I was once told that researching Judaism is like the ocean--there is always more, particularly when it comes to death and dying. Death is a universal experience--one of the things that connect all people around the world. It is natural that each and every culture develops its own unique perception and practices in response to death.
Judaism’s approach to death, however, feels unique in conjunction to the heavily Western Christian perceptions of death presented in much of the Western world.
Before diving in, it's important to note that Judaism is truly vast--I cannot cover every single opinion or attitude on death as there are as many opinions as there are Jews. I have attempted to cover a wide variety of perspectives from different Jewish movements and groups, but if there is one that I have missed that you feel important to include, please feel free to email me.
"The Kotzker Rebbe compared death to 'moving from one home to another'" (4)
The origins of death are found within the Torah, specifically in Genesis. As a result of humans choosing to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, humans no longer live eternally but rather have an end to their lives. It is generally agreed that this is the origin of human mortality, but the reason why is often debated. Some abide by the idea that it is merely a natural consequence of knowledge, while others adhere to a more punitive view that sees death as part of the punishment for the transgression of defying G-d.
Death is the end of life on this earth, but not the end of the life of the soul---a concept that will be discussed briefly here but in-depth in a later blog.
Jews, like most peoples, created superstitions surrounding death: when it happened, how it happened, and who it happened to.
According to the Talmud, there are 903 ways to die (Ber. 8a)...But rest assured that according to Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis, it is believed in Judaism that no righteous person dies before another is born. (4)
It was also taught in a baraita: Nine hundred and three types of death were created in the world, as it is stated: “Issues [totzaot] of death,” and that, 903, is the numerical value [gimatriya] of totzaot. The Gemara explains that the most difficult of all these types of death is croup [askara], while the easiest is the kiss of death. Croup is like a thorn entangled in a wool fleece, which, when pulled out backwards, tears the wool. Some say that croup is like ropes at the entrance to the esophagus, which would be nearly impossible to insert and excruciating to remove. The kiss of death is like drawing a hair from milk. One should pray that he does not die a painful death.
Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: The time of finding refers to death. One should pray that when death comes, he will leave the world peacefully.
Like all cultures, superstitions around death are pervasive:
“And a Talmudic tradition attributed to Rabbah, of the late second and early third centuries, remarks that “if one dies between his fiftieth and sixtieth year, this is a death of ‘excision’” (karet = spiritual death, death at the hand of heaven). Excision was a serious punishment, directed by the Torah against those who sinned in particularly grievous ways. Thus, to say that such a death is a “death of excision” is to declare it unusual and especially lamentable. For this reason, when R. Yosef reached his sixtieth birthday, he celebrated, saying “I have emerged from [the danger of] excision!” Death at fifty-to-sixty was still thought an early death. Death at seventy was a death in old age, death at eighty (= “special strength”) a “kiss of God.” R. Hisda, according to the Talmudic record, lived ninety-two years (all b. Mo‘ed Qatan 28a).” (1).
Omens of death were also well known: "the barking of dogs and the appearance of owls, ominous dreams, and seeing human shadows that lack a head" (4). According to some authors, the headless shadows must specifically be of the dying person.
According to Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs , a particular dream omen for death included seeing the words of the eulogy.
“If one sees the words of a funeral oration, mercy will be granted to him from Heaven and he will be redeemed. This is only if he sees the words in writing. If one in a dream answers, “May His great name be blessed,” he may be assured that he has a place in the World to Come.” (5)
Other omens include a person looking at their reflection only to find that the reflection has their eyes and mouth closed. (6) Some others said that sneezing was a foreboding mention of death, “The story is told that until the time of Jacob, a person, at the close of his life, sneezed and instantly died.” Some speculate that this omen is the reason for saying bless you after sneezing, though this is largely unsubstantiated. (8)
When one was dying, it was believed they may see Adam, the Angel of Death, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence). Suddenly seeing these figures was a clear sign of impending doom.
While clearly karet is not positive and the omens are ominous, the general consensus on the Jewish opinion of death is far more positive than some other cultures approach to passing, “In fact, classical Jewish literature, from the Bible through the Talmud and later writings, takes a consistently positive approach to the fact of death and the experience of mournings. There is no shortage of such writings, only a shortage of readers.” (2)
For many, death in Judaism is as it is in life: an active participation in the struggle. All throughout our Jewish lives, we are taught to wrestle with the Divine, with our texts, with ourselves, and in the end: with death. Whoever comes out the victor is honorable, even if, in the end, death will always win. I choose the word wrestle rather than the word fight because it is a match where we are satisfied with Death becoming victorious---even as we work our hardest to fend off the day for as long as we can.
According to Reinaldo W. Siqueira, some parts of Judaism have conceptualized death "as non-existence, the opposite of life: the person ceased breathing, life was gone, the body decomposed and returned to dust (Bowman 1980:1:802). Nothing but God’s and the survivors’ memories of the dead person remained after death". The Torah "expressly teaches that a dead person does not think, talk, feel, suffer, worship, or praise God—the deceased do not participate in anything that is done in the world of the living". (3)
While alive, Jews are commanded to honor and preserve the sanctity of life. Whether this be through the belief that saving a life is the most important commandment, or through physical actions like live organ donation, Judaism wrestles with death until the very end.
Jews, more than most, are willing to preserve the sanctity of life. It has been estimated that Ultra-Orthodox Jews alone make up 17% of live altruistic kidney donations in the United States. This means that the kidneys were donated to complete strangers (11). It is important to note that the vast majority of Jews in the US are not Ultra-Orthodox or even Orthodox.
