In their funeral rites and observances the Jews have preserved many of the most ancient customs of their race. They still rend the upper garments in token of bereavement, as Jacob did when informed of the death of his favorite son; they will seat themselves for seven days on the ground in sign of mourning, as Job and his friends are represented in the Scripture to have done. They still eat the mourners' meal, as their ancestors did in Palestine; they kindle the memorial light to comfort the departed soul, as they did, in all likelihood, ages before Judaism was known; and they still recite in public the mourners' prayer, every repetition of which - according to rabbinical notions - helps the deceased a step further out of purgatory. In the west as in the east these customs are practically the same - we mean among the great bulk of observant Jews. The very wealthy and the more highly cultured members of the synagogue are in these things, as in many others, a law unto themselves.
The Jews rigidly exclude all relatives from the chamber of a dying co-religionist. Only strangers should be present when the soul leaves the body. As soon as death occurs all the vessels in the house containing water are emptied. On the continent, in places where Jews reside, the emptying of the water vessels in the public roadway is the usual mode of notifying that a death has occurred. The practice had its origin, we gather from the rabbinical books, in an Old World superstition that standing water in such circumstances became the abiding place of certain evil spirits whose presence in the house was prejudicial both to the dead and to the living. In the interval between death and interment the Jews lay the corpse upon the bare ground with the feet toward the door. The body is covered, but nothing - saving occasionally a little straw - may be placed under it.
Then the two big toes are tied together. On Sabbaths it is not, however, permitted to remove a body on to the floor; it would be work. But as it is sometimes necessary that this nevertheless be done, rabbinical ingenuity has contrived a means of accomplishing it without violating the sanctity of the day. A loaf of bread is placed upon the corpse, and the two together are lifted to the ground. It is held that only the bread has been moved, and this is permitted on the Sabbath. Two or three hours before the interment takes place the ceremonial purification of the body known as the tahara takes place.
It consists merely in pouring seven definite measures of warm water over the body, while repeating the words: "I will pour upon you cleansing waters, and ye shall be cleansed of your uncleanliness; for of all your iniquities I will purify you." The body is then placed in the coffin attired in a white gown known as a kittel. This kittel is, in northern Europe, presented to a bridegroom by his bride on the day of their wedding, and it is worn by him on certain occasions, such as the day of Atonement and the Passover Eve celebrations. It is made by the female relatives of the bride, but she herself must not take part in the sewing of it. In Poland, Galicia, and in Russia the bridegroom always wears the death garment under the wedding canopy during the performance of the marriage ceremony. Besides the kittel, the body is enveloped in the praying scarf or tallish used by the deceased during life. When this is done the relatives are summoned. One by one they draw near and bend over the coffin; a friend takes a sharp knife and makes a slit in one of the outer garments of the mourner - on the right side if the deceased be a parent, on the left side if a child. The mourner himself then rends the garment, according to the custom of the country. In the east the Jew tears the vestment clean across; in England it is only torn a couple of fingers' breadth. The rent must not be sewn up for a month and the mourning garment must be worn for a parent fully eleven months. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews rend their undergarments as well. Except among the German Jews - as they are called - in this country, the last offices of the dead are performed by the members of what are termed "Chevrah Kadishaw" or "Holy Brotherhood", an organization formed in every orthodox congregation only for this purpose. Just as near relatives are excluded from the death chamber, so are females prohibited from attending a funeral or interment.
Why this should be so it is difficult to say. The custom of excluding women on such occasion is certainly not an ancient one, since we know from the Talmud and later rabbinical books that, of old, women joined in the funeral processions of their people, chanting dirges appropriate to the ceremony. However, nowadays they are not permitted to join, and the obsequies are attended by males only. In Northern Europe and in parts of Russia, a father is not allowed to be present at the interment of the first child he is unfortunate enough to lose. It is believed he will lose a second if he does, though this will not in itself suffice to explain the existence of so strange a custom. The Polish Jews are, however, peculiar in more than this. It is the universal belief of orthodox Hebrews that the resurrection of the dead will take place in the Holy Land, and therefore all bodies will have to make their way underground to Palestine before the day of Judgement. So, to facilitate this task, the "Chassidim", or ultra pious of Russia and Poland put a fork in the hands of the deceased when he is placed in the ground - for coffins are only used in the case of a b'chor (first born) or a kohen (one of priestly family) - in order that he may dig his way through the ground with it and thus reach the Holy Land, where the resurrection takes place. On leaving a cemetery - which is known as the bethclam, "house of eternity", or beth haim, "house of life" - it is customary to pluck some of the grass growing there and throw it over the shoulder without looking back, repeating the words: "Lila' moveth l'netzach" (he will destroy death forever). Primarily the plucking of the grass had no connection with the formula that now accompanies it; but the original symbolism of the act is forgotten, like so many of the practices still extant in Jewry.
(St. James' Gazette.)
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