the divine. Wellspring of blessing

are you, Yah, breath of all life, who is

with us in life and in death.

El malay rachamim sho’chain bam’romim ham’tsei mn’nucha n’chona tachat
kan’fei ha’sh’chinah lenish’mat _________________ (name of person who
died)

Translation: Great Power of Compassion who dwells in the Realms of
the High, bring forth true repose beneath the wings of your Presence to the spirit of
_________________ (name of person who died)

Oseh shalom bim’ro’mav hu ya’aseh shalom, shal’vah, ne’chamah, v’ko’ach
zee’karon ed’nah, aleynu v’al kol yosh’vei tey’vel

Translation: You who creates harmony in the Realm of the High,
also bring to us harmony and peace of mind, consolation and strength of nurturing
memory, upon us and upon all who walk, swim, and fly across this earth.