The hospice patient, an innovative leader in his profession, was in his last moments of life. His eyes rolled back into his head, and his breath began to catch in his throat. His devoted wife was not ready for him to go. She climbed up onto his bed, grabbed him by the lapels of his pajamas and shook him, screaming “No! Do not leave me!”
The patient’s gaze returned, and, as his wife later described it, she could see through his eyes into eternity. They held each other’s gaze for several minutes, and then his eyes closed for good. He was gone.
The wife told this story at the patient’s funeral, feeling that it captured something important about her beloved. She was pleased. But our ancient rabbis and commentators, I thought to myself, would have been shocked. For them, this is not the proper way to treat someone as they die.
Judaism is very clear about the precious, holy time of transitioning from this world into the next. Known in medical circles as “actively dying,” it is characterized by raspy breathing, slowing vital signs, and a lack of interest in food and water. It can last from a few hours to several days.
Judaism has a name for this important stage of life: goses (rhymes with “no less”). As it says in the Talmud (Shabbat 151b), when someone is a goses, they are like a candle whose flame is flickering — if you reach out to touch it, you may put it out.
So many people today die in hospital rooms, surrounded by beeping machines, yammering televisions, and teams of medical professionals that flood in to administer electric shocks and break bones. This all flies in the face of what Judaism says God wants us to be doing for the dying patient.
Of course, there are times when modern medical interventions are appropriate to “save” a patient from death, but suffice it to say there are times when it can do no one any good. It is in the latter situation, when the end of life is nigh, that Jewish teachings want caregivers to adopt a very specific attitude: Keep at the forefront of your mind the idea that any action could either hasten or delay death, so it should not be taken. This is a time for self-restraint. Be tender and quiet, and let the death follow its natural trajectory. Let go, so that the patient can as well.
The rules of goses, and how I suggest the Jewish families I work with observe them (when they are open to them), are as follows:
• Minimize sound. Turn off machines and televisions. Speak quietly. Play only quiet, gentle music or sing sweetly to the patient.
• Minimize touch. Gentle kisses and strokes are fine, as is dabbing the patient’s mouth with a wet sponge to keep it moist. But do not shake, jab, squeeze or move them. Don’t call 911 and rush them to the emergency room, nor rush them home from the hospital (lest they die in the ambulance). Don’t even change their pillow or their diaper — unless you are confident that it is an impediment to comfort and ease that needs to be removed.
• Do nothing bracing. Do not wipe the patient with a wet washcloth or put an ice cube in their mouth. Do not squeeze or pinch them, such as with a blood pressure cuff or an IV needle. It is clear that they are dying; it is not necessary to track each step of it on a medical chart. Hospice nurses should be amenable once you explain that this is a religious preference. But if the patient is in a hospital, it may take stationing someone in the room to negotiate and actively refuse interruptions to the patient’s peace.
• Speak gently. Offer words of reassurance. Do not order the patient not to die, nor to die today. Tell them everything is fine with you, and that they are safe, and that death will be the right thing for them to do, when they are ready to do it. All is well.
I have known people who held on long after they should have died — for months — even though they were being tortured by their health condition. It seemed they were fulfilling a demand, telegraphed to them by their families, not to leave. It’s just not a fair thing to ask.
Dying is not inconceivable or bizarre. We have made it a taboo in our culture, but dying is just as normal and normative as having sex, giving birth or even going to the bathroom. It is something we need to relax and let our bodies do. We need not fear it. It will come when the time is right, and then it will be up to everyone to face it with respect, and let it unfold with grace.
The Talmud (Ketubot 104a) tells the story of Rabbi Judah, who was dying and in pain, but who was so beloved by the community that the rabbis declared a public fast and offered prayers, day and night, to keep him among the living. His housekeeper saw his suffering, however, and interceded. She threw a jar off the roof, and the praying rabbis paused in unison. In the silence, the rabbi died.
The story is told in praise of the housekeeper. The commotion and pleading of the rabbis was in its own way torture to Rabbi Judah’s soul. It just needed some peace and quiet so it could move on.
