Death in Chabad: Religious Rituals, Mystical Perspectives and Social Effects

Death in Chabad: Religious Rituals, Mystical Perspectives and Social Effects

By Dovi Seldowitz

Among Orthodox Jews, Chabad is noted for having many unique customs for various Jewish occasions. While Jewish law is traditionally judged by the rulings found in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, Chabad turns to a similar code written by its founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Generally speaking, there are few major differences between the codes, and even fewer rulings in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s text are solely his own. That said, the number of subtleties in the Chabad code coupled with the establishment of variety of Chasidic customs create the impression that for every Jewish occasion, Chabad might just have an unique added custom.

In Orthodox Judaism there are a set of rituals that surround death. For the deceased, there is the confession prior to death (“vidui“); for others it is the burial process, the seven days of mourning (“shiva“) and the recitation of the kaddish prayer. In this regard, Chabad would initially appear no different from other Orthodox communities; barring a few specific customs regarding burial and the kaddish prayer, there would seem to be little that would distinguish a death in Chabad from a death in other movements.

Even Chabad teachings concerning death are fairly consistent with traditional Jewish philosophy and mysticism. An underlying notion in both Chabad and other Jewish teachings is that the body is temporary, transient and ultimately has little value when the spirit no longer inhabits within it. By contrast, the soul both precedes and survives the body. Chabad philosophy speaks of death in both rational and mystical tones. Rationally, death means the end of person’s life in this world, a loss for that person’s family, friends and community, death is humbling and most importantly, after death, whatever values one believed in and stood for during their lifetime can be easily forgotten. Mystically, death means the departure of the soul from the body, its psychic turmoil and ultimate resting and elevation, and in some cases, the soul reaches out and attempts to communicate with people still living (via dreams or particular forms of meditation).[1]

But Chabad, (as well as several other Chasidic groups), emphasize a particular set of ideas with regard to the death of a tzaddik, a truly righteous person. In Chabad, a whole series of rituals have been prescribed for the passing and yartzeit of a rebbe. Sociologists have noted that the rituals that surround death (burial, mourning, etc.) provides a type of “sheltering canopy” for defending individuals from a most unsettling experience that would otherwise devastate them completely.[2] For a the devoted Chasid, no experience is more upsetting then the death of his/her rebbe. The customs developed in Chabad surrounding the death of a rebbe help give the Chasid strength to carry on and to continue to be inspired by his/her rebbe’s teachings. Customs unique to Chabad include being called for an aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbos before the rebbe’s yahrzeit and the recitation of a teaching by the rebbe (specifically, the last Chasidic discourse recited by the rebbe during his lifetime).[3] Chabad customs serve a similar social effect as traditional Jewish customs surrounding death; in the case of Chabad, the customs are specifically fit to relive the anguish felt by the Chasid following his/her rebbe’s passing.

As Chabad is often noted for its unique customs in various settings in Jewish life, it is not surprising that there is are customs relating to death that bear the Chabad mark. Chabad philosophy contains a number of teachings regarding death, some are quite practical, others quite lofty. Chabad’s particular practices for the passing of a rebbe, including the study of the rebbe’s teachings, help relive the pain and anguish felt by Chasidim and allow them to continue to be inspired by the lives of their teacher.

“Against your will, you are born against your will, you die.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:2)

Dedicated in memory of Sylvie Stern of Canberra, Australia.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, Kuntres Inyan HaHishtatchus (printed in Ma’amarei Admur Ha’emtzoeiKuntreisim), Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn: New York, (1995): pp. 19-30.

[2] See, Peter L. Berger, The Social Reality of Religion, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, page 63.

[3] See, Manchem Mendel Shneerson, Igrot Kodesh: K’Vod K’Dushas Admur Shlita, Vol IV, Letter 884. (1987): pp. 141-142.

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