Sunday 7 February 2021



Ma'avar Yabbok by R. Aaron Berechia of Modena (d.1639) - a book with prayers for the ill the deceased.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, new rituals and liturgy relating to sickness and dying were introduced to Judaism. In this article, based extensively on the research by Professor Avriel Bar-Levav[1], we will look at how these rituals were first innovated. The intention is not to dwell on uncomfortable matters but rather to show the mechanics of how customs are sometimes brought into Jewish practice from various sources.



Bar-Levav points out that:

 [a]lthough Jewish mourning rituals were already highly developed early in the rabbinic era, structure was not imparted to the deathbed setting itself until the early modern period.

 This means that until around the 17th century there was no general prescription for the process surrounding matters of death and dying. It was only with the emergence of the official institution of the Chevrah Kadisha (Burial Societies) at around that time, that more formal ritual structures began to be followed. The Chevra Kadisha was not only tasked with burial but also with visiting the sick. These societies became very powerful and influential within the communities and their voice was heard.

The first problem was that while well-intentioned, the members of the Chevra Kadisha were not always drawn from the scholarly elite. The second problem was that since no official Halachic protocols or prescriptions were in place for the process of visiting the homes of the dying, the Chevra Kadisha rose to the occasion and arranged for the establishment of a ritual for such occasions.

This is why we find that the first books which started to appear during the 17th century containing prayers and rituals for the last moments, were printed at the behest - not of the rabbis - but of the Chevrot haKadisha. This process began in Italy.

Bar-Levav writes:

The new genre of books for the sick and the dying was a major vehicle for the promotion of the new death rituals, essentially “inventing” a Jewish tradition. Including dozens of books and pamphlets printed in many copies, the genre rapidly extended beyond Italy towards the rest of the Jewish world, both east and west.

These books and pamphlets relating to the sick and the dying proved to be very popular, indicating that an important need within the community had been met.


The first example of such books appears to have been produced in Venice in 1619. The wardens of the Ashkenazi Chevra Kadisha of Venice approached R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone of Modena (1571–1648) and asked him to compose a booklet of prayers and include a ceremony for the sick. The Chevra Kadisha argued that the family members often hid the severity of the illness from the patients in order to protect them – but this never gave the patients the opportunity to spiritually prepare for the inevitable. The Chevra Kadisha, therefore, complained to R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone that:

 [w]hen it is the turn of one of the members of our fraternal society to go to watch over the sick person and keep him company as is our custom, we have no order of service for what to say or how to escort the soul of the dying man.[3]

R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone obliged and called his work Tzori la nefesh u marpe la etzem. He writes that he agreed to produce the booklet under pressure from the Chevra Kadisha, because:

[w]hy should our community be inferior to all the surrounding peoples, and not take care when someone is on his deathbed?”

This indicates that there was a degree of Christian and general societal influence as well, behind the production of the new prayer booklets for these sombre occasions. This new genre was, therefore, by R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone’s admission, not a purely rabbinic innovation.


The next related booklet to appear was Ma’avar Yabbok which was printed in Mantua in 1626 and this became even more popular that the first. It was authored by the Kabbalist R. Aaron Berechia of Modena (d.1639), a nephew of R. Yehuda Aryeh Leone.

According to Bar-Levav this composition “reveals the influence of Christian death rites.” Like his uncle, R. Aaron Berechia was also pressured by his Chevra Kadisha to produce his work. He describes the Chevra Kadisha as follows:

“Not all are learned, but they all aspire gladly to carry out this great commandment. It was there I learned that for some time they have wanted someone to undertake preparation of an order of service, so that they can raise their voices in song and prayer when the soul departs.”[4]

Ma’avar Yabbok contains prayers, readings from the Torah and viduy (confessions) very similar to those recited on Yom Kippur.


Later, R. Naftali haCohen Katz (c. 1645–1719), who was the rabbi of Posen and of Frankfurt am Main, writes rather critically about the Chevrot haKadisha:

I was much surprised by the conduct of the burial societies which come to the sick person close to his death, when he is already dying.

When the sick person sees them he becomes frightened and confused, and senses his approaching death. Although they speak to him consolingly, he does not accept their words, nor do they penetrate his ears. He tells himself that all is over, and that the angel of death is standing behind the door. …

R. Naphtali haCohen Katz effectively says that while the Chevrot haKadisha mean well, they can sometimes do more damage than good, and he continues to make the following suggestion:

It therefore seems to me that the correct thing for these holy societies to do would be to also deal with the sick person’s needs while he is still alive, and to take charge of all his affairs. …

The holy society should come into the picture at the beginning of the illness and take charge of everything. Thus the sick person will not be so terrified when he sees them, and even if he is afraid – he will still be of sound mind, and when they speak to him he will heed their words...

