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664 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 



BELIEFS, RITES, AND CUSTOMS OF THE JEWS, 
CONNECTED WITH DEATH, BURIAL, AND 
MOURNING. 

(as illustrated by the blble and later jewish 

Literature.) 

III. 

When a professing Jew is about to " go the way of all 
the earth" (Josh, xxiii. 14), a solemn obligation is imposed 
upon those who visit him on his sick-bed (in itself a 
religious duty), to counsel him to make a full confession of 
his sins to God. His friends are not, however, to alarm 
him unnecessarily; but to introduce the suggestion in a 
casual manner, telling him that many persons who recited 
such a confession under similar circumstances did not die 
in consequence, whilst others have passed away without 
embracing the precious opportunity afforded them for 
repentance. Possibly through the merit of unreserved 
confession, complete recovery will be vouchsafed to the 
sufferer (T.B. Shabb. 32a ; Semaeh Sutarte, Ed. Horowitz, I.) ; 
for we are told man' 'pH VTN&n "laiWI NtalTEJ "<» b3t& 
12 %yb "iwbnb (Mid. Taneh. Ed. Buber, Numbers 70a). 

Should a man in articulo mortis be able to utter an audible 
confession, it is incumbent upon him to do so ; but, if he 
be incapable of fulfilling such a task, a mental confession 
will suffice. A confession, breathed in silence within the 
heart, is regarded in the sight of God as of equal value 
with one spoken aloud, provided it be true and earnest, and 
proceed from a being in the full possession of his mental 
faculties (Semaeh But. I.). If a man be unfit to frame a 
confession himself, one may recite on his behalf and in 



Death, Burial, and Mourning. 665 

his hearing: "May my death prove an atonement 
for my iniquities " (tapVl ^2t» 1. 169a). In ancient times, 
the same formula had to be pronounced before his 
death by the criminal condemned to be executed (T.B. 
Sanhed. 436). 

An exhortation to confession is not offered in the pre- 
sence of ignorant people, women or children (Semach Sut. I.). 
It is almost superfluous to add that the Jewish priest has 
never been invested with the power of bestowing abso- 
lution on the confessor. 

The duty of confession is clearly laid down in Leviticus 
v. 5, and Numbers v. 5-7. In the following passages, it is 
identical with giving glory unto God : Joshua vii. 19 ; 
Ezra x. 11 ; Jn. ix. 24- ; 1 Esdr. ix. 8. 

As a proof of the efficacy of confession, we are informed 
(T. B. Sanhed. 436) that Achan was vouchsafed a share in 
the future life, simply on account of his having readily 
acknowledged his sin (Joshua vii. 19 ; for further illustra- 
tions compare Numbers xxi. 7f. ; Psalm xxxii. 5). We 
also find in the Book of Proverbs (xxviii. 13) : " He that 
covereth his transgressions shall not prosper, but whoso 
confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy." 
Likewise the Talkut on Isaiah, § 342 ; rl'lpn rniatp •*» 
\h"S Dtna (cf. 1st Epistle of John i. 9). 

It seems that the Falashas (a race of Abyssinian Jews, 
but according to Dr. Neubauer, Jewish Qtjaktekly Review 
III. 542, " scarcely of the Jewish race at all ") also conform 
to this practice. The Falasha, before his death, calls the 
dervish, who usually acts as his spiritual adviser, and makes 
a full confession of his sins. Should he expire without 
having discharged this duty, the prayer called nns is 
not offered on his behalf (Eldad ha-dani, Abr. Epstein, 
Pressburg, p. 171). 

Likewise, among the Abyssinians proper, a priest is 
called in to listen to the confession of the dying, and to 
offer him consolation (Social History of the Races of Man- 
kind, Feather man, Div. V., p. 619). It is, too, well known 



666 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

that the 110th Sura of the Koran is supposed to represent 
an admonition to Mohammed to prepare for death by 
asking pardon 'of God. 

