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Vayechi(Genesis 47:28-50:26)

Respect for the dead

It has been said that one can measure how civilized a culture is by the way its dead are treated. One rabbi I know has found a novel way to give his congregants a greater appreciation of Jewish tradition: He takes them on a tour of a secular funeral home, followed by a visit to a Jewish funeral home, where the body is cared for by the "Chevra Kadisha," the Jewish burial society.

On the first stop, among many other troubling things, the congregants witness undertakers working with a cadaver as rock music blares in the background. The visit with the Chevra Kadisha is quite different. There it is explained how, according to Jewish law, the body is gently cleansed as a preparation for burial. Prayers are recited, and a "shomer" (guardian) stays with the deceased throughout the process. The difference between the two funeral homes is striking and has a marked effect on the congregants' view of Judaism.

A major theme in this week's Torah portion, Vayechi, concerns the funeral plans Jacob made for himself before his death. Jacob was the first Jew to arrange to have his body brought from the Diaspora to Israel for burial - a custom which has been repeated by thousands of his descendants.

Worried that his body will be worshipped by the Egyptians if he is buried by the Nile, and very much wanting to be laid to rest next to the graves of his wife and ancestors, Jacob implores his son Joseph to see to it that he is buried in Hebron.

Joseph agrees, and when the time comes that Jacob dies, Joseph leads a great procession accompanying his father's body from Egypt to Israel.

Jewish tradition places great importance on the "Levaya," the act of accompanying the dead body to the grave. Rashi presents an interesting rationale for this practice, declaring it beyond simply showing respect for the deceased. Rashi writes that inasmuch as one who is kind to the poor is looked upon as being a partner with the Almighty, it follows that someone who shows kindness to the dead (who are "poorer" than any living person), will certainly have gained this relationship with God.

At Jacob's funeral, the eulogy given was described as being "great and heavy." The commentaries explain that the eulogy "weighed heavy" on the hearts of the mourners. In fact, Judaism says the essential purpose of a eulogy is to move people to a greater appreciation of the deceased, and deepen their recognition for what they once had - and have now lost.

"Shiva," the seven-day period of mourning following a relative's burial, was instituted at this time by Jacob's family. Common sense (and modern psychology) supports this notion of devoting seven days to deep mourning after a great personal loss. Surprisingly, however, Jewish tradition does not see the mourners as the sole beneficiaries of the Shiva period. Instead, the Talmud explains how the soul of the deceased hovers over the body for seven days, and the specter of people mourning over the body that the soul formerly inhabited helps to ease the soul's pain.

Despite all the great changes that have occurred in the world since the time of Jacob, Jewish mourning practices have remained remarkably consistent.

May we all live and be well.

Published: January 11, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, December 18, 2010 5:22 AM

Judaism Burial

This kind of burial is one of the things that I admire the Jewish people for doing the right thing when it comes to preparing a dead body before the grave. We Filipinos do that too, respecting the dead and relatives will mourn for nine days.

(4) Esty, December 13, 2010 10:10 AM

Horrible and disgusting experience

I had the opportunity to watch a post mortem never ever have I seen anything as disrespectful. The body was treated as an object, was lifted and turned like a slab of meat. I wont go into what the PM actually entailed but suffice to say it traumatised me, a nurse of 16 years whos worked in the OR, death amongst secular people is the pits, I dont want to think what will happen to my parents who arent frum - I'm a BT and all I can say is B"H for that! The funeral home was as bad, they were laughing and joking, talking about the game who would win and where to go for supper that night. If anything would return Jews to their roots a visit to a secular funeral home or viewing a PM would

(3) uzi ran, January 5, 2007 2:26 AM

Amazing coincidence!!!

I was a Security Guard and First Aid person for a one day trip to BIKAAT HaYarden this week. I do trips often as a guard and FA giver.
This week after only 10q15 minutes walking up towards the SARTABA near Petzael one of the men on the trip keeled over.
The trip was made up of "older people" as part of a Learning about the Land of Israel (YEDIAT HaARETZ) - the man laid down and although 3 of us did are beat the revive him with 2 paramedics and two Medics for over 50 minutes HE DIED right there.
I didn't know the man but I was told by his friends on the trip his name was YAACOV (from Neve Shaanan) in Haifa ZAL.
This weeks parasha is about arrangements for the burial of YAACOV!!!
Is this an AMAZING Coincidence???
Is there anything I have to do about it???
Uzi Ran
Love to hear your opinion about this!!!
UR
Israel

(2) Michal, December 25, 2004 12:00 AM

You are absolutely right

You can't imagine how right you are.
My husband died in June while we were in Italy. He died while windsurfing, was wet and after that covered over and over with dark sand, while they tried to get him back to life again.
First he had to be brought to the Italian Christian Cemetary. I wanted to come with them and clean him. They did not allow me (because of the "laws"
he had to remain as he was...) After 1/2 an hour of arguing I only could persuade them to let me come with them.
And only after I told them a lie, that we are Jewish and I as his wife am obliged to clean him and dress him. (He was only wearing his bathing suit)
It was dirty there. and the man in charge shouted all the time angry words, until I told him if he continues like that I will shout on the top of my voice so that people on the street will hear me.
The way they shoved his dead body around made me freeze and I always held his head so that it should not "bump" every time on the table.
My dead husbands body went on his way to Germany to a Jewish cemetery. There we had a Chevre kadisha and prayers and a simple white dress and it was
v e r y consoling. I thanked G-d, that I was Jewish.

(1) Anonymous, January 11, 2001 12:00 AM

Found your article very beautiful, and appreciated the new knowledge I gained re the perspective of the soul also gaining from Shiva.

But what about the directive that a body should be buried immediately? Surely it took a long time for them to transport Jacob's body from Egypt to Israel?

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