Jewish Burial Customs and Anointing Oils

by HD Livingston
Traditionally, Jewish burials took place in stone tombs as soon as possible after death.

Traditionally, Jewish burials took place in stone tombs as soon as possible after death.

Jewish burial customs are outlined within the Hebrew Bible, beginning in Genesis, where Abraham is shown procuring the proper burial for his wife, Sarah (Genesis 23). As death and burial traditions are among the most stable aspects of society, modern Jewish burial practices show a remarkable consistency with the practices of the ancient world. The preservation of a person's honor through an appropriate burial is a central feature of Jewish practice (although cremation is now permitted within Reform Judaism) and ensuring a proper burial is seen as one of the greatest acts of kindness that can be done.

Burial Restrictions

According to the Torah, the Sabbath (from the Hebrew word meaning "rest") is a holy day and should be set aside for rest and reflection. Just as God observed the Sabbath at the cessation of Creation (Genesis 2:1-3), Jewish tradition prohibits work to take place on the Sabbath. Included in this work are funerals and burials of the dead, which are therefore delayed until after the Sabbath. Similarly, religious festivals throughout the year also impact when burials may take place, as traditionally burials cannot be held on the first day of a festival and must be delayed until at least the second day.

Washing and Anointing

In both ancient and modern Jewish practice, the body is ritually washed (in a process called tohorah) after death before being wrapped in a shroud. The practice of anointing varies over time and location, but in ancient tradition, the body was also anointed with oils and sometimes wrapped with aromatic herbs such as olive, laurel, palm and cypress to help fight the effects of the rapid decomposition that occurred in the Mediterranean heat. However, it should be noted that Reform Jews do not partake in tohorah.

Burial

In the ancient world, Jewish burial typically took place in stone tombs. According to tradition, Abraham buried Sarah in a cave (Genesis 23), but later tombs were cut from the rock specifically for burial purposes. Additionally, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus references "whitewashed tombs," suggesting that burial buildings were also used at the time. The dead might also be placed on stone shelves called loculi cut into the rock walls of underground burial chambers such as hypogea and catacombs. Coffins were occasionally used in the ancient world (Genesis 50:26) and modern Jewish tradition regarding coffins varies from country to country. For example, while Western countries generally use coffins, Eastern countries and Israel do not.

Funeral and Mourning

Although they might show some regional variations, Jewish funerals are typically characterized by simplicity and brevity. Attending a funeral is believed to be an act of piety and a fulfillment of the Biblical commandment to comfort mourners. In the ancient world, Jewish ritual mourning followed a specific schedule discerned from Scripture. This consisted of three days of weeping, up to seven days of abstention from work and personal care and then a period of less intense formal mourning to the thirtieth day. To varying levels, such tradition is still encouraged in modern rabbinic attitudes.

About the Author

HD Livingston has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in religious studies from the University of Manitoba. She is also completing a Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.

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