There is a shared foundation in all of Jewish culture with respect to death, the primary and most influential principle of which concerns the impurity of the dead. From this belief derives the need to distance the dead from places of human habitation and to confine them to separate areas set aside for them: cemeteries. The dead were buried with a ceremony—the funeral—and their relatives, the mourners, practiced customs of mourning anchored in halakhah.
Mourners at the cemetery with the body of a young man who was killed in a pogrom, Ivankov, USSR, (now Ivankiv, Ukr.), 1919. (YIVO)
A person is required to observe mourning for his or her parents, children, siblings, and spouse. People in mourning are not permitted to do certain things over precisely designated periods. For the first 7 days (shiv‘ah), among the applicable prohibitions are washing, wearing leather shoes, studying Torah, and having sexual relations; for the first 30 days, prohibited activities include shaving, having one’s hair cut, ironing, marrying, and taking part in meals of celebration. Similar prohibitions (principally not participating in meals of celebration) last for a year when one is mourning one’s parents. The practices of reciting the Kaddish prayer and the Yizkor prayers and of observing the yortsayt or anniversary of the deceased’s death were observed in Eastern Europe much as they were by Ashkenazic and non-Ashkenazic Jews elsewhere.
The allotted time periods and the restricted activities appropriate for a mourner serve to limit the period during which expressing grief for the departed is legitimate and acceptable, despite the rupture caused by death. It is forbidden to exceed the designated periods of mourning: death is understood as a decree of the Creator, and exaggerated grief is taken, therefore, as something of a reproach against heaven. As the Babylonian Talmud says (Mo‘ed katan 27b): “From now on the Holy One, blessed be He, said, You may not be more merciful to [the deceased] than I am.”
Death is also seen as a passage to the world of truth. In the realm to which Jews pass after their death, they receive reward and punishment for their actions in this world. From this point of view, preparation for death and for what will happen after death is a central factor in shaping how a Jewish life should be led, as death enables Jews to regard life within a moral framework. This perspective, which appears as early as rabbinical literature, is expressed in major works in the ethical literature, which were widely circulated in Eastern Europe. In the framework of this general understanding, which applies to the Jewish world in general, we shall point out the approaches and customs that characterized Eastern Europe.
Memorial wall-hanging with photograph of crowds gathered for the funeral of Yitsḥak Friedman, the Buhuser rebbe, Buhuşi (now in Romania), 1896. (Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)
At the beginning of the Russian Jewish poet Sha’ul Tshernichowsky’s Ḥatunatah shel Elkah (Elka’s Wedding; 1921) the bride, Elka, and her aunt have just returned from the cemetery, where their dead relatives were invited to Elka’s wedding. The story illustrates the closeness between the living and the dead in parts of Eastern Europe. One can discern two different attitudes among East European Jews toward death and what follows it. In most regions, the dead were regarded as close to the living; in Lithuania, by contrast, the living kept their distance from the dead. These differences find expression in various aspects of the attitude toward death and the customs associated with it—and, especially, in the place of the cemetery in the fabric of Jewish society. For example, the design of gravestones was simple and inexpensive in Lithuania, in contrast to the splendid and expensive tombstones found in other regions. Visits to the cemetery, for example on the High Holy Days, were uncommon in Lithuania.
The mortality rate of Jewish children in Eastern Europe was high; that is one of the reasons why death was so familiar. The absence of institutions that kept the dead at a distance from society, such as hospitals—only in the mid-nineteenth century did the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe establish hospitals to any significant extent—and, on another level, the prominence of attention to death in Jewish ethical literature and folk art also contributed to this phenomenon. Furthermore, death often took place in a familiar domestic environment, and members of the family were active or passive participants in the process of responding to death.
