When we want to mourn the loss of someone, we often go to visit their grave and pay our tribute to them. In the Jewish culture, many customs must be followed before being able to grieve at someone’s burial site.
If you’re not familiar with Jewish etiquette when visiting a grave, then learning their etiquette may be a bit difficult for you to understand.
There are specific days in which you should visit the grave, certain blessings you should recite, certain things that shouldn’t be brought into the cemetery, and things that you shouldn’t do or say within a certain vicinity of the gravesite itself.
We will help clear up some of the confusion and bring to light how to practice proper etiquette when visiting a grave in the Jewish culture.
Entering the Cemetery
Before entering a cemetery, you should wash your hands and hide your tzitzit (fringes or tassels worn on ceremonial garments) strings. Don’t carry your tefillin (a small leather box that contains Hebrew texts)or Torah with you into the cemetery. Make sure to relieve yourself before entering into a cemetery unless they have designated facilities inside.
When you enter into a cemetery to mourn for someone the first prayer you should recite is the blessing of “Asher Yatzar Etchem Be’Din” unless you’ve already recited it within the last 30 days. If you don’t know how to say the blessing you can easily find it in many siddurim (Jewish prayer book). Once you reach the grave you should place your left hand on the headstone (or marker), but never lean on it.
Mourning for the dead is something that should be done with the utmost respect. In the Jewish culture, they view the cemetery as being holy, consider it the same as if you were visiting a sanctuary.
The following rules must be followed within the boundaries of the cemetery:
- No eating or drinking
- Avoid levity
- No lounging
- Avoid inappropriate attire (don’t dress to impress or to be comfortable but dress in attire to mourn your lost loved ones)
- No bringing animals of any kind into the cemetery
- Don’t step on or over, or sit on a gravestone (or grave)
- You may not pick flowers that have bloomed on the grave, however, trimming the grave is acceptable and praiseworthy
Days to Visit
In most cultures, it’s ok to visit the dead whenever you want to mourn for them. For Jews, there are specific days that are the most appropriate to visit the graves of lost loved ones.
Once someone has passed away and been buried the immediate family will observe Shiva (or Sitting Shiva as some may call it). This will be seven days of mourning for the family after their deceased relative has died that begins immediately after the funeral. Only after Shiva has passed is it ok to see the grave of the person you wish to visit.
The Sheloshim occurs exactly 30 days following the burial and is also considered an appropriate time to visit a gravesite. The other day that’s common to mourn for your loved ones is called Yahrzeit (the first anniversary for when they died).
Certain other days are recognized as solemn days on the Jewish calendar and are considered appropriate times to visit the cemetery. These days include Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Tisha B’av (a day of mourning and fasting), as well as the 15th of every month and also the last day of every month.
Many Jewish people also visit the grave of the person who passed away on their birthday, an anniversary, or some other special personal day.
Days Not to Visit
As with etiquette in all things, there are things to do and things not to do. Traditionally Jewish people never visit gravesites on Shabbat, which is Saturday. They consider Saturday the Sabbath day in the Jewish culture and it’s considered to be the day of rest.
Other days that you should avoid visiting graves are going to be days that are reserved for celebration and happiness. Days such as the Passover, Chanukah, and the intermediate days of Sukkot should be avoided. Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month)is also a day believed by some people that you should avoid going to the gravesite.
At the Grave
When you come to the gravesite it’s important to remember that all prayers go to God and not to the deceased themselves. Doing such things could be considered blasphemous. All prayers should be made to God. When we’re visiting the cemetery we should conduct ourselves with the highest amount of reverence since it’s considered that of a holy place.
When you get within 6 – 8 feet of a grave there should be no eating, drinking, meeting friends or engaging in business activities. Other activities that are considered forbidden are davening, learning, or reciting a blessing. Anything that could bring you pleasure (or personal benefit) should be refrained from doing.
Reciting blessings or prayers, studying the Torah, and anything else done that’s not meant to honor the dead is forbidden within 6 feet of a grave as well.
A memorial prayer called the El Maleh Rachamim (Prayer of Mercy), whose origin is undetermined is considered one of the more universally accepted prayers that can be recited to honor and bless those that have passed away.
Depending on the custom, there are different ways to start prayers. One custom is to start with your own personal prayer, something that is in memory of the deceased that honors them.
The second prayer should be Psalms 23, the third being El Maleh Rachamim (which can be sung or read), and the last prayer would be the Mourners Kaddish. The sons of the deceased person are required to say the Kaddish (sanctification) for eleven months the day after death once their parent has passed away.
It’s recommended to only visit the same grave just once in a day. The Jewish culture discourages excessive mourning and visiting the cemetery too often, especially if it becomes a hindrance to living life. Jewish tradition has wisely provided a regular, structured, expression of communal reminiscence through Yahrzeit and Yizkor.
Leaving the Cemetery
After you’ve finished mourning and paying your respects to your lost loved one, it’s common practice to put some grass or a stone on the marker. When you leave the cemetery, traditionally you should take some grass and soil from the ground and throw it over your shoulder, however, this practice is forbidden on the days of “Shabbos, Chol ha-Moed, and Yom Tov.”
There are two different reasons why someone might leave a stone on the gravestone rather than flowers.
The first being a superstition that stones will keep the soul down. A belief, with roots from the Talmud that states souls will continue to dwell in the graves that they’re placed in. The stones will supposedly help the souls stay in place and remain where they belong.
The other reasoning for placing stones on top of graves is to signify that you have been there and stones will last much longer than flowers. It’s symbolic of both stones and souls in life, showing that they will always have permanence even with all the pain in the world.
It’s customary to wash your hands three times from a vessel, alternating between hands (there are many different customs considered for the washing of the hands). When you’re done washing your hands with the vessel it should not be passed to another person, it should be left on the ground. Washing of the hands should be done before entering your home or another person’s home.
In Judaism, life is something that is valued above almost everything else. Death is not considered a tragedy; it’s viewed more as a natural process. Mourning practices in the Jewish culture may be extensive, but they’re by no means looked at as a fear of death, nor is it viewed as an aversion towards death.
The main purpose of mourning for the dead in Judaism is twofold; to provide comfort for the living (nihum avelim) and to pay respect for those who have died (kavod ha-met). The whole cycle of mourning is meant to let the griever express full grief in the early stages of losing a loved one and gradually decrease the amount of time spent mourning so they can slowly return to a normal life.
Not everyone deals with death and mourning the same way, the traditions that the Jewish culture are accustomed to, have deep religious ties to Holy Scripture that are firmly rooted in the Torah.
Whether it’s a holiday that’s meant for mourning or celebrating life, there’s deep meaning behind their customs. Honoring the dead by following Judaism tradition is not only commendable, but it is also extremely noteworthy.
The fact that they have several rituals to help aid close friends and family members pass through their grieving stage is both sensible and sagacious.
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