That was why I decided to compile for the sick person, his visitors, and the burial societies, an order of conduct from the beginning to the end of the illness, whether he lives or dies. This order of conduct follows the correct sequence which I sought and found in the holy books, as heaven charged me, to compile prayers, confessions, and supplications for body and soul, both when they are still conjoined and when they part and life ends.[5]

All these three earliest rabbinic compilations show that they were in reaction to the requests or practices of the Chevrot haKadisha.


There had certainly been ritual framing of death long prior to the 16th and 17th centuries - such as in the case of R. Akiva and R. Shimon bar Yochai - but these rituals were essentially pertinent only to the elite. The practices had been reserved exclusively for those who had led intensely spiritual lives which in turn were reflected in the intense ritualization of their deaths. The difference now, in the early modern period with the emergence of the Chevrot haKadisha, was that the ritual became the proclivity of ordinary people and of all people.


This notion of ritualization of death went one step further:  - to the actual ritual ‘rehearsal’ of the last moments itself.

The well-known ethical work Shnei Luchot haBrit by R. Yeshayahu Horowitz (c.1565–1630), which was first published in 1648, contains a suggestion for a monthly rehearsal of one’s death. The section dealing with the following rituals was an addendum written by his son, R. Yakov Horowitz:

Therefore he [who wishes to prepare for his death] must be merciful to himself, and prepare for death while in good health. His shroud should be ready, for several reasons. First so it can be prepared in holiness, purity, and cleanliness, not by menstruating women and so on. Moreover, he might die and be buried on a holiday by gentiles, in which case they might have to see to his shroud. Furthermore, [it should be ready] so that the making of the shroud will not delay his burial, for the dead have no rest until they return to dust. What is more, when he sees his shroud he will be spiritually awakened and always remember the day of death. …

He should have a written and sealed will.

While he is healthy, he should choose a time to go into seclusion and recite this long confession, imagining himself to be dying. …

Every sensible person should perform the ritual that I am recording, at least on the eve of each new month, which is a minor Day of Atonement. He should fast for the entire day, as on the Ninth of Av, with all stringencies, seriously ponder his deeds, and cling to the shekhina, for at least one hour. He should be in seclusion, his eyes cast down and his heart lifted up, and should remember the [impending] day of death, and surrender himself to death with love, whenever God wills it. He should wear a prayer shawl and phylacteries, and rouse himself [spiritually]. …

It is good that this prayer shawl he wears when confessing be kept and accompany him in the grave, so that his soul will be awoken from above to put on the garments of glory. Amen.

When he confesses while in good health, he should be careful to remain silent after this confession and not utter any idle talk, as if dead and unable to speak. He should also sanctify his sight, keeping his eyes shut as if dead, and the same for all his movements. …

 By these means will he cling to the Lord of life, and his confession will count for him as if he had made a sincere confession on his deathbed. Since he thinks of himself as dead, he will live an eternal life.[6]

This monthly rehearsal was not limited just to the elite but, again, it was directed to all readers of this popular and influential work.



The Zohar, published in around 1290, spoke much about demonology as associated with death and dying. This also contributed - as Bar-Levav points out, due to the influence of printing which popularized the work - to the later ritualization of the concept of demonology as well.

Then, around the 16th and 17th centuries when Chevrot haKadisha were established and death related rituals and liturgy were becoming institutionalized, a similar process of ritualization occurred with the demonology associated with death and dying. The purpose of the Malach heMavet (Angel of Death) was not just to take the soul away, but his task was to tempt the dying person to renounce G-d. In fact, he was regarded as the devil incarnate.[7]

[One must bear in mind that these mystical beliefs in angels and demons were not universal Jewish beliefs as Maimonides, the rationalist, denied their existence in any real sense.]


The main shift that took place during the 16th and 17th century around the rituals of death and dying is that in the past, it was a personal, private and family affair, but with the institutional ritualization imposed by the Chevrot haKadisha, death and dying now took place in “the presence of strangers…[the] professional members of the burial society.”

Bar-Levav explains that this means that:

the space around the deathbed is being reappropriated – shifted from the personal-familial to the public, religious sphere. Language is a central tool in this process: The members of the society know what to say. It is written in a book they hold in their hands. The set religious language of the professional visitors pushes aside the personal language of the family members.

The family no longer have the deathbed under their control. Ownership of the death ritual is now squarely in the hands of the Chevra Kadisha, and the old or sick are allowed to die a “proper death”.

As part of the viduy confession, the Chevra Kadisha recite verses which declare the person’s belief in one G-d and thus avoid the Malach haMavet tempting him or her to a death of heresy. Again, the Chevra Kadisha is now in control of the situation.

Bar-Levav explains that the centrality of the role of fear of the Malach haMavet aided the Chevra Kadisha to remain in control because:

…the most effective as well as the harshest way to exclude the family from the deathbed crisis was tied to…the belief in demons, namely a sense that the danger directly threatened not only the dying person himself but also his close family members.

