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Honest Feasting: Mourning and Celebrating within Jewish Traditions

by Rabbi Rami ShapiroJune 18, 2019
Columnists
Family gathered at a wedding or funeral.

FrankVinken/Getty Images

Weddings and funerals: Rabbi Rami has an honest conversation about traditions and how we honor them.

Ecclesiastes writes it is better to attend a house of mourning than a house of feasting. There at least two reasons for this. First, the food is better. Second, the conversation is often more honest. While my experiences with funerals and weddings is mostly limited to Jewish funerals and weddings at which I officiated during my 20 years as a congregational rabbi, I suspect one can extrapolate my experiences to the larger world.

Let’s start with the food.

Traditionally Jews are to visit the home of mourners to offer comfort. Mostly, however, we gather to eat. The custom is to bring food with you to relieve the mourners of the need to provide food for you and the other guests. Not wanting to appear cheap, most people bring good food with them. Knowing that some of their friends are cheap, the mourners will also order from the local deli. The standard rubber chicken served by most wedding halls can’t compare to the potluck and deli dishes offered at the home of Jews mourning the death of a loved one.

Now the conversation. 

Almost everyone attending a wedding knows that almost half of first marriages end in divorce. The number is significantly higher for second and third marriages. But nobody wants to talk about that. Instead we pretend that this couple is destined for wedded bliss. To keep up the pretense we talk about anything other than what is really on people’s minds: “I wonder if they’ll make it?” (For a happy take on this, see “Wedding Tips for a Sacred Ceremony.”)

One can say something similar when a baby is born. Everyone knows the baby will die, and everyone knows that the life span of this baby depends on factors we can’t control (genetics) and factors we can (zip codes). But nobody talks about that. That’s why no one ever plays Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust at a bris (circumcision), baptism, or baby naming. But at a funeral there is nothing to avoid. The worst has happened. The guest of honor is dead. There is no need to pretend life is wonderful. This is a Hobbesian feast where we all know that life is nasty, brutish, and short. Or maybe not so short after all.

Hobbes’ complaint that life was nasty, brutish, and short is like the Jewish joke in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” about two woman complaining that the food at a Catskill resort was awful and the portions were too small. If your life is nasty and brutish, the fact that it may also be short is a blessing. But for many this is a blessing as elusive as a marriage not ending in divorce.

Many of us live too long. My dad lived to be 89. For 87 of those years he was healthy, worked hard, loved his family, played golf and didn’t (as Individual One is prone to do) cheat at it. He lived two years too long. My mom turned a healthy 90. As 91 approaches it becomes clear that she has lived too long.

My own plan? To retire to a state that has passed a Death with Dignity law so I can end my life before I am horrified by my living. 

(Read more at “How to Get Really Good at Dying.”)


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. His spiritual advice column, "Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler," addresses reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more.

His newest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality.

He has this to say about religion: “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the mindset of the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”

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