Thursday, May 11, 2006

I Wish You Long Life

Sadly, the most frequently heard Anglo-Jewish greeting is ‘I wish you long life,’ offered to a mourner in the week following a bereavement and on the anniversary of the death (known as the ‘yahrzeit’).

The Hebrew original of this greeting is ‘arichat yamim’ – length of days or ‘chayim aruchim’ – long life. Among Jews of German extraction, the phrase ‘ad bi’at hago’el’ is added on the yahrzeit, blessing its subject with long life ‘until coming of the Messiah.’ Although it may seem incongruous, this greeting is even offered to an elderly person. Judaism attaches such a high premium to every moment of life that we wish everyone, young or old, length of days to carry out their sacred purpose in this world. The greatest blessing we can receive is the promise of long life, one especially dear in the face of a recent bereavement or when recalling a family tragedy on its anniversary.

There are other traditional phrases associated with death and mourning. Immediately following a funeral, a longer greeting is used. The mourners walk through two parallel lines of funeral attendees, who recite the sentence, ‘May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.’ This text is also used by visitors to the Shiva; it creates a sense of solidarity, of shared loss and comfort.

When one hears of a death, one says, ‘baruch dayan haemet’ – blessed is the true judge. Upon the death of a close relative, this takes the form of a full blessing, recognising God’s righteousness, even at the harshest of times. The blessing is often actually recited just before the funeral commences.

When referring to a deceased person, it is common to append the phrase ‘alav/alehah hashalom’ – may peace be upon him/her. This is rather confusingly contracted by some people into ‘Oliversholom.’ However, during the first year of mourning for a parent, the correct form is ‘hareni kaparat mishkavo/mishkavah’ – behold I (the child) am atonement for his/her resting place. This acknowledges the Jewish tradition that departed souls may spend up to a year being disciplined in the afterlife before proceeding to their eternal reward. During the first year, the child expresses the hope that he or she can be an atonement for the deceased parent, but after the year has ended, one either opts for ‘may peace be on him/her,’ or the Halachically recommended ‘zichrono/ah livrachah’ – of blessed memory. The Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) suggests one should also follow this practice when mentioning the name of one’s deceased teacher.

Some sources suggest that a longer form should follow the name of a deceased relative, ‘of blessed memory for the life of the World to Come,’ where presumably the person now resides. There are even longer versions of this: the winning entry, commonly used with reference to deceased Chassidic Rebbes, being, ‘may the memory of the righteous and holy man be for a blessing for the life of the World to Come, may his merit serve as a protection for us, Amen!’

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

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