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Jewish Burials

According to the Jewish religion, preparing the dead for burial is a very important ceremony because the body houses the soul, and for that reason must be kept very clean.

Jewish Burials

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 04/01/2017

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

Just as there is a Jewish way of life, there are also rituals to be followed at the time of death. When a Jew dies, relatives should arrange for their burial quickly. According to Mosaic law, the body should be buried as soon as possible, preferably on the same day of death, and also while there is natural light: His body shall not remain upon the tree, but shall be buried the same day (Deuteronomy 21:23). As long as the dead remain unburied, its soul will not rest. It will only rest when the body is buried.

Therefore, postponing burial without just cause is disrespectful of the dead and interfering in the Creator’s plans. Burial is postponed on the following occasions: 1. when someone dies on Yom Kippur (the Day of Forgiveness); and 2. when death occurs on a Friday night, the beginning of Shabbat (the Day of Weekly Rest). In the first case, the burial is carried out the next day. And in the second case, the burial only occurs on the evening of Saturday, or when the first star appears in the sky. Apart from these two occasions, it is also tolerated to postpone burial pending the arrival of relatives from far away, or when relatives transport the body to be buried in Israel.

According to the Jewish religion, preparing the dead for burial is a very important ceremony because the body houses the soul, and for that reason must be kept very clean. The cemetery, in turn, is called Beit Almin, which means ‘House of the World’ or ‘House of Eternity’ in Hebrew.

With the advent of death, the soul, which until then was sheltered in the body, begins a painful separation from it. This process occurs as decomposition takes place. When the body is buried in the earth, it slowly disintegrates, which is comforting to the soul. Body and soul are entities that remain interconnected after death, and the process of detachment is not immediate. The soul remains in contact with the body, even after the burial, and still shares all its sensations. Therefore decomposition is a fundamental and beneficial process for the soul. Thus, Mosaic precepts prohibit cremation as it implies the sudden artificial separation between body and soul. As the Talmud says: Burial is not for the good of the living but for the good of the dead (Sanhedrin 47a).

In addition, the Jewish religion emphasises that a single bone, located in the back of the neck, never decomposes, and it is from this bone – called the luz bone – that the body will be rebuilt in the coming Messianic Age, when all the dead will be resurrected. For this reason, cremation of the body is not accepted, since resurrection is a fundamental belief of Judaism, as expressed by Maimonides in his Thirteen Principles of Faith.

When a Jew dies, the family must advise the Chevra Kadisha – a Funeral Society or Funeral Committee charged with preparing the deceased and conducting the funeral ceremonial. This committee is also in charge of administering the cemetery. As a general rule, the first steps taken are as follows: 1. lay the deceased’s arms alongside the body (arms can never be crossed); 2. close their eyes; 3. remove all adornments they are wearing (earrings, watches, bracelets, rings, wigs, dentures, glasses, nail polish, lipstick, removable prosthesis etc.); and 4. cover the whole body from head to toe with a white cotton or linen sheet.

After covering the body, nobody else can see it: not even the children themselves, relatives or friends. Observing their disintegration is not allowed. Looking at the corpse is a violation of the principle of kavod ha’met (respect for the dead), representing a disrespect to the person who lived, and means limiting death to physical aspects alone. It is hoped that all will remember the image of the person in life, this being a step for the deceased to reach the spiritual dimension.

All Jewish burials are identical. The casket is made of a simple type of wood, the least expensive possible (usually pine boards, which deteriorate easily), lined with a black cloth, and the Star of David with the initials of deceased is placed at the top. Just that! No other adornment, such as a wreath, candles or lavish coffins, is permitted. According to Judaism, people come from dust and return to dust. Any and all ostentation at funerals is barred. Since no one is born with adornments, they cannot be buried with them: they must leave as simply as possible: Therefore, if in life that person was rich, in death, they will receive the same treatment as the poor. In this way, at least in death, rich and poor are equal.

When the hearse arrives at the Israeli Cemetery, the coffin is taken to a reserved room with a washbasin and a counter, and whose walls are lined with white tiles. There, the Funeral Committee will prepare the deceased for burial. Women prepare female bodies, and males the male body. First, they remove the body from the coffin and place it on the counter where it is washed with alcohol. This ritual represents a valuable tribute rendered to the deceased by the Jewish community called tahara (purification). According to tradition, the ritual of purification has been repeated for millennia: as we come forth, so shall we return, i.e. just as a newborn is washed after birth, and enters the world physically clean and spiritually pure, on leaving we also need to be purified, albeit in a symbolic way.

Next, the body is dressed in a shroud made of white linen and composed of the following elements: a pair of trousers closed to the feet, a shirt, an undershirt, a belt, a hood (to cover the head and neck) and two sacks open on one side (to cover both hands). The shroud can be previously made, or is hand-stitched during the wake. If for some reason one is not available, the deceased can be wrapped in a white linen or cotton sheet.

The next step is to place one stone on each eye and another on the mouth. According to Judaism, this will prevent the deceased from questioning their own death or meeting God before the Final Judgment. If the person who died is male, his tallit (a kind of shawl, with fringes on the ends, which the Jews use during the prayers) is placed over the shroud. When this is done, the coffin lid is closed, and only then is it placed on the counter of the wake. It is important to note that all actions concerning the preparation of the body for burial are sacred and considered mitzvah (commandment).

Funeral prayers are recited in Hebrew, either by a rabbi or by a member of the Chevra Kadisha, but in their absence any member of the Israeli community can conduct the ceremony. The next ritual is called keri’ah: a traditional sign of mourning that refers to biblical times and in which a piece of mourning clothing is torn. This is a sign that, confronting the loss of a loved one, the hearts of close relatives are torn.

According to the Torah (the five books which contain, among other things, the compilation of Judaism: the accounts of the creation of the world and the origin of mankind, God’s covenant with Abraham and his children, the liberation of the children of Israel from Egypt, the forty-year pilgrimage through the desert to the Promised Land, the commandments and laws God gave to Moses), when Jacob received the false news that his son Joseph had been devoured by a beast, he reacted by tearing his garments (Genesis 37:34). David also tore his clothes when he was informed of the death of King Saul and his son, Jonathan. During the course of this ritual, the blessing of Baruch Dayan Emet (Blessed is the one true Judge) is recited in a demonstration that, despite the tragedy, belief in God continues unabated.

At the exit of the cemetery is a lavatory where, according to tradition, the Jews have to wash their hands after the burials (netilat yadayim). According to Hebrew beliefs, when washing hands and water remains crystal clear, it means that the person has not spilled the blood of the deceased.

On returning from the cemetery, the family sits in shiva: all must stay home in mourning for seven days. A very important mitzvah, and one of the Jewish ways of doing good, is to visit the house of the mourners after the burial or during the shiva period, and to keep them company, sitting by their side and offering a friendly shoulder. During that period, a group of ten men (minyan) pray the funeral orations (kaddish).

A few months after the burial is the matzevah ceremony, or ‘unveiling of the tomb’ and inauguration of the tombstone, or foundation stone of a Jewish sepulture. In this ceremony, the tomb is covered with a black cloth to signify mourning; the kaddish is prayed, and to end, the cloth is removed. With this ritual, the period of mourning has ended. People place stones on the grave of the loved one as a sign of coming to terms with their death. It should be noted that the ritual of placing the small stones on the tomb is carried out whenever the graves are visited, indicating that the dead are remembered and revered.

The Jewish religion does not tolerate excessive mourning because it is not healthy for the living. If black is not the colour they have always worn, the mourner should not wear black clothing and ties, or put a black stripe in their lapel: they must live their life and accept the death.

Only one two occasions does Mosaic law allow the opening of the tomb and the removal of the bones. First, when the Jewish community had not yet possessed its own cemetery. In this case, as soon as a Jewish cemetery is inaugurated, it is permitted to unearth the bones and bury them there, so that the deceased may be with other Hebrews. Secondly, when the family wants to bury their remains in the soil of Israel. Except for these two cases, any action that would disturb the rest of the deceased is called nivul hamet (an offence to them).

The Jewish religion does not accept suicide if people are in possession of their physical and mental faculties (in Hebrew, bedáat). Suicides are always buried separately, away from the other graves, usually near one of the walls of the cemetery. According to the Mosaic religion, only God has the right to take one’s life. However, if the person is in a serious state of mental alienation, or is experiencing intense physical pain, suicide is considered anus: the person was not themselves and cannot be held responsible for their actions. Therefore, they deserve to receive the same privileges and tributes in burial as a person who died a natural death. In other words, they are not buried away from the rest.

All these Jewish rituals were brought to Northeast Brazil on the occasion of the Discovery. In the colonisation period, the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were attracted to Colonial Brazil particularly because of the search for religious freedom. Many of them were New-Christians (or Marranos), those Hebrews forcibly converted by Catholics to escape the fires of the Inquisition. Due to their academic education and technical knowledge, they arrived as important auxiliaries of the Portuguese. Others came banished, due to practicing Judaic rituals of lesser importance.

It is important to note that despite the forced conversion to Catholicism, Jewish families continued to follow their traditions in the home. As the centuries went by, various rituals continued to be repeated, without the reason being known for their practices. These are today individuals who call themselves Catholics, in terms of religion, but who reproduce Hebrew traditions. This can be observed in certain acts practiced in the agreste region and the Semi-arid region of Pernambuco, and in other Northeast states that, without a doubt, were absorbed from Judaism. One of them, for example, concerns the requirement of being buried with a shroud and without coffin. Another refers to the practice of placing stones on the graves. Even without knowing it, people who repeat these customs may have Jewish ancestry.

Recife, 29 May 2008.
Translated by Peter Leamy, October 2016.

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how to quote this text

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