Confronting Tradition & Honoring Memories: Three Jewish Women in Mourning - Lesson Plan for Adults
This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Henrietta Szold on Saying Kaddish.”
Notes to Teacher/Facilitator
Death is the most democratic of life-cycle rituals. We all experience, at unpredictable points in our lives, the death of loved ones. The experience is overwhelming, complicated, emotional, frightening. These are precisely the times when people feel the need for ritual and tradition, for the support of a community, for words of comfort and consolation. Many find that the Jewish rituals of death and grieving provide all of those elements in the most helpful and powerful ways: the quick and simple burial; the week of shiva, when family and friends stay inside, shut out the rest of the world, gather for daily prayer, and reminisce about their departed loved one; the gradual return to life and routine, after seven days, then thirty, and then one year; and finally, commemorating the family member’s life and death through acts of tzedakah (righteousness/justice/charity), and through the anniversary ritual of yahrzeit, lighting a candle and being surrounded again by community to say the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Yet historically, women often found themselves on the outside of the community, even when gathered for the death of their own parent, sibling, or child. Traditionally, women were restricted from reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish and from making up the minyan (prayer quorum) that was necessary for this public pronouncement of faith and comfort in times of grief. In this lesson plan, we will take a look at the halakhic (Jewish legal) reasons for this exclusion, and then read three accounts of how women experienced or handled their roles in the grieving process, and finally, discuss two of the mitzvot (commandments/obligations) that Jews, including these women, traditionally perform: comforting mourners and honoring the dead.
Women and Jewish Mourning Rituals
Begin with an introduction like the one above, or by asking your group to outline the steps in the ritual of Jewish burial and grieving.
Ask if anyone has experienced a burial or shiva in which the women in mourning were not allowed to make up the shiva minyan or say Mourner’s Kaddish. Teach the halakhic reasoning behind this tradition:
Traditionally, women are exempted from “positive, time-bound commandments.” (Positive commandments are those that are phrased as “Thou shall” rather than “Thou shalt not.” Women and men are equally obligated to the negative commandments – e.g., do not steal, covet, or murder.) Time-bound commandments are those that require action at a specific time during the day, month, or year. So while women are equally obligated to honor their mothers and fathers, and to praise God in general, they are exempted from the laws of praying three times daily, at morning, afternoon, and sundown. This, of course, was because women might have conflicting obligations with children and household. But exempted does not mean forbidden; technically, women are allowed to participate in positive, time-bound obligations.
However, two other rules complicate women’s roles in Jewish practice. Since some people (adult men, in most cases) are obligated to do certain commandments, while others (women, children) are not obligated, the rabbis decreed that those who are not obligated cannot lead those who are obligated. This means, for example, that while a woman could technically participate in the birkat hamazon (blessing after meals), she could not lead men in the blessing, because they are obligated and she is not. One of the reasons given is that if a woman led, the assumption would be it was because there was no learned man to lead, which would humiliate the men who were present.
The final complicating factor is the requirement of a minyan, a prayer quorum, traditionally composed of ten men. The public recitation of certain prayers—including all forms of the Kaddish (which literally means “sanctification”)—requires a minyan. Until recently, women were not allowed to “count” in that quorum, although in dire circumstances, a minyan could count just seven men, or count boys under the age of bar mitzvah to make up the minyan. (For more information on the halakha regarding women’s roles in Judaism, see Rachel Biale’s excellent book, Women and Jewish Law.)
Many people claim that these laws were not intended to exclude women from the experience of reciting Kaddish and taking part in the full experience of mourning rituals, rather that the customs developed because women were expected to play a “private” role – taking care of the home, the children, and each other – while the men played the “public” role in prayer and synagogue life. There is still debate in Orthodox communities about the role of women in the mourning process; some authorities say that women should be allowed to say Kaddish quietly from the women’s section, while others discourage women from participating in this way. In non-Orthodox communities, where women are now generally counted in a minyan, they are also encouraged to say Kaddish.
Three Examples of Women in Mourning
Split participants into small groups. Ask them to read the three accounts of women in mourning below and reflect together on the role each woman plays in the rituals of mourning.
- Henrietta Szold’s letter on saying Kaddish for her mother
- The Story of Beruriah and her sons, from Midrash Proverbs 31:10
- Excerpt from Miriam’s Kitchen, a Memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich, p. 318 & 320
Bring groups together when participants are done discussing the texts. Write the two phrases, nichum avelim (comforting mourners) and kevod hamet (honoring the dead) on a chalk or white board. Ask what elements of these mitzvot they saw in the three stories (you might ask more specific questions, too, like “How was Szold’s letter itself a way of honoring her mother?”). Ask participants to come up with lists of the ways they have experienced or participated in nichum avelim and kevod hamet. Some possible answers include:
Nichum Avelim/Comforting Mourners
- comforting words (traditionally, we say “May you be comforted among all the other mourners of Zion”)
- keeping someone company or holding a hand
- coming to the shiva house
- bringing food
- helping the mourner think about their loved one and telling stories about him/her
- accompanying the mourner as they emerge from their period of grief
Kevod Hamet/Honoring the Dead
- the work of the hevra kadisha (burial society), who wash and clothe the deceased
- providing a timely burial
- sitting shiva
- saying Kaddish
- remembering yahrtzeits
- giving tzedakah in the name of the deceased
Conclude with this Hasidic story which teaches us that while each person is unique, and death makes us feel very alone, Jewish rituals provide an essential reminder that all of us will suffer the heart-rending experience of losing a loved one, grieving—and continuing life.
A woman came to a rabbi and was inconsolable over the loss of a loved one. He told her that she needed to bake a cake and that that would calm her down. The astonished woman listened, without understanding how making a cake could help her in any way. The Rabbi then explained that there was only one condition that she had to observe while baking the cake. She must collect the ingredients from other people in the community and she must borrow only from people who had known no sorrow through death in their family.
She accepted the condition and went around the community. All day she went around, but could not find one household from which she could borrow even a single item.
It was then, exhausted from her efforts, that she suddenly understood the Rabbi’s words. Everyone experiences grief. To understand that does not lessen your own grief, but it provides a certain perspective and enables you to understand that death is part of the human community. Death can bind you to the human community in a deeper way.