And here I may remark that the ordeal of dying ap- 
pears to have constituted in itself an expiatory sacrifice. 
Thus we find in Mish. Yoma (VIII. 8): "The Yom Kippur 
and death make atonement when accompanied with sincere 
repentance." See also T. J. Shebuoth I. 6, where it is 
deduced from Isai. xxii. 14, "This iniquity shall not be 
expiated by you till you die," njnoa nn^nnt^, that death 
cleanses from sin. 

This view is supported by the " writing of Hezekiah." 
The king says (Isai. xxxviii. 17), " Thou hast in love 
to my soul delivered it from the pit of nothingness ; 
for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back " (so that 
my death is no longer required as an atonement for 
them). 

The modern Jew, in the ^T) which he recites in his 
last hours, also prays, like his forefathers : " Oh, may my 
death be an atonement for all the sins, iniquities, and 
transgressions of which I have been guilty against thee " 
{Authorised Daily Prayer-Booh, Ed. Rev. S. Singer, p. 317). 

It has been customary from very early times to give a 
solemn charge to one's household before one's death. This 
is known as rrNYlSn. Thus we read in the Bible that the 
Patriarch Isaac delivered a last exhortation to his sons 
(Gen. xxviii. If.). Jacob also addressed his children on 
several occasions "before the days of his pilgrimage were 
spent, and foretold their destiny (Gen. xlvii. 29f., xlviii. 
15, xlix. Iff.). Joseph seems to have done likewise (Gen. 1. 
25)^ Moses made a powerful appeal to the children 
of Israel on the eve of his departure from their midst 
(Deut. xxxi. 23 — xxxii. 47), and his disciple Joshua 
took leave of his people in a similar manner (Josh, 
xxiii. 2ff.). David, too, is said to have laid an emphatic 
last injunction upon his son and successor (1 Kings ii. 1 ; 
1 Chr. xxviii. 9). That such a custom was generally 



Death, Burial, and Mourning. 667 

prevalent may be inferred from Isai. xxxviii. 1, where we 
find the Prophet instructing Hezekiah "to charge his 
house " before he dies. See also 2 Sam. xvii. 23. 

Die Schatzhohle records the final admonition of Adam to 
his surviving offspring (I. 9), while in the Book of Jubilees 
(xx., xxi., xxii.) Abraham is described as addressing his 
children on the eve of his death. The Testament of Adam, 
the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and similar 
Apocryphal writings show that the rtSllS was regarded as a 
wide-spread usage. With respect to the practice of charging 
one's house in comparatively modern times, an excellent 
article on " Jewish Ethical Wills of Later Times," by Mr. I. 
Abrahams, might be consulted with advantage in The 
Jewish Quarterly Review, III, 436-484. The " charge " 
invariably concludes with a blessing. For ancient examples 
of the latter, see Gen. xxvii. 4, 27ff., 39f. xxviii. Iff., xlix. 
Iff. T. B. Berach, 28$ ; Meg. 28a. 

It is further usual to dispose of one's personal property 
before death. To this effect an injunction is laid down in 
Ecclesiasticus (xxxiii. 23) : " At the time when thou shalt 
end thy days and finish thy life, distribute thine in- 
heritance.'' As an example we are told (1 Mace. i. 56) that 
" Alexander called his servants . . . and parted his 
kingdom among them while he was yet alive." (But this 
statement is based on an untrustworthy authority, Speaker's 
Commentary, in loco). It is likewise related of Judith, that 
before she died she did distribute her goods to all them 
that were nearest of kindred to Manasses her husband, 
and to them that were the nearest of her kindred " (Judith 
xvi. 24). In Semach Sut. I. the duty of arranging one's 
affairs and discharging one's financial liabilities before 
death is particularly emphasised. 

It would appear that ultra-pious Jews on the verge of 
death also wash their hands, presumably to depart in a 
state of ritual purity (cf. p3"» "Q3W3, 78a, and the declara- 
tion of the Psalmist, Ps. xxvi. 6 : "I will wash mine 
hands in innocency ; so will I compass thine altar, Lord"). 



668 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

Likewise " when a learned or pious Muslim feels that he is 
about to die, he sometimes performs the ordinary ablution 
as before prayer, that he may depart from life in a state 
of bodily purity " (Modern Egyptians, Stanley Lane-Poole, 
1875, Vol. II., ch. xxviii.). 

It is usual to kindle lights before the DD13 (as the Jew 
is called when the rattles in the throat show that he is at 
the point of death), and two reasons for the custom are 
furnished by pa> nz&Q (105«&) : (1) To make the demons 
flee, as they are possessed of full power at night, and light 
extinguishes the wicked (I^T? D^tth "Hm, Job xviii. 5) ; (2) 
The light is symbolical of the human soul, which is flicker- 
ing (cf . Prov. xx. 27 : " The spirit of man is the lamp of 
the Lord"). The latter explanation, whilst invested with 
the charm of poetry, cannot be the correct one. For it is 
a fact that the same custom is observed in a kindred form 
in countries situated widely apart, and in almost every 
instance a different reason is adduced for the practice. 
See a note on the subject embodying copious examples, by 
James G. Frazer, in the Journal of the Anthropological 
Institute, XV, 90f ; and cf. Folklore of North-East Scotland, 
W. Gregor, 207, and Coorg Folklore, by G. L. Gomme, in 
Folklore Journal, VII., p. 300. 

Indeed, it is most probable that the first explanation of 
p1> "OSD contains the essence of truth, for in Ps. xci., 
generally known as D^a? b$J T»t0, "the Psalm for 
protection against evil spirits" (cf. T. B. Shebu, 5b), the 
Psalmist expresses the conviction that God will deliver 
hitn from the pestilence that walketh in darkness, and 
that a thousand (demons) shall fall at his side, without 
one coming nigh him (cf. Targ. on Ps. xci. 5, pbtNT '•pVft 
N"<y», and Mid. Tillim^d. Buber, 1995, and note the LXX. 
rendering of Ps. xci. 6, QllvJ? "^^U Ka ' Sai/xoviov fievrjfi- 
fipivov). 

Poetical minds might interpret the burning of the light 
as expressive of the thought enshrined in the song of the 
ransomed soul (Job xxxiii. 28): "He hath redeemed my 



Death, Burial, and Mourning. 669 

soul from going into the pit, and my life shall behold the 
light" 

Mr. Frazer states that the Jews used to place beside this 
light a glass of water and a towel, the reason assigned 
being that the Angel of Death might wash his sword in 
the water and wipe it with the towel. But the practice is 
condemned as superstitious by Rabbi Abraham Danzig, in 
his work Chochmath Adam (Ed. Stettin, p. 461). 

Not the least pathetic feature of the Jewish death-bed 
is the fact that the last words that escape the lips of 
the dying man represent a solemn declaration of the 
Unity of God, the Children of Israel's confession of faith, 
~\ry$ nin? wjjfyj nirr; barfo> 3J»# (Deut. vi. 4)— the first 
Hebrew sentence the Jew lisps in the dawn of life, and 
that which he whispers on the threshold of eternity. This 
is, if possible, recited in the presence of ten adult males 
(the number requisite to form a congregation of Israel), 
who continue offering prayers for the dying till life is 
wholly extinct (Book of Life, Ed. Ascher, p. 190, and 
Authorised Daily Prayer Book, p. 317). 

Until the last breath has actually left the body, the 
dying man is to be regarded in every respect as a living 
person, entitled to the full rights and privileges of such, 
and nothing must be done to accelerate his departure. 
He who acts contrary to the spirit of this command is held 
" guilty of death " (T.B. Semach I.). A man must, under 
no circumstances, be left to die alone (Kolbo, § 114). 

There are various traditions with regard to the sensa- 
tions experienced by man in his last moments. He is 
supposed to be visited by some of the ministering angels, 
one of whom reckons up the number of his days and 
years, and warns him of his approaching end. Another asks 
him whether he has been occupied with Torah and deeds of 
charity. The Recording Angel then enumerates all the 
acts of his life, and he is told : Thus and thus hast thou 
done, in such and such a place, on such and such a day ; 
and he confesses all. He is then requested to affix his seal 



670 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

to the record (cf . Job xxxviL 7), and, according to Ps. li. 6, 
he even acknowledges the justice of his doom (py p 
carnal, Beth Ha-Mid., Jellinek V., 48f. -nprr taian rona 
ZfctfA Ha-Mid., Jellinek I. ; cf . Mid. Tanch. Ed. Buber, Gen. 11a). 