From a traditional Jewish standpoint, the main component necessary for a proper death is the confession of the dying. This is a formulaic, not personal, confession, based on the confession of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, which appears in the High Holiday prayers as well. The core of the confession is found in medieval halakhic texts such as Naḥmanides’ Torat ha-adam, the last part of which, Sha‘ar ha-gemul, deals with concepts of afterlife; in the seventeenth century, the confession became more elaborate. The other side of a proper death was the fear of an improper one: death without a ceremonial dimension, or accompanied by expressions of heresy or other improper behavior. The conception of a proper death and fear of an improper one are found, for example, in the writings of the Polish theoretical and practical kabbalist Naftali ha-Kohen Katz (ca. 1650–1719), who was the rabbi of Poznań and, for some time, also of Frankfurt am Main. Katz’s concern with death was expressed both as a theoretical matter in his halakhic works and also in two short but important and influential works: Sha‘ar ha-hakhanah, which discusses the process of preparing for the death that Katz sought for himself as well as the death rituals he wanted, and his ethical will, or moral testament, which included detailed instructions for the death ceremonies that he wished to have observed for him. Among other things, Katz stated that he used to take with him on his journeys a burial shroud that he had prepared for himself, which served several functions: as a memento mori, as an assurance that he would not be wrapped in a shroud that was not his in case he should die far from home, and as a guarantee that the shroud would not be made by impure women.
The custom of preparing a shroud at a relatively young age was known among Jews in Eastern Europe, and it also had a practical aspect. The question of the source of money for purchasing shrouds for merchants who died at fairs, far from home, concerned the Council of Four Lands (Pinkas Va‘ad Arba‘ Aratsot, sig. 526). Perhaps Katz’s most unusual request was that his body should be subjected to the four “executions of the court,” described in the Talmud and supposedly practiced in antiquity, after his death. The purpose of performing this ceremony on the body was to make its journey after death easier for the soul, which was sentenced during its lifetime to those four types of execution, and to prevent the need for more severe spiritual punishment.
Zogerkes (prayer leaders) and klogmuters (professional mourners) in the cemetery, Vilna, ca. 1924. (Forward Assocation / YIVO)
The interest in death displayed by Katz—who along with his rabbinical post, headed the local burial societies in the cities where he served, as was customary—and the personal death ceremonies that he collected and created, indeed reflect his particular personality and areas of interest. But they also reflect a certain tendency in East European Judaism. Although Katz’s great halakhic work was not reprinted until the twentieth century, his will and Sha‘ar ha-hakhanah were issued several times.
Another important source for death ceremonies and conceptions of a proper death was the popular ethical work Shene luḥot ha-berit by Yesha‘yahu Horowitz, which also (in the section “Masekhet pesaḥim”) gave directions for proper behavior at the time of death. The abridged reworking (Kitsur) of Shene luḥot ha-berit by Yeḥi’el Mikhl Epstein, and the latter’s Yiddish ethical work, Derekh ha-yashar le-‘olam ha-ba’, also include matters relating to death—both ceremonies (mainly in the Hebrew book) and discussions of the ethical meaning of death (in the Yiddish work). Reward and punishment after death were prominent subjects in widely circulated ethical books, such as Kav ha-yashar by Tsevi Hirsh Koidanover from Poland (written in Hebrew and Yiddish) and Reshit ḥokhmah by Eliyahu de Vidas of Safed.
The anthropological team headed by S. An-ski took a particular interest in activities organized around death and dying, as reflected in a special questionnaire they prepared on the subject. For example, in Sochaczew, in answer to an inquiry as to whether any women of the town served as farshprekhers (leaders of prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue), ritual bath attendants, or wailers, the response was, only ritual bath attendants and wailers. The latter were women who mourned for the dying and the dead in a vociferous fashion.
The Burial Society
Burial society pitcher. Mikulov, 1801. (Jewish Museum in Prague)
The earliest burial society in Eastern Europe—that is, a confraternity that took responsibility, on behalf of the entire community, for the preparation and burial of the dead—was founded in Prague in 1564. The regulations governing its conduct were prepared by Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal of Prague). The institution spread so that with time, treatment of the dead was entrusted to burial societies in virtually every community. The formal name of such societies was normally some variation of Ḥevrah Kadisha’ Gemilut Ḥesed shel Emet—the Holy Fraternity (or Society) of Those Who Do Truly Good Deeds. The prestige of such associations rose quickly—so much so that a burial society became known simply as a ḥevrah kadisha’—the holy fraternity—despite the existence of other, similar societies devoted to purposes such as study and mutual assistance.
The duties of the burial society began at the bedside of the dying. During the eighteenth century and with the elaboration of ceremonies of death, sometimes the family was banished from the bed of the person about to perish, and members of the burial society stood around the deceased while praying and reciting texts from the Bible, from rabbinical literature, and also from the Zohar. The sick person himself participated, according to his ability, in the prayer and study.