When one is dying, it is customary to not be alone. Judaism is, after all, a team sport. Unlike some other religions, Judaism does not have an official death bed sacrament, but among most Jews, it is common to recite or have a rabbi recite, the vidui before death. This confession is concluded with the recitation of the Shema, arguably the most important of the Jewish prayers.
While Judaism accepts death as inevitable, that doesn't mean Jews won’t fight like hell to put it off for as long as possible. Aside from the obvious charms, prayers, and actions taken to prolong life (like tzedakah), Jews have developed quite a few unique means of avoiding death.
Throughout Jewish culture, the importance of Jewish names cannot be understated. You can read more specifics regarding Hebrew names here, but to put it lightly: Jewish names represent the essence of a person. According to Trachtenberg, “a man's name is his person and his name is his soul” (7). When someone is sick and dying, it is a tradition (across many Jewish communities) to rename them---either by adding a name or choosing a new name entirely.
The Talmud discusses changing the name in regard to healing here, "Four things annul the decree that seals a person's fate; namely, alms, prayer, change of name, and change of deeds" (R. H. 16b). The names added, or changed, often have etymology linked to health, happiness, etc. For example, Rafael for refua or cure, Chaim for life, etc. (37)
A common Jewish custom (found largely within Ashkenazi communities, but also within some others) is to not name one after a living relative. Sefardim, however, will refrain from naming their child after a living parent, but may name their child after a living relative. The Angel of Death would only deliver its decree to the one named in the summons--so should a parent be ready for death, the Angel of Death may falsely deliver its decree to the newborn.
Alternatively, one Sefardic custom to thwart death of infants was that of ‘selling’ a child. To be entirely clear, no children are actually sold. Should parents have a history of stillbirths, miscarriages, or infant deaths, they might ‘sell’ their child to a friend for three days, during which the infant would be named Marko as a boy or Merkada for a girl. During the three days, they would be doted upon, fed, and cared for by the new family--one who had great luck and fortune with children. After those three days, they would be returned to the family. For the following three years, the “buying” family would bring gifts and sweets on Purim to the child. (7).
According to the Jewish virtual library, other methodologies of thwarting death, according to folkloric literature, include finding the “herb of life” or going on quests for immortality. Others conclude that the study of the Torah and acts of piety (particularly tzedakah) are enough to divert the decree. (10)
“In the numerous versions of the legend about the death of *Moses (Midrash Petirat Moshe), Moses succeeds in chastising Samael who comes to fetch his soul. Only God's promise that He Himself would take the soul induces Moses to lay down his staff with the engraved Ineffable Name which had made the Angel of Death flee in terror.” (10)
A strange, oddly specific belief is that if a man is bitten by a deadly snake, should he reach a stream first--the snake will die. However, should the snake reach the stream first, it is the man who will perish. (6)
Alternatively, perhaps the most famous story of Jews thwarting death comes from the story of Passover. When the Pharaoh called for the death of all Jewish firstborns, the Jewish community took action. It is recorded in the Torah that the Jewish community took the blood of a sacrificed lamb (which technically could be a goat kid), and painted it upon their doorways to thwart the entrance of the angel of death.
Angel of Death
The cause of death in traditional Jewish thought is the Angel of Death. Over the years, new thoughts have appeared within Judaism, including the belief that death is simply the natural process at the end of the life cycle---the heart no longer beats, oxygen can no longer permeate the brain, and a human being simply ceases to exist. This belief system is as Jewish as the others. However, one extremely common Jewish belief is in the Angel of Death.
Like all Jewish things, even the Angel of Death is a bit complicated. It is believed the Angel of Death was created on the first day---though it has also been believed that it is not a single angel, but many. And, ironically, some sources cited their belief that the angel(s) of death was actually created in the darkness of the moment before the first day. Throughout the centuries, this Angel of Death has been associated with other figures like Satan, Samael, and others. According to Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis, “Death is the slowest of all the angels, except in times of an epidemic, when he is the fastest” (4).
Like all angels, Death is but an emissary of the Divine: messengers of the decree of death.
If you google “Angel of Death, Judaism” you will be presented with the belief that the angel of death is most commonly associated with Azreal. However, this quote is from Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad’s book Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection.
It has been said that the angel of death is all eyes, and that when a sick person is dying, the angel stands above him, sword drawn with a drop of bile dangling from it. When the sick person sees the angel he is shocked and opens his mouth; the bio falls into the open mouth and from this the person dies, from this the person deteriorates, from this his face turns green. (A.z. 20b, Ber. 4b) (4)
The physicality of the Angel of Death is also discussed: Like all angels, he can alter his appearance. In some mythologies, he wears a mantle that allows him to do so. In the Testament of Abraham, he appears with seven dragon heads (4).
Maimonides, ever on the mission of demystifying Judaism, chose instead to rationalize the Angel of Death, transforming it from an entity to “the life-denying, evil force that lurks in the human psyche.” This is, in part, due to a Talmudic tractate that theorizes “that Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one and the same.” (9).
While Maimonides was determined to erase any aspects of Judaism he found non-rational, the conceptualization of the Angel of Death persisted. Because the angel is most often conceived of as merely a messenger, not the ultimate master of death, it is possible to thwart the decree---if the Divine sees it to be fit. The methodologies listed above in the “thwarting death” section would be applicable here.
Death, rational or not, is a complex, multifaceted topic in Judaism. Here I've covered common belief systems and attitudes towards death and dying. In the next installment in this series, we will cover the physical aspects of death, mourning, and burial traditions.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: Death
Divination, Magic, and Healing: The Book of Jewish Folklore
Jewish Magic and Superstition: Joshua Trachtenberg
Sweetening the Sick and Healing the SpiritsL ritual medical lore of Sefardic women