What religions do the dead worship?

Death in Judaism

1. Biblical Concepts of Death in Ancient Israel

Judaism draws its ideas about death from the Old Testament. St. But scriptures offer no systematic teaching on this. There is very little written here about its causes, nature and consequences. Much more attention is devoted to the worship of God and the obtaining of his blessings, the earthly conduct of life and morality, the doing and listening to God. The question of death seems of secondary interest. The starting point for the question of death is the experience that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is Lord over life and death. Accordingly, death is not an independent power. He doesn't play a defining role in the story. There is no cult of the dead, no funeral rites. The graves of the great politicians are unimportant: "He (Moses) was buried in the valley ... to this day nobody knows his grave" (Deut. 34,6). Piety directed towards the dead is condemned: "There shall be no one among you who ... asks the deceased for advice" (Deut 18:11). If life is only possible in the presence of God - "Yes, this is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: seek me, then you will live" (Am 5,4) - then man is separated from God by death. God withdraws his breath of life and releases man into inanimate materiality: “If he only directs his mind to him, draws his spirit and breath to himself, all flesh must die together, man must return to dust” (Job 34:14). The place of the dead is Sheol, the underworld, the "land" of the shadowy realm. Here the life-giving community with Yahweh is extinguished, here the human being cannot fulfill his actual task - to praise God. He leads a shadowy existence without enjoyment of life and without cult. In contrast to the Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism), but also from the neighboring peoples (Egypt, ancient Greece, Babylon), where there are detailed descriptions of the underworld and complicated rituals of the dead, there is an interest in a life or state according to the Death very small. The greatest fear of human beings is the loss of the relationship with God and not the agony of hell or - as in other religions - inferior rebirths. In the Jewish consciousness, every life accident can be perceived as death, such as B. Illness, social hardship and persecution. So death does not only mean a biological end, but can push back its limits in the middle of life as a social or even a cultic death.

Jews are convinced: God did not create man without death, but through sin, death is experienced as calamity. Accordingly, there is a connection between sin and death: “... but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad; for as soon as you eat of it you will die ”(Gen 2, 17). On the other hand, death is a natural process: "For you are dust, you must return to dust" (Gen 3:19). Death became a problem when God's righteousness became questionable in the face of the happiness of the wicked and the hardship of the upright. So the idea changed from the general fate of the distance from God in death to hope for the resurrection of the righteous and eternal life with God: “... the King of the world will raise us to a new, eternal life because we died for his laws are "(2 Makk 7,9). Now the subject of death is no longer the cipher of individual experience of limits and powerlessness, but is interwoven with an interest in social justice and political liberation. The prerequisites for this arose in later Judaism under Iranian-Hellenistic influence. Now gradually apocalyptic expectations of retribution for the victims of history and the teaching of the Pharisees that believers and the wicked await the last judgment after death. Here God decides whether the dead will live with God forever or whether they will be damned forever.

From this Josephus Flavius ​​(Jewish historian, 37/38 - after 100) unfolds the "Ascension of the souls of the righteous", so that the underworld as hell became a place of punishment for the damned. Other rabbinical schools attribute purification effects to the underworld. In even later times, however, there was no standardization of the teachings; they existed in parallel in the various Jewish traditions and rabbinical tendencies of the post-biblical period. These late Jewish teachings are received by Christianity.

2. Death in post-biblical Judaism

The first Jewish book to separately summarize the norms of dealing with death, the “Great Treatise on Mourning”, was written between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD. originated and is still valid today. According to this, the symptoms of death are the cessation of breathing - “Everything on earth that breathed the spirit of life through the nose perished” (Gen 7:22) - or the heartbeat. Because of the organ transplant, the end of brain activity as a sign of death has become established today. Since the corpse is considered the property of God, its wholeness must be guaranteed. Because of this, autopsy is rarely allowed. Cremation is rejected. Death must be legally attested and the body identified, otherwise the widow cannot enter into a new marriage. Since the dead is perceived as a source of impurity, appropriate rules must be observed (covering mirrors, opening windows). Since it is assumed that the deceased is aware of everything that is happening around him, everything that he would like to do, e.g. eat, drink, is avoided in his presence. The mourners are not allowed to read the Bible or other religious literature in front of the dead, and Torah scrolls and phylacteries are not worn in the cemetery because this is offensive to the dead. For the Jews are very lucky to be able to read the Bible and attend worship. Within a year, the dead can pray for their loved ones. The “grave suffering” is considered purgatory: the decomposition, which lasts about a year, atones for his sins. After that one year only the great sinners will be condemned in eternal hell, “their souls will perish and their bodies will be burned; they turn to dust and the wind scatters them ”(Tsan 13: 4). Since death for every person follows the guilt of the first man Adam, it is understood as an atonement and an act of repentance. It is controversial whether the atonement is made from death in itself, or only after the dying person has repented. That is why there is a custom that a confession of sin is an essential part of preparing for death. Since death is regarded as God's punishment, a message of death is responded to with the appeal “Praised be the just judge”. Death will only be overcome at the end of time, when God allows the New Creation to dawn.

