Getting Our Hands Dirty

Getting Our Hands Dirty

Rabbi Evan Moffic

We typically do not like to “get our hands dirty.” But there is one exception. Jewish tradition is for mourners to use their hands to place earth into the grave of a loved one.

We get our hands dirty in the service of burying a loved one. We do not let machines do our work.

It is an ancient custom, perhaps one of Judaism’s oldest. Cultural anthropologists tell us that burial customs were among the very first religious rituals to emerge among human beings. 

It is also quite powerful because it gives us a way to channel our sadness and energy into something physical. Rather than sit still at a graveside, we can use our hands to show respect for the deceased.

There is also something psychologically comforting in doing that. We know what we are supposed to do, and we do it.

To me it also shows the power of religious ritual to help us through difficult times.

Life presents challenges and hardships to everyone. We all experience loss and disappointment. Rituals are a way of coping with them. 

They do not always give us easy answers. They may even leave us with some frustration. But they provide a path forward. And sometimes that’s all we need. 

Many of the Jewish funeral customs are explained in a modern book by Maurice Lamm called The Jewish Way in Death and Dying. You can find it here

Rabbi Evan Moffic
Congregation Solel, Highland Park

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