Updated: Mar 2, 2022
The funeral experience in Israel is quite different than what I was used to in America. This is fresh on my mind because, sadly, we buried an old friend last week. It's one of the reasons why I was not able to write last week's Sunday story.
In Israel, when someone dies, we sit Shiva. I will explain that in a minute. However, you know that someone has died because a sign is posted for seven days at the home where they are grieving. Since most of Israel's population dwell in apartments, the sign is often posted at the entrance to the building. It could be the deceased one's home or the home of an immediate relative. The sign looks like the image below.
I marked out the name, which would be the largest item on the sign, and the address at the bottom. They all say at the top: Baruch Din Haamet (Blessed is the true judge.) According to Chabad.org, "For thousands of years, Jews have been evoking the blessing of 'Blessed is the true judge' in response to death and tragedy. The entire blessing, with G‑d's name, is as follows: Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, the True Judge."
Underneath that are some kind words about the deceased. In this, it refers to the mother and grandmother as an eshet chayil (a virtuous woman—taken from Proverbs 31). The letters ז״ל after her name are an acronym for "of blessed memory." Next is the date and time of the funeral and then finally when and where the family will be sitting Shiva—seven days of mourning.
I have to admit I find these signs unsettling. For native-born Israelis, it is all they have known. But I don't come from a culture where, when someone passes, you are confronted with a large black and white sign that shouts at you: Someone has died! Someone has passed into Eternity!
The Entrance to my Apartment Building with the Death Notice
When I saw one of the signs on my apartment building door some years ago, I began to index my neighbors. Who has passed? Did I know them? Was it the English teacher on the 3rd floor or maybe that strange older fellow on the 1st floor who once asked me to help him connect his speakers to his computer? I don't think it was the Russian guy I see at the gym all the time. What if it was my neighbor Erica, a Holocaust survivor, or her husband? You see, before I even have a chance to read the name, this massive sign has already injured my soul.
I look at the name—she's a female. She has grandkids. Someone handwrote that they are sitting Shiva on the first floor. I don't recognize the name, but then again, I don't know the names of all the inhabitants of the sixteen units in my building. I conclude that I did not know her, and they are sitting Shiva at the home of one of her children.
What is Shiva?
Sitting Shiva is a seven-day mourning period immediately following the death of a loved one. Because a funeral in Judaism is supposed to be held within 24 hours, the Shiva typically begins after the funeral. Shiva means seven. During this period, grieving family members wear a ripped piece of clothing to symbolize they are in mourning.
Friends and other relatives supply food and comfort during this week. It is considered a mitzvah (good deed) to visit a home in mourning during Shiva. Prayer services are held at the home, and often neighbors will be drafted to come, no matter how religious or secular they are, in order to make up a minyan, a quorum of 10 adult (over 13) men—without which, you cannot have the prayer service.
Another thing that was strange for me is the need to get the body buried within 24 hours. Having conducted funerals in America, there is time to get to know the family to write a proper eulogy and, of course, to mourn. In Israel, it is the opposite. The mourning takes place after the funeral. During the Shiva, there is time to remember the deceased. To tell stories and even laugh. And, of course, to grieve.
In the United States, you would not go to a funeral in jeans. I would most certainly wear a sports coat and tie if not a suit. Not only is Israel a much less formal culture when it comes to dress, because of the sudden nature of a funeral, people simply come in what they are wearing most of the time. For instance, if someone passes at 6:00 AM, their funeral is not going to be at 6:00 AM the next day. That means the funeral has to be on the day that they passed. It's nothing to see people in jeans or a T-shirt. Or in their army uniform.
Sometimes, if a child is away overseas, they would miss the funeral. But they would get back in time for the Shiva. At the funeral, family members and friends share eulogies. It's not even uncommon for someone who is not part of the official list of people to speak to simply come up and ask to say a few words about the deceased.
Then there is the burial. After the short ceremony, the crowd walks together to the burial site. There is no driving, as in America. The funeral service and the burial are in the same place. At the gravesite, Jewish prayers are prayed, and then the body is lowered into the ground. This is often the most heartbreaking part, as reality sets in for the family that their loved one is gone. Last week, I watched as two daughters hugged their mother and wept as their father and her husband was lowered into the ground.
At this point, there are often two large piles of dirt next to the gravesite. It is considered a mitzvah to shovel some of the dirt and help bury your friend. Most of the time, there is no coffin, but the body is wrapped in shrouds. This comes from the verse from dust you came and to dust you will return (Gen. 3:19).
The family continues to mourn for 30 days, which is simply called the Sheloshim (Hebrew for 30). "One does not cut one's hair during this time, a custom dating back to the Bible of letting one's hair grow wild when in mourning (Leviticus 10:6); this rule applies to both men and women. In addition, men are not to shave for the duration of Sheloshim." During the Sheloshim, mourners would not go to celebrations such as weddings.
The next stage in the mourning is called the shneim asar hodeshim, which literally means 12 months, and as you might have imagined, it lasts for one year. During this time, one would still avoid festive gatherings, especially if there is live music. A prayer called the mourner's kaddish is recited at synagogue for survivors weekly.
Death is the saddest part of life. But for those who believe, who have found eternal life in Yeshua, it is also just the beginning of life.