For ceremonies in the presence of the dying, the burial society made use of special booklets that contained the appropriate texts—referred to as sifre ḥolim u-metim (books of the sick and the dead). Kitsur ma‘avar Yabok, Sha‘ar ha-hakhanah, and Simḥat ha-nefesh were among the most widely used titles. Such works reflect a process that took place in Jewish society beginning in the seventeenth century: the shaping of the times of illness and death by ceremonies, which was first expressed very forcefully in Ma‘avar Yabok (Mantua, 1626). Books for the sick and dead were printed in many editions and sometimes included parts in Yiddish. They represent an understanding of what constitutes a “proper death,” which is a death that takes place with intention, in a ceremonial context.
Illustration from the Ḥevrah kadisha’ Gold Book, a cycle of pictures created by the burial society in Nagykanizsa, Hungary, 1792–1793. The Hebrew inscriptions read (over the body) “May you lie in peace and sleep in peace until the coming of the Messiah, who will proclaim peace” (Shulḥan ‘arukh 128:13); (over the candle) “The lifebread of man is the lamp of the Lord” (Prv. 20:27); and (bottom) “Illustration of resting on the surface of the ground.” (Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives/ Photograph courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)
The ḥevrah kadisha’ performed the processes of purification and burial and managed the details of the cemetery. The burial society was composed of several groups or classes, who were called “flags” (Heb., degalim) and had various tasks: sewing shrouds, purifying (washing) corpses, bearing the litter, digging graves, and so on (see image at right, top). The head of the society had the title of gaba’i or parnas, and he had assistants. The important members were called kesherim (from Heb. kasher; suitable or fit), and apprentices and younger members were sometimes called melatshi (from the Polish młodszy), and they usually did the manual labor. Female members of the society (or of a parallel society) prepared the bodies of women. In Vilna, for example, there was an organized group known as Ḥevrah Kadisha’ de-Nashim Tsadkaniyot (Holy Society of Righteous Women). Each ḥevrah kadisha’ would hold an annual banquet for its members, usually on 7 Adar (the traditional anniversary of Moses’ death), or on another date when something significant had happened in the life of the particular society.
The manner of burial reflected the social status of the deceased, which put the burial society in control of an important social resource. That power, and its frequently being used by burial societies to demand considerable sums for burial, led to harsh criticism, both from within traditional society and from certain Haskalah authors. The Council of Four Lands, for example, stipulated in sharp terms the maximum sums to be paid for burial (Pinkas Va‘ad Arba‘ Aratsot, sigs. 407, 515). Maskilim expanded their criticism of the burial societies to encompass their questioning of traditional Jewish society as a whole. In some instances, such critiques took the form of a mocking description of the burial society banquet.
Tomb of the Újhely family, designed by Lipót Baumhorn, in the Rákoskeresztúr (or Kozma utca) Jewish cemetery, Budapest, 2006. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber. (Courtesy of the photographer)
The cemetery in Jewish culture was a site for numerous functions. People came to the cemetery not only to attend funerals but also to pray, or to seek the intervention (if a relative were ill, for example) or the blessing (the bride and groom before their wedding, for example) of the dead. On such occasions the visitors sometimes recited prayers such as those found in Ma‘aneh lashon (Prague, 1615, plus well more than 20 editions before 1800), which appeared in bilingual Hebrew and Yiddish editions and sometimes only in Yiddish, and which included many personal prayers expressing a close, personal connection to the departed. Women who visited the cemetery on yortsayts or around the High Holidays used to recite appropriate tkhines—prayers in Yiddish.
In many regions (outside of Lithuania), there were ritualized cemetery visits, such as processions on the Ninth of Av and on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and of Yom Kippur. In one interesting ceremony, women enclosed the cemetery (or some of the graves) with a string on the eve of Yom Kippur while reciting prayers, and pieces of the string were later used for candlewicks. Communal ceremonies, such as prayers to halt a plague and the marriage ceremonies of poor orphans, called shvartse khupes or shvartse khasenes (“black weddings”), were also held there.
Cemeteries also sometimes functioned as indicators of identity, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries among secular (sometimes vis-à-vis religious) Jews. Thus, for example, in the Warsaw community cemetery, religious leaders and secular intellectuals were buried in separate areas. In Budapest, most notably in the early decades of the twentieth century, Jewish industrialists and bankers erected lavish mausoleums for their families, often designed by the most distinguished architects of the day.
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