About the Final Prayer
Before the modern age there would be no confusion about what would take place just before death. In most Jewish communities, the Chevra Kaddisha, burial society, would be called in to care for the dying person, the go-sace. They recited verses from Psalm 119 that corresponded to the letters in the person’s Hebrew name. The Chevra Kaddisha encouraged go-ses-sim (pl. gosess) to make peace with this world by encouraging them to bless their children and ask forgiveness from their family and friends.
While the Chevra Kaddisha still exists in some Jewish communities, they mainly work to prepare a body for burial. The general reluctance to discuss death and the popularity of funeral procedures foreign to Jewish tradition have conspired to obscure the Jewish way to relate to death.
During the last moments of life, the go-sess has an opportunity to verbally make peace with a lifetime of accomplishments and shortcomings through the Vidui prayer of confession. It is a mitzvah to say a personal final prayer or the traditional text, and it is a mitzvah to help someone say it.
Unlike the Catholic ritual that is done in part to secure a heavenly abode, the Vidui acknowledges the imminence of death, recalls a life of both goodness and missteps, and asks that the good be remembered and the misdeeds forgiven. In some versions there is a request that those who are left behind should be granted special protection.
Generations of Jews have chosen the Shema prayer as their final utterance. This central prayer of Judaism proclaims God’s oneness: Listen oh Israel, the Lord, Our God is One. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. God is acknowledged as the source of all, the Source before whom we are all equal.
When to Say the Prayer
Loss of hope to live is not a prerequisite for saying this prayer. The Shulkhan Arukh, Code of Jewish Law, reminds the go-sess that saying Vidui does not bring on death and it does not preclude any hope of recovery. Vidui provides a platform from which to say goodbye, to ask forgiveness, and to ease fears. The words said, from the prayer book or from the heart, make death a holy moment.
Sephardic Jews bid leave before the community and gather a minyan, a quorum of ten people, before saying the Vidui.
At the Time of Death – Then and Now
And then the moment has come.
Customary care for the deceased defines an honorable way to shift into automatic action. Tradition acknowledges the numbness that comes with a loss and lists a host of things to do before burial.
Tenderly, the Chevrah Kaddisha would attend to the body. Eyes would be closed, and the mouth would be shut and prevented form opening. Limbs would be straightened. A cloth would be draped over the body. The body would be positioned so that the feet would face the door. A candle would be placed in the room and lit. A member of the Chevra Kaddisha or the family would remain beside the body at all times, a final vigil.
If the death occurred anywhere outside of a hospital, now is the time to call the doctor and the police. Calls should also be placed to the funeral home and the rabbi.
A Blessing for A Loss
It is perhaps the hardest blessing to say and many Conservative Jews choose not to say this blessing at all. At a moment of loss and upon hearing the news, God is remembered as the True Judge whose judgment is ultimately righteous.
The traditional text:
Barukh Ah-ta Adonai Elohaynu Melekh HaOlam Dayan HaEmet,
Blessed are you God, ruler of the world, the righteous judge
This blessing is spoken by those most affected by the loss: children, parents, spouses and siblings. Those who hear of or witness a death may choose to make this blessing.
The blessing may be said later on when the pain is not so great.
Ancient Bereavement Customs
Stiff upper lips and keeping up public appearances are not part of the Jewish mourning tradition. In ancient Jewish times, several customary signs informed neighbors of their duty to begin caring for the mourners among them.
A medieval custom still practiced by some today had mourners pour out the water that had been stored in their homes sending news of the loss flowing through the streets. Death and water are linked in Samuel II 14:14, “In death we are like water spilled.”
Water was thought to act as a barrier against the spiritual forces that accompanied Death and prevented them from causing any more harm. Throughout Jewish thought there is a discomfort with placing blame for death in the hands of God. Classic Judaism does not give angels and other forces independence from God, but there is mention of the Angel of Death and the spiritual cohorts that accompany this spirit.
Neighbors would also see the open windows, which mourners raised and left ajar to assist the departed soul in its ascent heavenward.