The rabbis of old may have had it easy, believing as they did that even reaching out and closing the eyes of a goses could be punished in the afterlife as murder. Today, it takes real bravery to contain one’s inclination to interfere.
Perhaps remembering the rules of goses, and the needs of the soul to return to That From Which We Came, can help give us this strength.
Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is a board-certified health care chaplain working in home hospice and institutional settings. She owns a referral agency for clergy in private practice (” target=”_blank”>sacred-waters.com). She is also a student at and has been an instructor for the Gamliel Institute.
TASTE OF GAMLIEL
Taste of Gamliel registration is still open. Join us for this 5 part webinar series with the theme The World To Come – Do You Have Your Ticket?
The series will include one session each month from January to June, each on Sundays.
AND IT IS NEVER TOO LATE – You Can VIEW ALL the sessions on video/audio recordings!
For those registered, the sessions may be accessed live online when they occur (instructions will be provided following each session).
Those who cannot watch live can view all the presentations. Register, and see the earlier sessions on recordings! This also works if you are busy for one of the sessions scheduled. And you can do the same thing to watch sessions again – on demand!
Free, with a suggested $36 donation for the entire series to help us defray the expenses of presenting these amazing webinars.
Register ” target=”_blank”>http://bit.ly/1PvJ5kw.
KAVOD V’NICHUM CONFERENCE:
Now Online: information about the 14th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, to be held in Lexington, MA Sunday to Tuesday, June 5-7, 2016. Register Check online for information on almost anything you might want to know. Click here to ” target=”_blank”>more about the conference and our plenary ” target=”_blank”>options. Look at the direct
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE STUDENT SESSIONS AFTER THE KAVOD V’NICHUM CONFERENCE
Gamliel Institute students (past and present) are also encouraged to attend the conference and plan to remain for an additional day (through mid-day/lunch Wednesday) following the conference for a live educational program. During the conference, we will be celebrating the first group of graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and looking forward to the next cohort. Immediately following the close of the conference, we continue with learning specifically geared to Gamliel Students. We have as our instructors for this fabulous closed session series of Text study opportunities Reuven Kimmelman on Kaddish, Eddie Feld on Psalm 49, and Ruth Langer on Tziduk Hadin. This will be an in-depth, informative, and inspirational program! Mark your calendar, make your plans, and register to attend now! The class is free to Gamliel students, but donations to help us offset the cost are very welcome.
GAMLIEL STUDENT PROJECTS
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!
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. There are two orientation sessions scheduled: May 16th at 11-12 am EDST/8-9 am PDST/11-12 am AST/6-7 pm Israel time, and again on May 16th at 8-9:30 pm EDST/5-6:30 pm PDST/9-10:30 pm AST/3-4:30 am Israel time.
The course will run on Mondays from May 16th to August 8th, 12-1:30 pm EDST/9-10:30 am PDST/12-1:30 pm AST/7-8:30 pm Israel time, and on Tuesdays from May 17th to August 9th, 8-9:30 pm EDST/5-6:30 pm PDST/9-10:30 pm AST/3-4:30 am Israel time. There will be 12 class sessions in the course.
Past Students, please note: We are now using a new (to us) online Platform for the classes, so definitely plan on attending one of the orientation sessions if you have not beein a Gamliel student since January 2016 and intend to take this course!
For more information about the course, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.
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:
Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016. This course has no prerequisites. The focus is on practices and all ritual and liturgy excluding Taharah & Shmirah. Please note it on your calendar, and plan to attend. You can register online, and a full description of the course is there as well.
Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization can request a 20% discount. There are also clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding to take Gamliel Institute courses. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.
You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg.
Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of the Gamliel Institute, help us provide scholarships to students, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, and many other things. You can donate online at
If you would like to receive the Kavod v’Nichum newsletter by email, or be added to the email discussion list please be in touch and let us know at [email protected].
You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to [email protected].
RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!
Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE “>@chevra_kadisha. Email [email protected] to receive an email with the link to the blog weekly.
To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find to be of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.