When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.


Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

67 thoughts on “When the rabbi’s wife died”

  1. Ben, I am moved by your open and honest portrayal of your loss. Also, the wonderfully appreciative responses of those who have made comments! And today your dear mother adds her loving thoughts. You all make me feel humbled. I lost my father over 20 years ago and my grief for him has only slowly been released from me! This blog has shown me that there could have been another way, and those other ways to grieve still exist.

    1. Ashley, you are kind. Thank you.

      A friend of mine who once worked as a chaplain with dying people and their families told me once very rightly that everyone has to find their own way to grieve – but to do so one must first acknowledge one’s grief to one’s self.

      May I ask how old you were when your father died?

      1. Ben, I was 49 when he died and had been away from home since 21. In those 28 years, I had only seen him half a dozen times and I think that has had an effect on my response to his passing.

        1. Ashley, please feel free to call me David. That is my first name.

          I was 38… and I loved my Dad, but we didn’t communicate often or well. That affected me when he was suddenly and unexpectedly never to be around again.

      2. David! Of course, from now on! I was brought up as Ashley, which is my second name! My sisters and brother were like me given two first names but we’ve always been known by our second given name! A family tradition 😊

  2. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I’m so very sorry for your loss. Grief is a difficult feeling to express and write about as it’s felt and perceived so vastly different. You have bravely opened your heart to the world and carefully shown us what it feels through your beautiful word and retelling. It was really nice to learn a little more about the Jewish religion also, thank you. Your wedding seemed very intimate, delicate and sweet. Lovely read ❤️

    1. You’re very kind, SP. Thank you!

      Regarding the wedding, we really did attempt to consider every possible detail… and amazingly we agreed upon all of our decisions 😀

  3. David, my best wishes to your mother as she begins a new chapter of her life. I have been there, and it was difficult. In my experience, the sadness diminishes over time, and the beautiful memories remain.

      1. LOL!! Yes, I was a little off on my days, there, somehow getting Erev Shabat mixed up with Motzei Shabbat, then realizing that it was Friday morning, not Sunday morning!
        I guess that’s when you know it is time to take a break and make breakfast! 🙂

  4. Rabbi Meir sounds like the real deal. A man worth knowing and spending time with. I think solid faith and being unashamed of tears go hand in hand and are rare. My heart goes out to your mom as she makes a new home.

  5. What abvr just said, directly above… I cannot say it better than that… I loved reading your post, and actually, instead of rushing through it as I’d planned to do, I stopped, made coffee, and enjoyed it slowly, through and through… and I hope this doesn’t sound too weird but it made me want to be Jewish… I clicked through to your page about your Kaddish year…

    “Following the death of a child, spouse, or sibling it is customary to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for thirty days, or for eleven months in the case of a parent, and then on every anniversary of the death.”

    Wow, I do find this fascinating… that a parent warrants more mourning in some way… and I find it so deeply relieving… for I am now deeply, deeply grieving, rather belatedly (10 months later) my mother’s death… I tend to completely understand grief in others, for anything, but not allow it or understand it in myself, for some illogical reason, which perhaps is common enough, but makes it difficult to process… I like that the Jewish traditions have these steps to follow, these customs and rituals which grief can find a place to relax inside, if one is willing and diligent, and a little selfless in performing them…

    I loved the way you wrote it all, so caringly and intelligently, thoughtful and touchingly, perfect-endingly… and even the way you reply to comments is admirable… but when I read the comment from your mother…

    I got tears in my eyes. She’s a poet, like you, David

    1. Lia,

      I hope your coffee kept you awake all the way through my long post 😉

      not allow it or understand it in myself, for some illogical reason

      You know, I totally understand this. That’s why I have difficult accepting my attachments to objects that belonged to Papa. I think it may also be why I force myself to write about my grief – to confront it and accept its existence.

      1. I’m sorry for my badly-worded comment lol. I think I committed several faux-pas. I should have kept it more simple. But thanks for the smile here and for the understanding. And yes… I think you are doing the right thing, and it sets a good example. Hugs xoxo

  6. As always, you transport so beautifully your readers to your culture, even when you speak of grief. It has been wonderful knowing you, David! 💐❤️🙏

  7. An interesting information for me. So in your case, it’s a contract, while in our case, a traditional marriage is a sacrament, unless someone gets the marriage registered too. Shabbat Shalom!!

  8. It’s a joy to read that your ketubah is sound and solidly sealed.The rewards and benisons of marriage is firmly felt.
    I find it commendable that you have set yourself the task to speak and write about grief, the ink is flowing steadily and we are benefiting. A multidimensional form of grief is not easy to express, particularly in words, but still the best way to open up let it pour out and start the conversation. This you have done in the most tender way.

