Chapter Thirty-five

About the Burial of their Dead, and how they mourn the Deceased

When a Jew is sick, the learned Rabbis diligently visit him and comfort him. They consider doing so a precious good deed. If then he is deathly sick, they summon his friends, and sometimes also the learned men to him. If he is rich, they first make arrangements for his earthly goods; if he is poor, they do not bother with this. They solemnly exhort him to remain strong in his faith, and in particular ask him whether he believes that the Messiah will yet come. On his deathbed he must also make confession and acknowledgement of his sins. Here is the German translation of this:

I acknowledge before you, my God and master, and God of my ancestors, and master of all creatures, that my health and death are in your power. I beg you to restore me to complete health, and pay attention to me, and hear my prayer, as at the time of King Hezekiah who also was sick. However, if my time to die has come, may my death be an atonement for all my misdeeds, which I have unwittingly or deliberately committed, from the day of my birth on. Suffer me to have a place in paradise and the future world which is promised to the righteous, and let me know the path of eternal life. Satisfy me with the joy of your glorious countenance with your right hand for ever. Blessed be you, God who hear prayer.

This is their final comfort, that a timely and natural death will be an atonement for all their sins, and on account of this death God will forgive their sins. Everyone can understand what kind of good and peaceful conscience such a comfort can supply.

When he dies, and the soul departs from him, all the bystanders whether kin or strangers, rend their garments sometimes in a place where it will not do great damage, a handsbreadth wide. They bewail and lament him for seven days according to the example of Joseph, Gen. 50.10 who lamented his father for seven days. About rending the garment it is written Gen. 37.34 And Joseph rent his garments, and lamented his son Joseph for a long time.

As soon as he is deceased and departed, they throw out all the water in the house into the street, cover his face, and no one may see his face any more. They bend the thumb into the hand in such a way that through this bending and folding of the hand the holy name of God Schaddai, is formed and symbolized according to the Hebrew alphabet, so that Satan cannot touch him. Usually they tie the thumb with the threads of the Zizis, that is to say the strands which hang from his prayer shawl, about which we spoke at the beginning of this book, otherwise would not stay bent. For a dead man always holds his hands and fingers open, as though he would indicate that he is leaving this world and has no more place in it; whereas the young child when he is born has his hands clenched to indicate that God has given him all the good things of this world, and enclosed it in his hands.

They then wash him with warm water, so that he may be neat and clean when he gives a reckoning for his sins. They also take an egg, and beat it up with wine [as a pomade] and pour it over his head.

Then they place on him his white linen robe [küttel, kittel now used as a shroud] which he was accustomed to wear on the Day of Atonement, and thus they place him in the coffin.

When they take him out of the house, they throw to him an earthenware vessel as a sign that with him all sadness shall be removed from the house and broken to pieces.

As soon as they reach the cemetary [Ger: Kirchhoff] they say:

Praised be God, who brought you to life and created you in right and righteousness, fed you, kept you alive, and brought death upon you. He knows the number of you all, and in his time will restore you again to life. Praised be God, who kills and makes alive.

They put him down near the grave, and walk around the grave saying a rather long prayer in which they praise God that he judged him correctly. This is called Tzidduk haddin [justification of the judgment.] Some people then come who place him in the grave and cover it with dirt. His closest friends have to throw the first dirt into the grave.

They turn around, and with much moaning and lamenting return home from the grave. Everyone stoops three times, pulls up some grass, and throws it over his head behind him, which is a sign and indication of the resurrection of the dead who hereafter will flourish and blossom like the grass, as the Prophet says Is. 66.14: Your bones shall flourish like grass. Others say that man will consider thereby that we are dust and ashes as David says Ps. 103.14: He remembers that we are dust.

When they come back to the synagogue courtyard [Ger: Vorkirche] they wash their hands, and say Is. 25.8: The Lord has swallowed up death into eternity, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces. They then go into the synagogue [Ger: Kirche] and sit down, but soon they change from one place to another at least seven times, and say a prayer for the dead which they call Kaddisch [the doxology] and some words of comfort such as Ps. 90.17: The amity of the Lord our God be upon us, etc.

To conduct the mourning, his children or close relatives have to sit barefoot on the ground for seven days, eat no meat, drink no wine (save that on Sabbath or festival they may do so in honor of the feast.) For thirty days they do not bathe, cut the hair, anoint themselves with toilet oils or waters. They let their nails grow, etc. The man eats with the men, the woman with the women. They stay unemployed, and do not work, and lead a doleful life.

On the first evening the mourner does not eat from his own food, but his friends come, and bring their food with them. Usually they send him eggs to eat, for just as an egg is round and circular, so does death run around, striking one today and another tomorrow.

They have to mourn for seven persons: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, wife.

