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What Do You Know About Burial & Shiva?

Do you know as much about Jewish burial and mourning rituals as you think you do?

Take the quiz below to test your knowledge, and find the answers at the bottom of this page.

  1. Why in Jewish tradition is the body of a dead person guarded and tended from the time of death until burial?
    1. So the spirit of the deceased person does not feel abandoned
    2. To protect the body from animals
    3. To comfort the family
    4. All of the above

  2. What does a person performing shmira (guarding the body before burial) traditionally do while sitting with the dead person?
    1. Read Psalms
    2. Study Torah
    3. Pray silently
    4. Write condolence letters 

  3. Is taharah (the ritual washing and preparing of the body for burial) performed on a person whose organs have been donated after death?
    1. No; it is against halachah (Jewish law) to donate a person’s organs
    2. No; water cannot be poured on such a body
    3. Yes, taharah is still performed
    4. Yes, but the person cannot be buried in the traditional shroud because his/her donated organs were not ritually cleansed

  4. In what color(s) shroud are Jews traditionally buried?
    1. Black
    2. Blue and white
    3. Blue
    4. White

  5. Why are coffins kept closed before and during the Jewish funeral service?
    1. We are commanded not to look upon the faces of the dead
    2. To prevent mourners from wailing uncontrollably during the service
    3. To honor the dead person
    4. All of the above

  6. When a Star of David is placed on a coffin, on what part of the coffin is it placed?
    1. On the top of the coffin, toward the feet
    2. On the top of the coffin, toward the head
    3. On the top of the coffin, symmetrically in the middle
    4. Inside the coffin cover, where  the dead person can “see” it

  7. What is the message of the Mourner’s Kaddish (Mourner’s Prayer)?
    1. To express sadness about the person’s death
    2. To praise God
    3. To underscore the futility of pursuing earthly possessions
    4. To encourage people to live their lives fully while they can

  8. What is the last thing Jews are supposed to do before leaving a cemetery after a burial?
    1. Light a memorial candle
    2. Shovel dirt onto the coffin
    3. Wash their hands
    4. Bow in the direction of Jerusalem

  9. When does the seven-day mourning period called shiva traditionally start?
    1. The day the mourner is informed of the death of his/her loved one
    2. The day after the death
    3. The day of the burial
    4. The day after the burial

  10. Why are mirrors covered in a house of mourning during the shiva period?
    1. All vanity is to be put aside during this period of intense mourning
    2. Some people used to believe that a departing spirit might be caught in a mirror
    3. To preserve tradition
    4. All of the above


Quiz Answers

  1. (d) The practice of guarding the body may have originated from a desire to prevent it from being harmed by animals. Some people also believe that the soul hovers near the body between death and burial and it is therefore a kindness to keep the dead company until the burial. A similar line of thought suggests that because a person’s spirit is in a state of distress and confusion immediately after death, reading Psalms and remaining by the body may help comfort the spirit. In addition, knowing that a shomeir (a person who sits with the dead body, from the root shin-mem-reish, meaning “guards” or “keepers”) is with their loved one can be a great comfort to family and friends. It is also a gesture of caring and respect. The actions of the chevrah kadisha (sacred society of men and women who look after the deceased) accord with the principles of Reform Judaism, and some Reform communities have established chevrei kadisha or related organizations. “In all cases, it is a mitzvah for friends and congregants to share in the duties and responsibilities of caring for the deceased and their grieving families.” (Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsum 5754.8)

  2. (a) When sitting with a dead person, the person performing shmira recites psalms that speak of God as our protector and comforter and are intended to comfort the spirit of the dead person.

  3. (c) The Jewish people value human life so highly, organ donation is to be allowed after brain death. The Union for Reform Judaism Bio-Ethics Program Guide affirms that organ donation “is a modern mitzvah rooted in the value of saving a life (pikuach nefesh).” After the donation, the surgeons close the resulting wounds tightly with sutures, allowing the ritual of taharah to be performed with few, if any, variations.”

  4. (d) Tachrichim, or burial shrouds, are traditionally white, which symbolizes ritual purity, as in Isaiah 1:18: “Be your sins like crimson. They can turn snow-white.” In the 1st century CE, the talmudic sage Rabbi Gamliel was distressed to see dead bodies dumped by the side of the road by poor Jewish people who could not afford fancy burial garments and coffins. As a result, he ordered that upon his death he was to be buried in unadorned cotton garments in a plain wooden coffin, and ruled that all Jews should do so as well (Moed Katan 27b). To this day, many Jews follow the ruling.

  5. (c) In Jewish practice the coffin is closed at the cemetery and generally at the funeral home. Reform Judaism follows this custom: “We insist on [a closed casket] when services are conducted in the synagogue itself and the cemetery chapel” (Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsum 151–152). Although some Orthodox Jews state other reasons for this custom, for Reform Jews it is a way to show respect for the dead.

  6. (a) The Star of David is usually placed on the top of the coffin nearer to the feet. This allows those performing the burial to correctly position the coffin so that the person’s head is on the side where the headstone will be placed, or, on a slope, on the more “comfortable” uphill side.

  7. (b) The Mourner’s Kaddish praises God. It does not mention death or mourning in any way. It is a reminder that no matter how angry we may be with God in the depths of our mourning, we are to be grateful to God for all God has provided to us.

  8. (c) We wash our hands upon leaving a cemetery in order to separate ourselves from death as we return to the world of the living. This practice may have originated from a desire to wash away any evil spirits that may have clung to a mourner in the cemetery, but it’s also practical: mourners’ hands are liable to be dirty if they helped to toss a handful (or shovelful) of dirt onto the coffin, as is traditionally done.

  9. (c) Shiva, meaning seven, begins on the day of the burial. The timing ensures that even those families making many funeral-related arrangements are able to stop and mourn. “Three days are the minimum period of mourning in Reform Judaism, and in some communities they have taken the place of shiva as a whole. This, however, is not the desirable norm. Reform Jews ought to observe all seven days of shiva.” (Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, URJ Press)

  10. (d) One origin of covering mirrors during shiva was the fear in ancient times that a person’s spirit could be caught in a mirror. Today, mirrors are covered to enable family members of the deceased not to focus on their appearance, but on their loss. Other people cover their mirrors to continue their family’s traditional observances during mourning. 


Susan Esther Barnes, a member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California, blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.