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Jewish Life Cycle

Dog standing in front of a sunset

My condolences to you and your family on the loss of your beloved pet. For many of us, our pets are like a member of the family, and when a pet dies, the grief is deep and intense.

Judaism does not permit animals to be buried with people, and it would be surprising to find a Jewish cemetery that permitted the practice. There are, however, other Jewish practices that can support those who experience the loss of pet. This essay, in particular, speaks to the grief we feel when a beloved pet dies and offers some resources and ideas to bring comfort.

There are other ways, too, to express one’s grief over the loss of beloved animal and to honor the role of the pet in the life of your family. You might hold a burial ceremony in a garden or on family property, giving family members the opportunity to offer remarks about what the pet has meant to your family. You might also consider honoring your dog’s memory by giving tzedakah (a charitable contribution) to an animal shelter or in support of a dog park.  

Answer By: 
Rabbi Julie Zupan
headstone with stones on it

My mother passed away in late November and I am planning the unveiling. I was thinking of a day in May, June, or July, and I think it should be a Sunday. Are there any specific times or dates I must avoid? Also, other loved ones are buried nearby; is it appropriate to acknowledge them as well? I have a copy of some prayers. Is there anything else I need? People are travelling some distance and I want there to be some substance to the ceremony.

Our condolences on the death of your mother. May her memory be a blessing.

In terms of scheduling, you will want to avoid Shabbat (Saturdays) and Jewish holidays, when unveilings generally are not held and Jewish cemeteries typically are closed. You will want to check the calendar for the dates of Shavuot and Tishah B’Av, holidays that occur in the spring and summer, respectively.

In addition, we recommend you confirm the date and time with the cemetery for several reasons. Often they are juggling multiple funerals; they may prepare the site beforehand by covering the marker with a cloth and having chairs, water, and a bag of yarmulkes and prayer pamphlets available; and there may be rules about placing stones on the marker. If it is permitted, they may provide stones for that purpose.

The unveiling ritual is brief and is custom, not Jewish law, so there is a fair amount of leeway regarding content. Typically, we recite Psalm 23, El Maleh Rachamim, the Mourners’ Kaddish, and other readings or poems that resonate with those present or were beloved by the deceased. This explanation of what to expect at an unveiling may help you with your planning.

Although the intent of the ceremony is to honor your mother and dedicate her grave marker, it is appropriate to briefly acknowledge other loved ones who are buried nearby. You might invite one or two friends or family members to share a loving anecdote about your mother, but we advise that neither you nor others eulogize as one does at a funeral.

stones on a headstone

We’d like to visit my mother-in-law’s grave on her birthday, but it coincides with the first day of Passover. Is it appropriate to visit her grave on Passover? If we do, should we light a memorial candle? 

In Jewish tradition, it is common to visit the graves of loved ones around Jewish holidays, especially before the Jewish new year. We think of our loved ones often, especially at significant moments in our lives such as holidays, lifecycle celebrations, and whenever something occurs that we wish we could share with them. We feel their physical absence keenly in these moments.

According to Jewish custom, it is preferable to visit graves before a holiday, so that on the day of the holiday, we can focus attention on observing or celebrating.

Judaism does not traditionally memorialize the birthday of loved ones who have died; instead, we mark the anniversary of their death, also called their yahrzeit.

With all that in mind, do what feels right for you and your family. You should check beforehand, however, that the cemetery will be open when you plan to visit because many Jewish cemeteries will be closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Typically, a yahrzeit or memorial candle is not lit at the grave, but rather in mourners’ homes. 

We also light a yahrzeit candle on Yom Kippur and on the final day of PassoverSukkot, and Shavuot. The worship service on Yom Kippur and on the concluding morning of these holidays includes special yizkor memorial prayers that invite worshippers to remember loved ones who have died. Find a congregation near you to attend a yizkor service.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

Traditional Jews make a point of visiting the graves of loved ones during the month of Elul just prior to the onset of the High Holidays, on the day before Rosh HaShanah, or the day before Yom Kippur. Many Jews also visit the cemetery on the loved one’s birthday, an anniversary, or a special personal day. Visitations to the cemetery are not made on Shabbat or Jewish festival holidays.

Jewish tradition discourages excessive mourning and constant cemetery visitations, especially if it becomes an impediment to a return to life. Jeremiah 22:10 proclaims: "Weep ye not [too much] for the dead." Wisely, though, Jewish practice provides for a regular, structured, communal expression of reminiscence, through yahrzeit and Yizkor.

Source: Rabbi Daniel B. Syme, The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (URJ Press, 2004)

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

The sabbatical year, shmita in Hebrew, finds it roots in the Torah. Hebrew for "release," shmita takes place every seven years. It is the Torah's attempt to correct some of the social ills of the world. In the seventh year, debts are to be forgiven. Farmers in Israel were to allow their land to rest, growing no new crops. Whatever grew on its own was communal property and anyone could help themselves to it. Finally, Hebrew slaves were freed.