Children mourn a full year for father and mother, and when a son is left he must recite the prayer called Kaddisch for eleven months every day. The write and hold that by this means he looses the father from hellfire. The Reschaim, the wicked, stay twelve months in hellfire, those who are more pious come out earlier. So the children pray only eleven months for their father, since they do not believe him to be a wicked man.The fact that through this prayer the father can be released they learn from the Talmud (the Autor [author] of the book Brandspiegel quotes it from the tractate Calah) with the following story and fable. Rabbi Akibha once went for a walk, and met up with a man with a large burden of wood which no ass or horse would have been able to carry. R. Akibha asked him whether he was a man or a ghost. He answered that he was once a man, but now had died and was obliged to carry a big load like this to hellfire, where he was wretchedly burned on account of his sins which he had done in this world. Rabbi asked him whether he had not left a son, what were the names of his wife and son, and in what city they lived. When he had obtained all this information from him, he went to that place and found his son, and taught him the Kaddesch, and instructed him to pray for his father daily, whereby he would be released from hell. When he had learned it, and prayed for a certain time, the same man appeared to the rabbi in a dream by night, and thanked him. He informed him that he had been released from hell, and had entered Gan eden, paradise. The rabbi wrote this story to all the Jewish shuls, with a command and order that every son should pray thus for his father. So a father rejoices on his deathbed when he has left a son. On sabbaths and festivals the entire shul prays for those who left no son. The most wise rabbis plant the Jewish faith in the youth with such fables. In this way the pious and devoted Jews display their wisdom and holiness before all peoples. And I don't think.

They leave a light burning for the deceased for seven days, in honor of the soul which returns to the place which it left, and mourns for the body which it has forsaken.

The fact that they throw out the water is a sign that someone has died in the house. Other say it is in memory of the prophetess Miriam, of whom it was written Num. 20.1-2: And Miriam died there, and Israel had no more water. The most wise rabbis say that it is on account of the fact that the Angel of Death, who kills men, washes his knife or sword in the water than is in the house and poisons it. Then they write in the Talmud that Satan or the Angel of Death stands at the head of the bed with a naked sword in his hand on which hang three drops of bitter gall. As soon as the sick man sees the sword, he is afraid, and opens his mouth. The three drops fall into the man's mouth. From the first he dies immediately. From the second he becomes yellow and pale, and from the third he putrifies. As soon as the man is dead, he runs and cleans his sword in the water, and therefore they throw it out into the street. Once again, this is a good fundamental of the Jewish faith.

Anton Margarita writes that you can read in the tractate on the Booths that the old pious rabbis begged God that the Angel of Death should not appear to them on their deathbed in such a dreadful form, and they obtained this favor from God. Also, by means of the holy name they abjured and tied up Satan, and blinded his left eye, etc.

They also write in the Talmud that everyone should be warned to honor the dead, for they know everything that is done on earth. The soul does not return to heaven from which it came, but it travels around in this world for twelve months, then comes back to the grave, and must suffer greatly in hellfire. After twelve months it enters heaven, and reposes there.

In the book Schebhet jehudah, there is a disputation between a Christian and a Jew. The Christian asks why the dead know everything that happens on earth. He is answered: The soul does not enter heaven until the body is buried and turns to dust. Since it stays so long on earth, it knows what is happening on earth. He gathers that the soul does not go immediately to heaven from the preacher Solomon, for it is written Ecclesiastes 12.7: The dust (that is, the body) must come back to the earth as it was, and the spirit (or the soul) back to God who gave it. Here, says the Jew, is the proof that the body must first because dust and earth, and then the spirit comes comes back to God. So Solomon says: The spirit must come back to God, and the dust to the earth.

The outstanding Grammaticus [grammarian] Elijah writes in his Dictionarius [dictionary] called Tischbi, glossing the word Chabat: it refers in Rabbinic [Hebrew] to the time when a Jew is taken away from this world. The Angel of Death comes and sits on the grave. Then the soul comes back to the body, and is judged. Then the angel takes an iron chain, one half cold and one half red-hot, makes two stripes on the body. All the limbs of the body fall apart at the first blow and at the second the bones are scattered. When the third stripe comes, he becomes dust and ashes. Then the good angels come, and put the bones together again bury them. They call this punishment Chibbut hakkebher. [the beating of the grave] You can read about this in a prayer-book called Benschen [blessings] under the prayers which are recited on the Day of Atonement. We read also in the Book of the Chasidim Num. 32 that if one gives alms generously, loves reproof and truth, and does good from his heart, feeds strangers and prays attentively, even though he lives outside the Land of Canaan, he will not see the punishment of the grave, and will be protected from Chibbut hakkebher. It should be noted that those who die in the Land of Canaan are exempt from these punishments. Also, those who die in foreign lands must roll and wander through hidden holes and hollows in the earth, until they come to the praiseworthy Land. Otherwise they will not participate in the resurrection of the dead, as is explained in the first chapter of this book.


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Alan D. Corré
corre@uwm.edu