Segmented Purim, Segmented Mourning

March 23, 2016

 [With appreciation to Betsy Teutsch of Philadephia for earlier conversations on this topic. R.Tabak]

Jews will soon be celebrating the raucous holiday of Purim, based on the biblical book of Esther, celebrating their rescue from planned destruction with masquerades and parodies, as well as gifts of food to friends and to the poor.  Many Jews know that in Jerusalem (an ancient walled city) Purim is observed one day later than the rest of the world, a day called Shushan Purim in memory of the ancient city in Persia where the events recalled in the holiday are said to have taken place.

Fewer people, especially outside of Jerusalem, are aware that there are times every few years when the Purim observance is de-constructed and observed not on a single day, but in three segments, “Purim meshulash” or “Three-part Purim.”  This happens in Jerusalem when the 15th of Adar, Shushan Purim, falls on Shabbat. The boisterous celebration doesn’t fit with the Sabbath, so there are changes. (Outside of Jerusalem, Purim never falls on Shabbat.) In brief, here are a few highlights. The megillah (scroll of Esther) is read and gifts to the poor are distributed in such a case on Thursday night and Friday (erev Shabbat, the 14th of Adar.) The special paragraph added to the liturgy (“Al ha-nissim”) is recited on Shabbat, the 15th of Adar. And the festive Purim meal and exchange of gifts with friends and neighbors is postponed till Sunday, the 16th of Adar. (R. Eliyahu Ki-Tov, Sefer Ha-toda’ah).  Rather than discussing why this occasionally happens in Jerusalem, it is enough to note the result: what was normally a one-day holiday is sometimes split apart.

What is the connection between this rather obscure Purim practice and mourning? The New York Times Book Review recently (Feb. 14, 2016) posted a review by National Book Award winner Andrew Solomon (“Far from the Tree”) of five books on death and dying. For Jewish mourners, there has long been a pattern for Jewish mourning, guided by Jewish law and local practice, that includes preparing the body, a funeral and burial, and a time of intense mourning marked by shiva (literally “seven” days for intense mourning and comforting.) Yet the practices evolved in a time of small communities, many of them relatively stable (though Jews have been mobile throughout history.) In this idealized community, people preparing the deceased, attending the funeral, and coming to the home to comfort and support the mourner would include friends, relatives, and neighbors of the deceased and his or her family. The mourner would be surrounded by people who had known her and her family for many years.

Yet in the mobile society of North America time and geography can split life into segments, like the occasional three-part Purim in Jerusalem. My father, Sol Tabak z”l, died over fourteen years ago. He had grown up in a community of immigrants and their children in Brooklyn before going into the army in World War II. After optometry school in Chicago, where and my mother met, they moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where they lived for 38 years, raising three sons. Sol was active in the general and small Jewish communities, chairing the city Human Relations commission and serving multiple times as synagogue president. They then retired to San Diego where none of their children lived. They joined a new synagogue and made new friends. He lived there for about fourteen years before his death.  

I recall discussing with my parents whether their eventual burial should be in Dubuque (where they have no relatives) or in San Diego (where they also have no relatives.) So where was the mourning, where were the stories? Where were the children and grandchildren? Where is the grave and who will place stones there? One of Sol’s grade school friends had stayed in touch, and he was at the funeral held at their synagogue in San Diego, as was a niece who lived in California. Several friends and colleagues from Iowa who had also retired to California were there as well. But most of his childhood and young adulthood was not represented. The ones who most represented the majority of his life – his career and family raising – were my mother and my brothers and me, along with our spouses and teenage children. And after the burial and a couple of days of shiva with my parents’ friends, people whom I barely knew, my wife and I flew back to Philadelphia. There we gathered minyan members and friends around us for the last few days of shiva. 

A few of the people comforting us had met my father on his occasional visits, or at our wedding or a bar mitzvah. But rather than hearing stories from others, it was my family and I who shared stories of my father.  Funerals and mourning can be in different cities, like the life journeys of so many people. So if mourning and loss sometimes become segmented –like that occasional Jerusalem Purim meshulash– how do we enhance or create community?

For one who reaches an older age, the place where our loved one grew up, the town where they lived their adult years (sometimes multiple locations), and where they lived in their senior years may all be geographically distant.  Mourners are traditionally to receive comfort, often including memories of the deceased. But when the life journey is segmented, instead of hearing about this person’s life or influence, the mourners may need to create an image of the person being mourned. This might include stories collected while the person was alive. What were you part of? Who influenced you? What are you most proud of in your life? The bereaved family members may share photos, mementos, recipes, or passages from letters. Stories, serious or humorous, about how the deceased lived and journeyed, and their connections with Jewish observance or holidays might be part of the sharing. When time and geography have separated mourning and loss into segments, those remembering (siblings, children, and grandchildren) may share memories so that the minyan gathered—perhaps in a location thousands of miles from the funeral– has a sense of who has been lost.  Perhaps, like that segmented Jerusalem Purim, we can find the threads of loss, mourning, and support despite distance of time and years.


Rabbi Robert Tabak, PhD, lives in Philadelphia.  He recently retired after serving over thirteen years as a staff chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  He edits the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and is active in interfaith relations. He has been a guest instructor for the Gamliel Institute in Course 4, Nechama (Comfort).








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Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!

Spring 2016:  

During the coming semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the online course. Chevrah Kadisha: Education, Organizing, & Training (EOT) [Course 3]. The prerequisite for this course is prior successful completion of Course 1, 2, 4, or 5. This course will run from May 3rd to July 19th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST/9-10:30 pm AST. (12 class sessions). If there is sufficient interest, we may be able to run a second session duuring the day in the US (evening in Israel), as we did for Course 2 in Winter 2016.

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Course 3 has a full academic curriculum that teaches principles of organizing, training, education, and working within a community. Even more than that, however, the focus of this course is as a practical, hands-on course that helps students bring Jewish practices and values to fruition. It is designed as both an academic course and a practicum. Its central deliverable is the support and mentoring of students in conceiving and carrying out useful projects of their own related to the Chevrah Kadisha world, whether in their own community, congregation, or business, or on a larger scale. Thus, the course offers students a way to make a difference and have a meaningful and positive impact in the world—a “real-world” effect. The course includes material on principles of education and organizing, and projects can range from academic research and writing, to community organizing, to creative and artistic endeavors. Organizing efforts might include starting a new Bikkur Cholim/Caring committee, educating the community about the Chevrah Kadisha’s work, teaching about the running of the local Jewish mortuary or cemetery, helping the Chevrah Kadisha to expand its services, or producing materials for education or to share the beauty and meaning of this work. This course is a vehicle for those who will undertake a project, with guidance and support from the Gamliel Staff and other students, that will provide benefits and information to their own community and/or other communities. You can see examples of completed Student projects at Fall 2016:

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