Based on ideas found in Midrashic[8] and Zoharic[9] literature, certain sexual sins result in the ‘birth’ or formation of “semi human devils”:

According to this notion, the devils present a twofold danger. In the first place, frustrated by their lack of corporeality, they try to capture the body of their human father and penetrate it when his soul exits, causing him great pain.

In the second place, in a situation where the entire family, human and semi-human, is gathered around the dying person, the devils might severely harm their human semi-siblings in their humble state, as a result of jealousy.

For the sake of protection from such danger, children were sometimes dismissed from the room when their father was dying – the result once more being burial society members gaining control of the deathbed scene.

Thus, the ritualization of the entire process from sickness to dying and to burial had been institutionalized and, as we have seen, a liturgy and ethical literature had been developed to support it.

It is interesting to note that, to this day, many Chevrot haKadisha are still well-intentioned, still in control of the 'death rituals' and in many communities, are still drawn from the lay leadership.


Bar-Levav does not believe that the ritualization of death and dying was directly related to the influence of Lurianic Kabbalah. He writes:

 In general, it appears necessary to take issue with the school of thought viewing the new Jewish ‘ritualisation of life’ as emerging from…Lurianic kabbalah…

He points to a number of other contributing factors such as printing (from the mid-15th century) which helped with:

the transition from primarily oral traditions to primarily written structures for conveying tradition…and…by the circulation of printed texts accompanying an ever-widening circle of readers.


ritualisation was not only a Jewish phenomenon in this period but also a significant factor in the religious and cultural life of Christian Europe.

On the other hand, one could perhaps argue that the 16th and 17th centuries also saw the innovation of many other new rituals to Judaism which are attributed to the Safed and Lurianic Kabbalists. Although not exclusive to Lurianic Kabbalah but certainly under its influence, these include:

  • The all-night vigils of Tikkun Leil Shavuot and Hoshana Raba;

·        Tikkun Chatzot, or the midnight vigil, although mentioned in the Zohar, became formalized[10] with a standard text;

·        Hoshana Raba changed from a festive day to one of penitence similar to, and an extension of, Yom Kippur;

·        The Fast of the First Born before Pesach[11];

·        The last day of the month became a penitential Yom Kippur Katan;

·        The study of Mishnayot, resembling the word neshama (soul), for the deceased;

·        The inclusion of the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evening which is not recorded in the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo nor does it appear in any siddurim prior to that time (although afterward it became almost universal);

·        And the introduction of a series of additions to the Siddur (prayer book) which were first added to private texts and then became more universal.

Considering the innovation and inclusion of various new prayers into the liturgy; the establishment of Yom Kippur Katan as a day of penitence; the recitation of Mishnayot for the dead; in addition to the popularity of the practice of exorcisms (where demons were expelled)[12] which were frequently performed by R. Yitzchak Luria (Ari Zal) - the innovations of the final rituals which we have discussed and their accompanying liturgy may, to some extent, be similarly intertwined.

[1] Avriel Bar-Levav, Jewish Rituals for the Sick and Dying. Translations of the texts are by Avriel Bar-Levav.

[2] See also Avriel Bar-Levav, Dying by the Book: Jewish Books for the Sick and the Dying, and the Ritualisation of Death in the Early Modern Period.

[3] Tzori la nefesh u marpe la etzem, Venice 1619, p. 3a.

[4] Ma’avar Yabbok, Mantua 1626, Introduction, p. 13a.

[5] Rabbi Naphtali ha-Kohen Katz, Shaar haHachana, Constantinople 1734, p. 3a

[6] Shnei Luchot haBrit, Pesachim, 145a-146a, (Hagaha).

[7] According to Bar-Levav: “deathbed temptation has an important place in Catholic doctrine and is well known in the Catholic ars moriendi.”

[8] Bereshit Rabba 20, 11.

[9] Zohar II, 231b.

[10] R. Natan Neta Hannover (d. 1683) unified the individual practices into a standard and unified service and ritual, and is known for his Kabbalistic siddur, Shaarei Tziyon. He wrote:

“When I was journeying in the Diaspora I saw two different sights. Many of the very observant were scrupulous in rising at midnight to lament the absence of the Divine Presence. Each one chose his own prayers to the best of his understanding, one in this manner and another in that, and they all wept. About this we should indeed weep and shed tears. So I strove manfully and composed these prayers…” Shaarei Tziyon, Amsterdam 1571, p. 3a. Translation by Avriel Bar Levav.

[11] There is a source for fasting on this day in (the minor Tractate) Soferim 21:3. There is also a source in the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 69a). However, according to R. Yosef Eliyah Henkin, since the fasting is not mentioned in the Bavli, it is not universally binding. (Gevurot Eliyahu, Orach Chaim 143.)

[12] See “Exorcisms” in The Emergence of Charismatic Judaism.

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