3. Funeral ceremonies

Everyone, whether Jewish or not, must be buried. The corpse is carried covered on a stretcher and placed in a grave. In Israel, coffins are only used in exceptional cases. Cremation is not allowed in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. From the idea of ​​the Land of Israel as a place of resurrection and atonement, the deceased may be brought there for burial outside of Israel.

When the person dies himself, the deceased must not be left alone. He should be prepared for his last journey by at least ten men: self-examination, confession of sins, acceptance of divine judgment, purification and distribution of alms must be guaranteed. The relatives contribute with song and prayer. The goal is serene acceptance of death:

“May my body be an altar and my soul a pure sacrifice. May I receive forgiveness through my death, and may my illness be an atonement for all my transgressions, injustices and sins ... "

The last words of a dying man should be the confession of the one God: “Hear, Israel! Yahweh our God, Yahweh is only ”(Deut 6: 4). One of the relatives closes the dead man's eyes: “Joseph will turn a blind eye to you (Jacob)” (Gen 46, 4). The corpse is washed from head to toe by a burial brotherhood and the head is anointed with fragrant essences and then poured over with water, with Lev 16.30 being spoken: “For on this day they atone for you in order to purify yourselves. Before the Lord you will be cleansed of all your sins ”. According to the idea that the dead will be resurrected as they were buried, they are dignifiedly dressed. An important work is to give the deceased their last escort: everyone should accompany it "at least four cubits" when he sees a funeral procession. The burial fraternity places the dead face east in the grave with the words “Let him / her rest in peace!” Then Ps 16 is prayed. The next of kin tears his outer garment: "Jacob tore his clothes, put on mourning clothes and mourned for his son for many days" (Gen 37, 34). After the funeral, the "prayer of mourning" - Kaddish - is said at the grave:

“His great name will be raised and sanctified in the world that will one day be renewed, he revives the dead and leads them up to eternal life, he builds the city of Yerushalaim and crowns his temple in it, he removes idolatry and brings the service of Heaven again in his place, the Holy One will reign, blessed be he, in his kingdom and in his glory in your days and the life of the whole house of Israel quickly and in the near future, says: Amen. His great name be praised forever and ever and ever! Praised and praised and glorified and exalted and exalted and celebrated and exalted and praised is the name of the saint, praised be he, high above every praise and song that has ever been spoken in the world, says: Amen! May fullness of peace and life come down from heaven to us and all Israel, say: Amen! Peace makes in its heavenly heights make peace among us all Israel, say: Amen! "

Finally, a trellis is formed and condolences to the mourners with “May the omnipresent comfort you in the midst of all who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.” When leaving the tomb, grass is laid on it: “People bloom in the city like the grass of the earth” (Ps 72, 16). When leaving the cemetery, people wash their hands in a wash basin as a sign of separation between death and uncleanness. Here are the closing verses of the funeral:

“He destroys death for ever and the Eternal, God, wipes the tears from every face and removes the shame of his people from all the earth, for the Eternal has spoken” (Is 25: 8).

The funeral begins the period of mourning, the strict phase of which lasts seven days, for which special rules of conduct are observed. Then follows a year of mourning in which celebrations are avoided.

Even after the shock of the Holocaust, the focus of Jewish religiosity is not learning to die, but living in responsibility before the face of God.

(Author: Theol Hadrian Kraewsky, Editor: Dr. Stefan Schlager)


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Kurt Schubert: The religion of Judaism. Leipzig 1992.
Günter Stemberger: Jewish religion. Munich 1996.
Dieter Vetter (Ed.): Prayers of Judaism. Gütersloh 1995.