A brief overview of Jewish beliefs and rituals in relation to death and dying.
Most religious Jews believe that as they near the end of their lives, they should settle their affairs and make a will and that they should be reconciled with any family members with whom they have disagreed. They also believe they should make a deathbed confession and that their last words should be the Jewish declaration of faith. All Jewish denominations teach that the dying person should not be left alone.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire is part of the Reform tradition. He says it is a good idea for a Jew to contact their rabbi when they receive a diagnosis of terminal illness.
Rabbi Romain says: “As a rabbi I can talk to them about any last wishes they may have or anything they want done. Have they made a will for instance? If they haven’t, it could deprive their family of income and lead to friction.
“I can also help them to plan their funeral. Some people are very scared of mentioning that word while others find it quite comforting to plan what they want by way of music, readings and so on.”
Rabbi Romain advises the dying to make peace with those they have fallen out with.
“I will ask them if there is any unresolved conflict, particularly within the family. It is a time for being reconciled so you can die with an easy heart rather than regret,” he says.
In both the Reform and Orthodox traditions, there is no requirement for a rabbi to be present at the bedside. Rabbi Romain says he is usually not contacted until after the person has died. However, he will always respond to a request from a dying person to visit.
When a dying person is nearing the end, they are encouraged to make a final confession known as the Viddui. This is an examination of conscience and a seeking of forgiveness from God.
The confession includes the following words: “I regret the hurts I have caused and the mistakes I have made. Forgive my sins and my soul will be pure as it returns to You. Protect those I love whom I leave behind, for their lives are in Your care…”
Rabbi Romain says a person can do this on their own or ask a friend or rabbi to help them.
Rabbi Stanley Coton, Senior Jewish hospital chaplain for Jvisit and an Orthodox rabbi says he is usually called to the bedside when a patient is approaching the end of their life.
“The person makes their confession when they are in extremis but we do say to them that many people have made the confession and lived on,” Rabbi Coton says.
“If they are conscious, we explain that one of the teachings is that a person’s passing into the next world is a cathartic experience. Seeking the forgiveness of sins is part of that experience and it is a time of reconciliation and atonement. The rabbi can do the confession with them or, if that isn’t possible, say it for them. It should be said in Hebrew if possible. If not, the rabbi can give a synopsis in English.
“Most people make a general confession. I have never asked someone to list their sins but they can if they want to. My focus is to try to support them.”
Rabbi Coton will also read psalms if requested by the patient. He adds that he will always go to a dying patient even if he is called to the hospital at the last moment by someone who has not practised their faith in recent years.
The last words of a dying Jew should be the Shema. This is the Jewish declaration of faith that begins: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deuteronomy 6:4). It is the most important declaration in Judaism and observant Jews say it at least twice a day.
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