Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

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Death & Dying

Dear Rabbi,

Can say I say mourners’ qaddish at a Shiva Minyan if I’m observing a yahrzeit but not one of the mourners during shiva?

Signed, Still Mourning

Dear Still,

Yes, you may. “Mourners’ Qaddish” is specifically for anyone who is mourning and needs to say qaddish.

Dear Rabbi,

Why do people use the back side of the shovel at funerals? Is this a law?

Signed, Dying to Know

Dear Dying,

The back side of the shovel is used, at least for one shovelful, to indicate that this digging is different in kind from any other. This distinction makes it clear that one is performing the act in order to fulfil a specific mitzva. It is an old custom but not a requirement.


Dear Rabbi,

Why is the Keser Israel Memorial Park (cemetery) all the way out where it is? Similarly, the Beth El Memorial Park (cemetery) must also have been way out when it was dedicated.

Signed, Dying to Know

Dear Know,

Long ago when the sites were obtained, land was cheaper outside the city. Moreover, it is viewed as proper that a cemetery be a little bit out of sight.


Dear Rabbi,

Why do some shuls say Mourner’s Qaddish so many times at the end of some services?

Signed, Late for Work

Dear Late,

Why? Because it’s a tradition.

Originally only one qaddish was said, and only one person, usually a mourner, said it. There are some communities that still do it that way.

But if there were more than one mourner present, the other mourners were deprived of the honor. Qaddishes were then added so that more of the mourners would have the opportunity to say a qaddish. We can say qaddish any time there is a minyan and we recite a Psalm or other passage from the Torah or Rabbinic literature. So they simply added a Psalm and followed it by qaddish. There were now several times in a service when qaddish was said, so that several mourners would have a turn. There are some communities that still do it that way, too.

But this procedure often created a dilemma: If the number of qaddishes was limited, there might still be some who did not get to say one; if there was no limit to the number of qaddishes added, the service became burdensomely long. So after careful scrutiny the rabbis allowed all mourners to say qaddish simultaneously.

This rabbinic solution was adopted only after careful consideration, and after it was determined that mourner’s qaddish is not one of the types of public prayers that can be said by only one person at a time, such as is the case with the reader’s recitation of the Amida, the Torah Blessings, or even other qaddishes.

We can see now how the practice of saying mourner’s qaddish two or more times in a row evolved. First only one person said only one qaddish, then one person at a time said one of a succession of qaddishes separated by a Psalm, then everyone said several qaddishes together.

There is no logical reason to say more than one qaddish in a congregation where all mourners recite it together. The practice of saying multiple qaddishes is a remnant of an intermediate stage in the development of the liturgy.

If you say, ‘the more qaddishes the better,’ then why stop at three? Why not say ten or a hundred? And if you had to say qaddish after every Psalm, we’d say qaddish dozens of times each service. But if the intent is to have qaddish so that all who need to may say it, then it is enough to say it once early in the service in case someone leaves early, and once late in the service in case someone comes late. For the last six years at BEKI, we have practiced the earlier custom of saying only one qaddish, one of the radical reforms introduced by Rabbi Tilsen.

This, then, is a classic case of a practice persisting even when the original reason for the custom no longer exists. The custom endures by the force of tradition. So when Dear Rabbi answers your question by saying, “Because it is a tradition,” you know that this is exactly the case.



Dear Rabbi,

Why do Jews put stones on tombstones?

Signed, Don’t Rock the Boat

Dear Don’t Rock,

The folk custom of placing stones on a grave or tombstone may date back to prehistoric times when our ancestors protected graves from being disturbed by animals or farmers by covering them with rocks. Although there is no halakhic (legal) basic for this practice, nor any requirement whatever to uphold it, many experience it as a meaningful expression of continuing love and concern.


Dear Rabbi,

What is the symbolism of throwing the dirt on a coffin at a Jewish funeral?

Signed, Dying to Know

Dear Dying,

It is not a symbol. It is part of an actual burial.

The first shovels of dirt at a burial service can be a very difficult moment for the mourners, because it brings home the reality of the death in a very direct way. While some mourners choose not to attend the burial service, it is important to understand that the actual burial is a specific mitzva (religious imperative) and it is considered a great act of kindness to provide others with this final act of service. Mourners are not usually required or expected to perform the actual burial, but they may do so if they are able.


Dear Rabbi,

I was recently paying a shiva call. Despite my intense effort to limit my conversation to words of comfort to the mourners, words of Torah, and recollections of the deceased, other callers attempted to make conversation with me about completely unrelated but pleasant matters. How can I, in the future, stick to the halakhot [rules] of paying a shiva call, while not seeming to reject, ignore or insult others who want to converse about tangential matters, and who are apparently unaware of the shiva halakhot? Normally I enjoy discourse about the topics that these others were raising; it was just not appropriate behavior in a house of shiva. I was unable to effectively change the subject back to what should have been the topic, despite my best efforts. I note that I did read the “Talk to Your Friends” section of “The Art of Paying a Shiva Call” in the BEKI Yizkor Memorial Booklet, which clarifies the proper halakhot; but you did not address the “what to do if confronted with idle conversation at a house of shiva” question in that booklet.

Signed, Very Sorry

Dear Very Sorry,

When friends gather it is only natural for them to want to greet each other and converse. Sometimes this even happens before a funeral, in the presence of the dead, when it is completely inappropriate to talk at all except as necessary for the funeral.

In a shiva house, furniture may be overturned and mirrors covered, and mourners may have their shoes off and wear torn clothes. These unusual sights serve to remind visitors that things are not “normal,” and that the lives of the mourners have been overturned. When making a shiva call, it is considered correct to wait for the mourners to speak and to keep the conversation to their concerns. One may share positive memories of the deceased. If another visitor speaks to you, you might try saying, “Okay, but now I need to listen to the mourner” or “that is interesting and maybe we can speak further about it after we leave this house of mourning.” If the other visitor does not take your hint, you might be more direct, as long as you can make the point without embarrassing him or her. Otherwise, one might leave and come back another time or find a reason to sit or stand in another part of the room.

In any event, your question itself reminds us of proper shiva etiquette.






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