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Jewish Laws of Mourning:Stillbirth & neonatal death

A Brief Guide to the Jewish Laws of Mourning after

Stillbirth & Neo-natal Loss.

If a baby older than thirty days passes away, all the laws of burial and mourning must be observed as they would for an adult. None of the laws apply to a baby who passes away before he/she is over thirty days old.

If a baby younger than thirty days passes away, but it is certain that he/she was born after seven or nine full Jewish months from conception, then as long as he/she took breath in this world, all the laws of burial and mourning apply¹.

  • A mourner is obligated to make a tear in his/her shirt immediately on hearing of their loss. The tear should be over the heart and at least 2-3 cm long.
  • From the moment of bereavement until after burial, the baby’s parents are in a state of religious limbo, called ‘onen’ אונן, where they are forbidden to carry out any positive commandments (Eg learning Torah, reciting blessings, formal prayer. Negative commandments eg to not eat non-kosher food still apply).
  • For the first seven days after burial, a mourner is forbidden to wear leather shoes; to shave or have a haircut; to shower or bathe; to change into clean clothes (except for Shabbat); to drink wine (except on Shabbat); to listen to music; or to have sexual relations. These come into effect immediately after the burial (before leaving the burial ground). These prohibitions are intended to reflect our sadness, which has separated us from being interested in the physical world.
  • Immediately after the burial, at the burial grounds, those attending form two lines, and the mourners pass between them to receive comfort. Those standing in the lines say the traditional Jewish phrase of comfort 

הַמָּקוֹם יְנַחֵם אֶתְכֶם בְּתוֹךְ שְׁאָר אֲבֵלֵי צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלָֽיִם

Hamakom yenachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avelei tzion v’yerushalayim

May God comfort you, along with the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem

  • Mourners then go on to the location chosen to observe the seven-day mourning period (the Shiva). The location need not be the same for all seven days. All mirrors, televisions, and other screens should be covered for the duration of the shiva.
  • It is traditional for a mourner to eat a hard-boiled egg when he/she enters the shiva house on returning from the burial grounds².
  • Jewish law recognises that a mourner may not want to talk. Someone visiting a mourner may not initiate conversation, but should wait for the mourner to speak to them first.
  • At the end of the first seven days of mourning, the restrictions are lifted: only the prohibition of haircutting/shaving continues until the end of the sheloshim (the first thirty days after the burial). In addition, a mourner is forbidden to attend any happy events (wedding/barmitzvah meals; parties; etc), concerts or musicals during this period.

This is a summary only of the laws of mourning: for more detailed information please ask your rabbi, or see below for a list of websites and books on the topic.

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¹The ‘Jewish age’ of a baby is calculated according to the date of the Jewish month. Eg. A baby conceived on 27th Nissan will be 7 months on 27th Cheshvan, and 9 months on 27th Tevet. A baby born at younger than 7 months gestation, or during his/her 8th month (eg. between 27th Kislev & 27th Tevet) is considered by Jewish law to be a non-viable life and, should he/she pass away before he/she is over thirty days old, none of the laws of burial and mourning apply.

In the UK, doctors date a baby’s gestation from the first day of the last menstrual period, which would usually be about 2 weeks earlier than the date of conception. To calculate the ‘Jewish age’ of a baby, a woman must work out the likeliest hebrew date of conception, & calculate accordingly.

This is the ruling of Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, head of the London Beit Din. Other dayanim rule differently, so please consult your own halachic authority.

²One of the reasons for this is that a hard-boiled egg has no opening; in the same way, a mourner at that stage is ‘stopped up’ with grief and has no mouth to express his/her sadness.

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Further Reading: Links, books, and guides to the laws of burial and mourning

  • The Jewish Way in Death & Mourning, by Maurice Lamm. Buy online from Amazon, or read online here.
  • For a detailed online guide to the laws of death and mourning, click here.
  • Many articles on death, mourning, and the reasons behind the rituals can be found at Aish.com.

Posted in Burial and Mourning, Infant death, Mourning, Stillbirth.

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One Response

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  1. Chaplain Gary Kinney says

    Thank you for your kinds words and thgoughts of instruction on Stillbirth and neonatal death mourning. I am a clinical partoral chaplain and have found this information a blessing to help my patients. Keep careing, prayingt and writing, especially prayers and bedside services. Again Thanks, Chaplain Gary Kinney



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