Judaism & End-of-Life Care
In Judaism, life is precious, and death is viewed as part of the continuum of life. Followers of Judaism believe in life after death and that in a future Messianic Age, the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, and all Jewish people will come together including the resurrection of those who have died, reuniting their body with their immortal soul.
There are many rituals and traditions in the Jewish faith associated with end-of-life care, funerals and mourning.
How Is Judaism incorporated into end-of-life care?
In the Jewish faith, a mitzvah is a commandment from God that must be performed as a religious duty. Bikur cholim is the mitzvah to visit and care for the sick and dying to ease their passage from earth into the eternal life of heaven. It is a simple, yet sacred, act of kindness and compassion.
Most Jewish communities have a bikur cholim committee of volunteers who make visits to support sick members of the community and their families.
Jewish tradition places a high value on caring for the elderly. This may be done by the family in their home or by finding a supportive facility to best meet the patient’s needs. When facing a serious or terminal illness, family and friends will often visit to provide additional care and support.
Jewish end-of-life practices.
When a Jewish person in hospice care is facing a serious or terminal illness, it is common to recite the pidyon nefesh. This prayer which literally translates as “redemption of the soul” is meant to relive suffering and distress.
As end of life approaches, if the patient is conscious, it is customary to offer a vidui, a confessional prayer that allows the individual the opportunity to express regret, confess sins and ask for forgiveness.
Once the moment of death passes, the eyes and mouth of the patient should be gently closed with the jaw bound so it does not open. Fingers and limbs can be straightened so they are parallel to the body. Finally, any tubes or wounds should be covered before covering the body with a sheet or cloth, feet pointed towards the door and a candle lit nearby. In Jewish tradition, the body is never left alone as many believe the soul is still present after death.
Hospice staff and other healthcare staff should not wash the body of Jewish patient after death. The body must be buried whole including any item with the blood or hair of the person on it. Instead, the Chevre Kadish, a Jewish Burial Society, should be informed so they can prepare the body and bury it according to the customs of the Jewish faith. They will remove any drains, tubes, and wound dressings.
Jewish law requires the funeral to be performed as soon as possible after the death, usually within one day of the death. If the death occurs on the Sabbath (sundown Friday through sundown on Saturday), the funeral will be held on Sunday. The funeral is followed by gathering at the family’s home which begins shiva, seven days where mourners remain at home and receive guests offering condolences.
During shiva, doors are left unlocked so visitors can enter peacefully without disturbing those in mourning and a pitcher of a water may be made available for visitors to wash their hands. A candle is lit in the home where mourners are sitting shiva and burns for the full seven days. Mirrors are covered during this timing of mourning and self-reflection, and many mourners will refrain from wearing make-up or shaving. Shoes are removed and mourners may sit low to the ground on small stools to symbolize being “brought low” by grief.
The first thirty days after a death are a period of mourning where the normal routine may resume after shiva, but mourners refrain from many pleasurable activities. Those mourning the death of parent will observe an additional 11-month period of reciting the Kaddish prayer during synagogue services.
How does Crossroads help address the spiritual needs of Jewish patients in hospice care?
Our chaplains appreciate the rich Jewish faith and honor its customs and traditions. Our chaplains will listen to the patient and their family and address spiritual concerns. If the patient would like to speak with a rabbi and does not have a connection to one from their own synagogue, our chaplains will make arrangements with a local synagogue to have a rabbi from the community pay a visit.
Additional Judaism and end-of-life care resources.
To provide additional information on how Crossroads supports Jewish patients at end of life, we have gathered the following resources: