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Jewish Death Practices:
Learning & Resources:
Images From a Bygone Ghetto-Life
From the Year 1838 to 1848 Together with Highlights from Later Years and the
Memories of the Youth of a 78, later 89 year old
IGNAZ BRIESS sen. in Olmütz
The third fully reworked and substantially lengthened edition
The proceeds are destined for the purposes of Jewish welfare (Israelite
Free Meal Society in Prague and the Women's Charitable Society, etc)
Published at own Expense
On Commission from the Jewish Book and Art Publishers Max Hickl, Brünn.
Translated from the German Original
Simon J. Gilmour M.A. (Hons)
[Extract of pages 13-19 - For the complete text contact Claire Bruell at email@example.com]
My grandparents led a peaceful, patriarchal life, as did most Jewish families - apart from a few exceptions. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1849 at which each of the numerous uncles was given a present equal to his age (books, clothing).
A few days after this celebration, in which almost the whole community took part, my grandfather died (September 27, 1849) at age 727 - probably the result of the joyful excitement. Due to this, a tacit understanding developed in our family that silver and golden wedding anniversaries were to be celebrated only in close family circle.
For many years my grandfather was gabai rischaun (first presider) over the Chewra Kadischa (the holy brotherhood responsible for caring for the ill and for burials); he applied himself with body, soul, and unusual zeal to this honourary post.
In the Kehilla (Jewish community) it seems an opinion came about - due to this zeal - that he enjoyed making money for the Chewra, eg. when wealthy people were buried. This may well have been the cause of a suggestion that he renounce his title of gabai, which came to a head during the illness of the second wife, a young and beautiful woman, of the randar P.8 Despite his resignation and the fact that an arm-thick wax candle was buried the length of her body in the cemetery, Mrs P. did not recover.9
My grandfather felt very hurt by his forced resignation and was only persuaded to return as gabai rischaun by an urgent plea from the whole community and by a public apology from widower P.
* * *
Annually on Adar 7, ie. the days of the birth and death of our great teacher Moses, an assembly of the Chewra Kadischa took place after the preceding funeral service.10
The banqueting hall was decorated with Prauches (tabernacle curtain) and Klekaudesch (decorated robe) and the silver requisite (comb, scissors, needle, goblet) for the Tahara (washing of the corpse).
The events of the past year were read from the chronicle, recorded in Hebrew.11 After approval of the accounts and the elections, the Chewraszude (brothers' repast) began.
During this the gabai rischaun made many toasts, and the chasan (first cantor) made Mischeberachs (appeals to God to bless the named person) to all the functionaries; both toasts and Mischeberachs were made in loud voices.
The liberer12 aroused much excitement with humorous rhyming couplets, with ridiculing, and by imitating members of the community, among whom there were many distinctive characters with especial characteristics and quirks (eg. frugality, fear of others, shyness, good-naturedness, natural wit, cleverness, etc.).
Despite the lack of hygienic facilities (healthy drinking water, sewerage system, lighting, dustless plaster, parks), most of the Prerau Jews reached a very old age. People of 80, 85, and 90, who were still both mentally and physically active, were no exception.
It is fortunate that life insurance was not so widely distributed then, for the premiums - such are the demanding statutes - have to be paid up until the death of the insured party, and together would have amounted to significantly more than the insured sum of the policy.
* * *
After officially ending the meal, solemnity entered the gathering whilst the so-called Chassumim (Mladschim, newcomers, from mladší) were accepted into the Chewra with handshakes and certain ceremony; they were to become hardened and more accustomed to working with infectious diseases and corpses through this and to overcome all fear.
In those days the oldest men of the Chewra (Skenim) had a difficult, yet humanitarian job. They cared for the sick in alternate sessions and free of charge, keeping watch over them at night. They had to be present at the Schinu (agony) and at the Jezias Neschomoh (last breath), perform the prescribed prayer of death, take all precautions for the funeral (Lewaje), and assist with the digging of the grave.
Shortly before death the upper window in the patient's room was opened, symbolically representing the soul escaping into the heavenly regions. After death the mirror was covered in the room of death, and in both the house of mourning and the three houses on each side of it, all the drinking water in open containers was tipped out (due to a possible Miasmen or to superstition: that the angel of death had washed its sword in it).
Directly after viewing, the deceased the male body was washed, combed, dressed in clean underwear and the arba kanfaus (fnt 37), and covered with white clothes of death (khittel, khittel-bonnet, and tallis (praying coat)). The former two were those garments the deceased wore under the Chuppa (marriage cover) as groom at his wedding, and also what he wore, together with the tallis on Jomim nauroim (New Year's and Atonement Day).
Before his body was placed on the bier, his relations asked him for forgiveness for any pain they may have caused him while he lived; this is called Mechilo - apology.
Afterwards the body was carried to the cemetery (called Beth aulom, ie. eternal home of the dead, also Good Place or Beth hachajim, house of life, or Beth hakworaus, house of the graves) as it was not far from Judengasse (Literally translated the "street of Jews".); the body was only on the bier covered with a black cloth - no coffin and no singing nor any noise. The grave was lined with four rough, unplaned boards, and when the body had been placed
inside, a fifth board made out of three parts was put atop, which the dug out soil was tipped onto. The dead man was buried with this head pointing east - little fragments were placed on his eyes, mouth, and in his ears - and he received a small, roughly fashioned, two pronged wooden fork in each hand, so that it was easier to burrow through the earth to Jerusalem or Gan Eden (paradise, ie. the realm of the blessed and of peace) when he arose from the dead (Techias hamessim); immortality is something that all Jews are assured of according to the 12 and 13 doctrines (schlauschoh ossor ikarim) (Isaiah, 26, v.19 and Ezekiel, 37, v.5-10).
1. "The human, that miraculous being, the noblest creature on the earth, is robbed of any hope of immortality (Mos. Mendelsohn, "Phaedon").
2. "Even at the grave's edge he plants his hope" (Schiller).
3. "Those who reject God and immortality degrade themselves" (Otto von Leixner).
NB. 1, 2, 3 are from the sermons of remembrance for the soul14 by Rabbi Dr. B. Oppenheim in Olmütz, 1912.
4. "The immortality of the soul has long been recognized in objective philosophy as a postulate of logical thinking" ("Freedom of Will" by Dr. Theodor Diemel).
5. "It is only the belief in a better life that allows humanity to further endure the burden of life - at all its lamentable stages - and to start afresh" (Joh. Scheer).
6. "The resurrection of the dead is also a theological doctrine of Christianity" (John 5, 21 & 29; 6,39\40 and I. Corinthians 15:"the dead will be raised").
7. "Death is no end but a beginning. What would life be if we could not think of continuance" (Grillparzer).
* * *
The burial of any Jew, whether rich or poor, without any divergence, was simple and unadorned; wreaths and floral tributes were not permitted. In those days it was customary that the parents or wife, children, and siblings of the deceased wore old, threadbare clothes to the funeral. At the grave the liberer made deep cuts into the flaps of their dresses and vests - called "to cut krios."
Before the mourners left the cemetery, they picked blades of grass from the lawn and threw them back over their shoulders, symbolizing sadness being left behind and not allowing it to force its way into the house, saying: "W' jozizu meeir, kezzes hoorez," ie. the dead will come from their resting place at their resurrection like the grass from the earth. The first seven days after the funeral strict mourning was observed in the room where death occurred. They prayed there morning and evening with the minjan (in the presence of ten males no less than 13 years old, who are necessary for a service to take place, and said the Kaddisch).16 They wore old, dark coloured clothes and slippers and sat on foot stools. They called this sitting Schiwoh (seven days of mourning). During this week relatives and friends came to visit in order "to be Menachem owel" (comfort the mourners).
To visit the sick (Bikur cholim), deliver the dead to their final resting place (halwojas haames), and show sympathy for the bereaved (to be Menachem owel) made up the main duties of a Jew (see Pirke owaus, pithy saying of the Fathers).
It was usual that one send the bereaved very good food: on the one hand that they might eat well and gain strength, and on the other since they were not allowed to conduct business during the week of mourning. Thus even when they were poor the family could earn nothing. It was a lovely custom - and showed great tenderness towards the poor - that two boxes were set up in the house of mourning. In the open box a large sum of money was deposited - by the
Chewra Kadischa - as suited the needs of the bereaved. The closed box was to collect the donations of those offering their condolences - they were equally welcome to throw money into the open box.
The content of the open box was left with needy bereaved families while the closed box was reserved for the Chewra Kadischa. Wealthy bereaved families gave both boxes back to the Chewra Kadischa, so that they could distribute the content to other poor people (Dr. Fürst "Customs and Traditions in Eisenstadt"). The customs relating to the two boxes, are supposed to still be in use in Berlin by the organization "Mischaun awelim" which has existed for more than 150 years.
* * *
The bereaved males went to maariv prayer (evening prayer) in the synagogue on the Friday of the first week of mourning; they waited in the portico until the end of the Lecho daudi (a hymn for the glorification of the Sabbath written by the poet Salomon ben Halevy). The rabbi spoke to them, still in the portico, with the words: "Hamokaum lenachem eszchem bezauch awele zulaun wijruscholojim," ie. "may the universal God comfort you and all who mourn Zion and Jerusalem."
After this address they entered the synagogue but did not assume their normal seats but those of their neighbours or friends; this change remained throughout the whole year of mourning.
The three weeks following the week of mourning form with that week the so-called Schlauschim (thirty days) (V. Hoses, 34, v.8). Only after this period were the bereaved allowed to have their hair and beards cut. A black band was sewn to the gold or silver braid-trimming of the tallis.
On the thirtieth day an oil lamp was left to burn next to the deceased's bed. Next to this light of the soul stood a glass of water and next to that lay a small hand towel, which was usually cut from the khittel, so that the soul could symbolically cleanse itself; as its temporary return to the house was taken for granted during the month of mourning.
It was normal that the wife of the gabai rischaum bestowed the title of first gabat (female presider) in the Noschim Zidkoniaus (organization of pious women for the care of the sick).
7. (4a) The grandchildren did not say grandfather or grandmother in those days, but dede and babe) similar to the Czech: děd, bába.
8.(5) Jewish distillers were called randars and had drinking rights; they were thought to be Croesi and naturally therefore represented the Jewish community volée.
9.(6) It was earlier customary, and still is in many areas, to hang up wax images (eg. a heart, hand, foot, etc.) in the pilgrim churches (eg. Czenstochau, Lourdes, Naria Zell, etc.) indicating the affected or recovering limb as ex voto (Heine "The Pilgrimage to Kavlaar").
10.(6a) Moses was born in Egypt circa 1600 B.C. (II. Moses, 2,v.2) and died at age 120 after fulfilling his divine mission as liberator, law giver, prophet, and poet (Song of Victory, II. Moses, 15, v.1 and Blessing of Departure, V. Moses, 33, v.1) on the mountain of Nebo in the land of Mauow, and he was buried in the valley opposite Bes Peaur (V. Moses 34, v.5). His burial place is not known because, according to an ancient Jewish adage "Moses is looked upon not as dead or deceased but as continual in his affect and immortal."
In Jewish museums there are neither images nor statues of him, because any image or product in stone was strictly forbidden by overzealous Jewish scholars as a consequence of the interpretation of III Moses, 26, v.1. However, there is a statue of Moses by Michelangelo Buonarotti in Saint Peters, Rome, and painting of Moses by Rembrandt in the Emperor Friedrich Museum in Berlin.
l1.(7) The present Chewra book in Prerau may well be over one hundred years old and would form a real resource for a cultural historian. It would be well recommended for the Chewra Kadischa to give the book to the Jewish museum in Prague for safe-keeping.
12.(8) The liberer was the factotum for everything in the Jewish community. He received gratis from the community a two-bedroomed flat called Hekdesch of which the larger room was reserved either as a spital for the ill of the local poor or as accommodation for wandering wastrels. Professional wastrels, mostly from Galician and Poland arrived much of the time with numerous children late on a Friday afternoon and remained on the Sabhath in the Kehilla. Friday evening, Saturday morning, and midday Saturday they received free meals in rotation from the affluent families. The impoverished Jewish father gave them a so-called Plett (tax certification) for identification, with which they had to report directly to the woman of the house, so that enough food could he prepared for the unexpected quests.
Worthy poor people sat at the same table as the host; in return for the food they told of the strange experiences they had encountered during their continual wandering from city to city or they recited a midrasch, as most were well versed in the talmud.
At weddings the liberer, in the capacity of host of the wedding and adorned with a large flower made of coloured paper, delivered the written invitations and when somebody died, he had to announce the time of the funeral at each Jewish house, since there were no death notices then.
Equally, during the months of Tischri, Tebeth, Nissan, and Thamus, he had to announce at each Jewish house the day and hour when the tekufah (sun spots) would fall, so that the water containers and the meat could be covered. According to ancient superstition, at the moment at which each quarter of the year begins a blood drop shall fall, for until Copernicus (b.1473, d.1543) it was commonly believed that the sun and the planets rotated around the earth (3. B. Joshua: the sun in Gibnon stands still and the moon in the valley of Ajabon). A similar superstition existed among the Germanic tribes (Prof. Grim's account of superstition p.Xc, number 509). I think it advisable that modern Jewish calendars delete the notice of tekufab, which no Jew believes in any more, so the superstition will disappear.
Before the beginning of the third mussafim on Rauschhaschonoh and Jaumkipur, he must call out in a loud voice from Almemor: "Schtiko Jofoh Boschaas hatfilo, ie. quiet is sought so as not to disrupt prayer. Also among his duties was allowing himself to be called up at the reading of the Tauchocho (III. Moses, 2, v.14-46 & V. Moses, 28, v.16-68) to receive terrible curses when he had not followed the Laws of God; even poor people did not want to accept these Alijah, despite the chasan "Mi schejirze", ie. come who may, call out, and in some communities those who had reported freely were given a fiscal donation.
A view in the present: "Because the war 1914-1918 contributed to the degradation of many human characteristics one has doubts, so it is no wonder that even liberer N. dared to strike. When he was called up in the week of the Tauchocho, he simply left despite the many requests of Almemor made by the roschhakohol and the gabai; the service would have had to have stopped had the rabbi not decided to take over the scorned Alija! He may well have thought at the time: it is indeed Klole (misfortune) to be a rabbi in many communities, so it depends more or less on what Klole you get." At the end of the service
the indignation at the liberer broke out with great zest and the Klole of Tauchocho discharged itself in a much greater version over his head (a story by Dr. Max Steif, s. Voice of the Jevish People January 28, 1921).
13. (8a) Many poor Jewish pilgrims returning from Palestine used to bring a few pounds of earth, which the chassidim enjoyed selling, so that it could be put under the head of the deceased in the coffin, as they believed it would make it easier for them to get to the holy land for the future resurrection. A similar practice exists with some monarchs who lay much emphasis on having their children baptized in the waters of the Jordan.
14.(Bb) The celebration in remembrance of the soul took place on Pesach 8., Schowuaus 2., Day of Atonement, and the eighth days of Sukkot.
Men, women, and young boys, whose parents were still alive, left the tabernacle during the service out of compassion for the orphaned. Unmarried women did not go to school at all then; only on the first and second days of Rauschhaschono did they stand in the portico to listen to the schofar, for only after that could one eat.
15.(9) The words "to cut Kria" were also employed when abusing or cursing someone. They used to say: "You should cut your Kria."
16.(9a) Kaddisch is the most beautiful prayer for the dead; it strictly avoids all connotations of death and pain and contains the highest glorification of the eternal, to whose unexplored will the bereaved submit themselves with humility. Therefore the Kaddisch prayer was performed not only during the year of mourning but also on feast-days (for which there is no Hebrew word). With time the Kaddisch was interpolated by the rabbi between single prayers as a hymn about God's holiness and as a request for peace for all Israel.