Monday, 17 November 2014

Sephardic Custom and Law When a Close Relative Passes Away

This blog post is in memory of Isaac Bensussen, Alfred Cordova and Roza Basseri who all passed away in the last few days. I am writing this blog because when people receive sad news of the death of their loved ones, they are not always able to take in all the customs and laws of mourning. Laws, which were designed to provide comfort at the most difficult time that a person can go through. May they be studied only in the theoretical sense and may God bring Mashiach speedily in our days.

From the moment a close relative passes away until the person is buried, the loved ones (father, mother, spouse, brother, sister, son or daughter) fall into the category of aninut. This period of deep sorrowfulness is a time when the family members spend their time making the arrangements for the funeral. As such Jewish law not only exempts but forbids a person from making berachot (blessings) and doing tefillah (prayer). As such, if a person died on a Monday and was not buried till Wednesday, the close relatives would be exempt from all the tefillot until after the funeral. 

The exception to this law is during Shabbat (and festivals). If a person passes away during Shabbat, or there was not time to arrange the funeral before Shabbat the close family members are obligated in Shabbat tefillah and should attend synagogue services. The reason is that on Shabbat a person cannot make funeral arrangements. Once Shabbat is over the regular laws of aninut apply. 

There are a number of prohibitions on the onen. They may not eat meat or drink wine, shower or shave. One is also forbidden to have a haircut, have marital relations, work or even study Torah. However, they may wear leather shoes and sit on regular chairs. 

Immediately following the burial the immediate mourners recite kaddish. Children are obligated to say kaddish for their parents for 11 months stopping on the 11 month meldatho. They then stop for a month and then say kaddish on the 12 month melatho. For all other relatives kaddish is recited for 30 days only. However, many in our community have the custom to say kaddish for the year for all close relatives.

Following the burial, the close relatives become avelim - mourners. Our custom is to recite the beracha Baruch Dayan Ha'Emet - Blessed is The True Judge and the avel - mourner tears his/her clothes. This is called Keriah. Although there are different customs I shall write how it is codified in Jewish Law. For parents we tear on the left side, opposite the heart. For other relatives we tear on the right side. The outer garment should be torn and not the inner garment. For parents some have the custom to tear all the clothes including the undershirts. It is permitted for the mourner to change clothes to something that he/she is comfortable to tear. Care must be taken to preserve a woman's modesty when the tearing is done.

Following the keriah, the mourners are provided with their first meal - The Seudat Havra'ah. Jewish Law states that this meal cannot be made by the family and is traditionally made by friends. In our community, the brotherhood and synagogues provide the first meal. This meal consists of round foods such as hard boiled eggs, bread rolls and olives. Lentils are eaten in other communities. Some have the custom to drink wine at this meal. The idea of the round foods represents the circle of life events and our hope that the mourners will have happier life cycle events such as births and marriages. Following this meal and during all meals during the first week of mourning there is a special Birkat Hamazon - which contains passages of consolation, the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of Temple in Jerusalem.

The week of shiva or siete has the following laws and customs. Ideally services take place in either the house of the deceased or the house of the mourners. Some prefer to have all the services at the synagogue, while others prefer a combination. With the exception of the mourners going to synagogue the mourners should remain at home. The idea is that friends and family come to give comfort to the mourners. The community comes to the family at their most difficult time, rather than the usual practice of the individual coming to the community. It is our way to pay our respects to the one who has passed and to the mourners. 

The most common practices are that the mourner sits on a low seat and does not wear leather shoes. For those sitting shiva who are advanced in years or ill or pregnant do not have to sit on a low chair. Strictly speaking a mourner should not sleep on a bed but many rely on the leniency that we are all like ill people and sleep on a bed. A mourner is also forbidden to shave/have a haircut, have marital relations or wash/bathe. We do not greet mourners, nor do we start conversation with them until they initiate conversation. Mourners are forbidden to learn Torah as Torah gladdens the heart. During shiva a mourner is also forbidden to work. 

During the Shabbat of the week of mourning the mourners come to the synagogue. It is our custom that the mourner sits facing the congregation and friends come and sit with the mourner. I do not know the source for this custom, indeed on Shabbat we are not supposed to do any outward signs of mourning, but many have told me how they find this custom one of the most comforting of all of our mourning practices. At this Shabbat service a friend of the family or a relative of the mourners who is not himself a mourner is called to the Torah and the whole congregation rises for the memorial prayer.

On the last day of the siete, the mourning ends after morning prayers. Following the conclusion of the first week of mourning the mourners are permitted to shower/bathe, wear leather shoes, greet people in the normal way and learn Torah. The male mourners are still forbidden to shave or have a hair cut until the month of mourning is over. In a pressing need such as for work the mourner may shave but only if he feels his job is in danger. Female mourners may have a haircut but cannot wear makeup until the end of the 30 day period. 

Meldathos - Following the end of the 7 day period and the end of the sheloshim - the first 30 days the family and friends read mishnayot and give words of Torah in memory of their dearly departed loved ones. Our custom is to have meldathos on the 7th, 9th and 11th month as well as on the 12th month - the anyo. All of these meldathos are commemorated from the day of burial. All future meldathos are commemorated on the day the person passed away.

For a more detailed account of our mourning practices please read "A Time To Weep - A Guide to Bereavment Based on the Customs of the Seattle Sephardic Community" For any personal questions please feel free to contact me. May all our mourning practices, customs and laws grant comfort to those in mourning. 

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