Today, Reform Judaism is breathing new life into this concept in order to alleviate economic disparity and advocate for better stewardship of the earth's resources. The new year, 5775, beginning this Rosh HaShanah, will be a shmita year.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
A Jewish cemetary

An unveiling is the ceremony at which at tombstone is erected in memory of one who has died. While this is a relatively modern custom, we find it roots in the pillar Jacob set up over the grave of his beloved Rachel (Genesis 35:20). This ceremony is usually held about one year after the burial, though in Israel, unveilings are commonly held one month after a burial. An unveiling is a brief ceremony and there is no specific liturgy. Often El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer, and the Mourner’s Kaddish are recited. These may be accompanied by psalms of comfort, meaningful readers and brief remembrances of the deceased. Since an unveiling often brings together family and friends, the ceremony is sometimes followed by a meal at the home of a family member.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
Young boys at Jewish Summer camp

Sleep away camp is a wonderful experience for children. It is an opportunity for them to grow, learn new things, and become more independent. The thought of a few weeks apart can make parents, a some children as well, a bit anxious. This prayer by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer speaks to those concerns and may help make the camp experience even better.

A Mama's Prayer for Summer Camp

May you find learning and growth of all kinds.
May you gain independence and feel comfort in your Jewish identity.
May the mosquitoes be guided away from you, and may the raindrops not fall into your tent (too much).
May the food be delicious and the pool the right temperature.
May you seek out new experiences and try new things (vegetables would be nice but I'm doubtful).
May you smile brilliantly for the camp photographer and show up daily in the online photo albums.
May you avoid the camp crud and may you never lose your socks.
May you take a shower and brush your teeth every day.
May you not send wet towels to the laundry, because the laundry is charged by weight.
May your arrows fly straight, your fishing line never get tangled, and your tetherball not whack you in the nose.
May you not fall off the top bunk.
May you not spend your whole canteen account on silly junk.
May you not lose your hat and water bottle in the first week.
May you not lose your way in the night to the outdoor bathroom.
May you write me at least one letter besides the mandatory first-day-letter.
May you create a life-long friendship (at least one, if not many).
May you renew old friendships, since they are the most precious. (Are 9 year olds allowed to have "old friends"?)
May you learn more and more about yourself and your spirit and being.

May you return home in one piece with all your belongings,
and may you ever yearn to return to the land of summer camp.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

Ketubah means “written” and has come to refer to the Jewish marriage contract. An ancient document, the ketubah represented an advancement in women’s status by protecting the rights of the bride. In its original form and written in Aramaic, the ketubah specified such things as the bride price, the dowry, and the groom’s responsibility to support his wife. The ketubah is read just prior to the wedding ceremony or during the ceremony. Today, the ketubah is usually written in Hebrew and English, and rather than financial obligations, the ketubah often includes the spiritual and religious aspirations of the couple and the household they are forming by their union. Many wording options are available and couples sometimes write their own ketubah text, creating a personal and egalitarian document. Ketubot (plural of ketubah) have become works of art and many couples hang their ketubah in their home.

What is the Reform position on officiating at the wedding of a Jew to a person brought up in a different faith? My fiancée is not Jewish, and doesn't want to convert at this time. We want a Jewish wedding, and plan to raise our children as Jews.

One of the most important steps in planning a Jewish wedding is finding a rabbi or cantor to officiate at the ceremony. When it comes to officiation at weddings between two people who are not both brought in the Jewish tradition, you will find a variety of opinions and practices. Reform Rabbis belong to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). The CCAR allows for autonomy in such matters and each rabbi interprets Jewish tradition according to his or her own understanding. Some Reform clergy reach the decision, after much study that a greater good is served by officiating at interfaith weddings. Most clergy do so with certain standards. Often they require that the couple take an Introduction to Judaism class and commit to creating a Jewish home, and if they have children, raising them in the Jewish faith.

If you're in an interfaith relationship and reside or plan to be married in the Phoenix or Atlanta areas, fill out this quick form to be connected with clergy perfect for you and your partner!

Answer By: 
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis

We are expecting a child in a few weeks. We think it will be a girl. Is there an equivalent to the bris ceremony for boys? We want to do something to welcome her and give her a Hebrew name.

Traditionally, a brit milah is the ceremony whereby a Jewish boy is brought into the covenant. For a girl, there was a naming which took place in the synagogue, usually done by the father or grandfather coming to the synagogue and having a blessing said on behalf of the baby, who usually wasn't present. There have been attempts in various times and places to create something more ceremonious for girls, but it wasn't until the advent of the women's movement in the 1970's that there has been a general interest in such things. Today, it is quite common to have a naming ceremony for a girl, although the form it takes varies from community to community and even from family to family.

The Reform Rabbi's Manual contains a naming ceremony for girls which has all the same blessings and reading for a girl as for a boy, minus the blessing of milah itself. Some people like to have some kind of physical ritual for a girl that would in some way be analogous to the milah. One idea is to have a miniature mikveh for the girl, as her sign of entering the covenant. Others just go with a naming ceremony without any physical manifestations. Such ceremonies usually include blessings by the mother thanking God for a safe delivery, by the parents thanking God for a healthy child, and asking for help in raising the child, pledging to raise her Jewishly. Other family members may give blessings or say something, godparents may be honored with holding the baby, as in a brit milah, or may give a blessing. The child's name is announced, with some explanation of who she was named for or what the significance is of the name. The rabbi or officiant will bless the child, as in a brit milah, and then there is a party.

More simply, the child can be brought to synagogue on Shabbat and be named by the rabbi in front of the ark during services, which is a nice way of making this personal family event also a celebration for the community and a chance for the community to welcome the newest member into the Jewish community.

You can find out more about different kinds of naming ceremonies, for both boys and girls, in the following resources:

  • The Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant
  • Lifecycles by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
  • Jewish and Female by Susan Weidman Schneider
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