The laws concerning Jewish mourners (#587–590) are one of the thirty-four categories of mitzvot according to Rambam, aka Moses Maimonides, “a preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, astronomer, and one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages” (Wikipedia, no shame).
There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, the Jewish Bible. What is a mitzvah? Jews use the word mitzvah to mean a good deed or commandment. Not all general mitzvot are Biblical mitzvot, but all Biblical mitzvot are the good-deed type of mitzvot. The 587th mitzvah is “mourn for relatives.”
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba:
The summer of 2019 was the first time I mourned as a Jew.
I came to Judaism over the course of a decade, starting in my teens and finally reaching my destination in my late 20s. Though I have lost many people close to me, all were prior to my official conversion.
That summer, my partner’s grandmother died. We were not related yet, neither by marriage nor by blood, but family means more than that.
b’alma di-v’ra chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon uvyomeichon uvchayei d’chol beit yisrael, ba’agala uvizman kariv, v’im’ru: “amein.”
I got to know the woman only after the onset of dementia, but there was enough of her still present for us to form a connection and a bond. All of the grandparents I’d had were long gone, and I was close with only one. I don’t know why my partner’s grandmother reminded me of her—perhaps it was as shallow a resemblance as their shared sex and age, as well as the general form of the elderly, bent and shrunken.
Do we need a reason to love someone? I ask because I don’t know.
Congregation and mourner: Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach l’alam ul’almei almaya.
There is a great deal of halakah, or Jewish law, concerning death in Judaism. How to prepare the dead, how to bury the dead, how to mourn, what to do for others who are mourning, etc. I find comfort in these laws, as I know many other Jews do. It’s good to have guidance during a time when it’s so easy to feel lost. I was already familiar with the laws, but knowing isn’t the same as doing.
I want to say we arrived late at night, unkempt and haggard, but no, that’s a lie. We left early in the morning, before dawn. I am not made for early mornings. It was late morning when we started the drive through D.C. traffic. I am barely made for mornings at all.
We arrived unkempt, that much is true. Mourners are forbidden from doing things like showering, shaving, or wearing makeup or fresh clothing. If one must be unhygienic, there is some solace in being unhygienic in groups.
It began to rain when we arrived at the gravesite. That’s where you really start getting in the mitzvot, when you get to the cemetery. There’s a bunch of things to do once you’re there:
- Halvayat ha’met (accompanying the dead [to the grave])
- Nihum avelim (comforting the mourners)
- Shoveling dirt into the grave
- Hesped (eulogizing the dead)
- reciting the Kaddish
All of it qualifies as kevod ha’met showing respect for the dead.
There are five different types of Kaddish, did you know that?
- The Burial Kaddish
- The Rabbi’s Kaddish (Kaddish DeRabbanan)
- The Full Kaddish (Kaddish Shalem aka Kaddish Titkabel)
- The Partial Kaddish (Chatzi Kaddish)
- The Mourner’s Kaddish
But when people say the word “Kaddish,” they usually mean the one for mourners. When you “say Kaddish,” in the synagogue or at the gravesite or wherever, but always with a minyan (the number necessary for public worship)—that’s the Kaddish you’re saying.
Yitbarach v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnaseh, v’yithadar v’yit’aleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha, b’rich hu,
[Congregation: b’rich hu.]
I stood. I could have sat, perhaps, in the front row, on the plastic folding chairs. But I didn’t feel I had the right to sit with the immediate family, so I stood off to the side. Barely under the tent cover that had been hastily constructed, as the rain came down harder and harder, the shower ever louder, forcing us to cut the eulogies short.
l’eila min-kol-birchata v’shirata, tushb’chata v’nechemata da’amiran b’alma, v’im’ru: “amein.”
Water is a classic symbol, often overwrought, but what can you do when the trope literally surrounds you, hits you in the face, and soaks your second-best clothes? It becomes far more difficult to ignore. Jews make heavy use of water-as-symbol, cleansing and rebirth. See: all handwashing, the mikveh (our ritual bath).
The men filled the grave with dirt. No shovels for women. I resented that strangers got the mitzvah, over her daughters and granddaughters, women who deserved to mourn in all the same ways men did. Men, strangers to her, soaked their suits and covered their trousers in mud as they moved the dirt. They didn’t deserve that mud, I thought. I resented that an accident of birth determined whether or not those same women counted later, at that night’s shiva (the first week of mourning following the death of a relative) service, when they were forbidden to speak and relegated to the back of the basement room. But then, I resent many of the ways Orthodox Judaism separates people based on the sex they’re assigned at birth.
I thought I was beyond my bitterness, when I reached thirty. I am not.
Y’hei shlama raba min-sh’maya v’chayim aleinu v’al-kol-yisrael, v’im’ru: “amein.”
My first exposure to Kaddish was through literature. First, Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name, which I liked very much, although it didn’t resonate with me the way it would years later in 2001, after I had lost a parent myself.
The next time I encountered the Kaddish, it was in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. Belize, a nurse, calls his friend Louis to say the prayer for the very recently deceased Roy Cohn, whose AZT Belize just stole. When Louis objects (to the praying, not the stealing), Belize argues that the Kaddish asks for peace and forgiveness.
Louis isn’t sure about that, but he does it anyway. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg helps him remember the words, reciting along with Louis. (As a young lawyer, Roy Cohn pushed for the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, charging them with being spies for the Soviets. Grand jury transcripts evidencing their guilt didn’t come out until after Angels in America had been published.) They end with “You sonofabitch.” The Kaddish does include a plea for peace, yes, at the end. The prayer does not, however, mention forgiveness.
Oseh shalom bim’romav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yis’ra’eil
I wonder if her children forgave her, my partner’s grandmother, the things she had done and said. Not just when they were children, but also as adults. I wonder if they forgave her at the grave, with the rain pouring down, or before she died, when it might have mattered a little more. Maybe they forgave her every day, with every new offense, a constant prayer on their lips as they adhered to Mitzvah #59, to honor father and mother, or at least #60, not to smite a father or mother, and 61, not to curse a father or mother. They try to be good Jews, I know, in their own ways.
Maybe that is enough.
MK Zvokel is a trans Jewish librarian living in Florida with two cats. Their most recent work can be found in Feral and eggplant tears. You can find them on instagram @mkzvokel.