There are also some interesting Mohammedan legends 
with regard to the dying man. Death asks him, " How hast 
thou found the world ? " The man replies : " I have found 
it vain and deceptive." Then the World, personified, ex- 
claims : " Sinner ! art thou not ashamed ? Thou didst 
sin while resident in me, and didst not keep aloof from 
evil; thou didst long for me while I had no desire for 
thee ; thou didst make no distinction between permitted 
and prohibited ; thou didst walk in careless ease, reflecting 
with complacency that thou wouldst one day leave the 
world, and now I am rid of thee and of thy doings." 
Then the man perceives the fortune he has amassed 
already passed into the hands of another, and it, too, 
personified, addresses him : " Sinner ! thou didst obtain 
possession of me by unlawful means, and didst not devote 
any portion of me to the poor and needy : therefore I 
have this day fallen into strange hands." On hearing all 
this, the man makes a pathetic appeal to God : " O Lord, 
suffer me to return to life, that I may ' follow up the 
worthiest ' " (Koran, Sur. xxiii. 101, 102 ; cf. Pirqe B. 
JEliezer, ch. xxxiv.). When death has reached the throat 
the eyes take leave of one another, saying, "Fare- 
well to thee till the resurrection ! " The ears, hands, 
and feet do the same ; and, lastly, the soul bids an 
affecting adieu to the body (Muhamm. Eschat, chaps, 
iii. and iv.). 

In this solemn moment, man, according to Jewish tradi- 
tion, is vouchsafed a momentary glimpse of God Himself, 
as it says (Exod. xxxiii. 20), " No man can see me and 
live ;" i.e., man cannot see me in life, but in death, as the 
Psalmist declares (Ps. xxii. 30) : " All they that go down to 
the dust shall bow before him, even he that cannot keep 
his soul alive" ("Opn fcton rODO, Beth Ha-Mid., Jellinek, I. 



Death, Burial, and Mourning. 671 

Pirqe E. Eliezer, ch. xxxiv. ; Semach Sut., ch. iv. ; Mid. 
Tillim, Ed. Buber, p. 99«). 

As I have previously mentioned, the immediate cause of 
man's death is a visitation from the " Arch-Fear in a visible 
form." As he himself informed Rabbi Joshua ben Levi 
{Beth Ha-Mid. Jellinek, II. 94), the Angel of Death "stands 
sentry by the head," waiting for the opportune moment 
when he may pour the poisonous drop which clings to his 
sword down the throat of his victim. (See a poem by 

Robert Browning, entitled " Doctor .") It is also stated 

(ibid.) that it is not one but three drops that fall from his 
sword — one produces death ; the second putrefaction ; and 
the third causes the face to assume a yellowish-green colour. 

For the way in which the soul issues from the body at 
death, according to the view of different peoples, see a 
brilliant essay by James G. Frazer, in the Journal of the 
Anthropological Institute, Vol. XV., entitled, " Certain 
Burial Customs, as Illustrative of the Primitive Theory 
of the Soul" (Note iii. on p. 82 ff.). I may cite just one 
example. 

The Mohammedan mythology has a tradition that 
" When God wishes to summon the soul of man, the Death- 
Angel comes to his mouth in order to take the soul thence. 
The praise of God issues from his mouth, and says, ' Thou 
hast no path by way of me, for from hence was God 
praised.' .... The Angel returns to God and reports it 
God says, ' Take the soul from another part.' He comes 
to the hand. Here he is met by the good deeds, and so at 
the feet ; these say, ' We have visited the sick.' The ear 
says, ' I have hearkened to the Koran.' The eye says, ' I 
have read the Scriptures. 5 God bids the Angel write his 
name on his hand and show it to the man, and the soul 
leaps forth at sight of the name, and parts without 
bitterness." (Muhamm. Eschat, Wolff, p. 30, quoted by James 
in his edition of the " Testament of Abraham," p. 66). 

A P. Bendeb. 
(To be continued.)