  9. My heartfelt condolences to Rabbi Meir and his family. …The house your dad and I fell in love with from the very first glance, as it was still being built and far from completion, will be my home for another couple of weeks. The house that will forever hold memories of the latter half of our marriage will soon begin its new chapter. It always felt strange to us and remains odd to me that this house holding the title of “our home” for the longest period of our 40+ years of marriage is in a rather obscure small town that neither of us has ever imagined living. I will miss its sunlit views and rainbow whispers. I will miss the seasonally painted vistas gleaming from the bay windows. The deer families, red foxes and wild turkeys that came to our backyard keeping your dad’s cameras occupied. And of course, all the squirrels and a multitude of colorful birds that your dad knew intimately by name and always made sure to keep them fed. I will miss all of that terribly, but I know I will get over it and be content with holding all of these memories inside. Eventually, I will find/make another home for myself. My Shurik, ז’ל, your dad, on the other hand, will reman forever and ever after the inseparable part of me, the Love of my life, my better half. I know I am fortunate to have had all these years with such uniquely intelligent, kind, goodhearted and honest man, who gave me the most precious gifts of you and Eli. And I am grateful for these blessings.

  10. Oh (Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate)…..this is walking a thin rope within the nuptial ceremony won’t you say.
    Ok i stopped reading here, lemme continue. Sorry for interrupting

    1. Abvr, this is actually the same in Islam. The witnesses at the marriage ceremony must also be practicing Muslims, aka halal. Beautiful differences and similarities🌹

          1. Yes, i know this very well in the community that grew me which is made up from all nations of the world, 300 years of settlement, we developed different practices for marriage, mourning, and birth, and within the community that grew me it varies so much. Muslims and Jews in my community are very different lets say those from New York, Hamburg or Düsseldorf. Very different.

        1. Hmmmm….. Maybe there are some differences among the four schools of thought. But actually the marriage cannot take place without practicing Muslim witnesses.

          1. Yes there are big differences in the ways and manners that people practice . I was actually focusing on the kosher part regarding only eating halal food and not if the WItness is born into a Muslim community or a practicing Muslim all round. I understand that the person has to be a Muslim to serve as a witness.
            Christians have best friends as muslims, it is not uncommon in the community that grew me, for his muslim friend to be his best man, but usually it is the Christian best man that would sign as a witness.

    1. Hi, Mr. B.!

      That is a very good question with an (I think) interesting answer.

      I’ll respond to you on Saturday night- after Shabbat 🙂 because I need a bit of time to do this question justice… but the SHORT answer is: it depends on what you mean by

      the part religion played in your wedding

      For now, I’ll have to leave you with a Shabbat Shalom!

    2. I was struck by the part religion played in your wedding. Is that common in Israel?

      In Israel, according to law, all weddings are religious. There is no such thing as a ‘civil marriage’ unless it is performed overseas. This holds true for all religions – Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Druze, Bahai, etc… Cohabitation is also legally recognized and cohabitating couples are given legal rights equal to those of married couples.

      So – if you mean – does religion play a role in all weddings performed in Israel, the answer is technically yes.

      However, that is largely a technicality for the many secular Jews who get married in Israel, many of whom don’t follow the religion. They go through the motions because that is state law. The rabbi shows up, does his ceremony, and then the secular Israelis celebrate in a non-religious way and the rabbi leaves before the party commences.

      For religious Israelis, the ceremony is what they want to have, but they don’t usually consider making changes or considering the details because they usually leave that to the officiating rabbis. They usually favor the state law as it stands because it supports their beliefs, but their ceremonies are rather “cookie cutter”.

      My wife and I live between these two worlds. On the one hand, we observe the Sabbath and keep kosher, and we live a “religious” lifestyle. On the other hand, most of our friends and all our family members are either non-religious Jews or non-Jews. This was important for us to honor at our wedding because we have not rejected our backgrounds, despite choosing a different path in life.

      Also, my wife and I both identify as feminists, which presented a ceremonial challenge because traditional Judaism has separate gender roles for men and women, and most communal rituals can only be performed by men. We deliberately found ways to honor our female Torah teachers at our wedding ceremony in a way that did not break traditional Jewish law, in a way that they themselves would be comfortable with (because they are religious), but which featured them prominently as no less significant than the men whom we gave honors to.

      Also, as I mentioned in my post, we considered the sensibilities of our ultra-Orthodox guests, knowing that they would not be comfortable with components of the non-religious celebration following our ceremony (which we considered important to include because of our many non-religious friends and family members). So we seated the ultra-Orthodox Jews at a table where these non-religious festivities would not be visible, and we deliberately left them for the very end of the celebration, thus allowing our ultra-Orthodox guests the opportunity to leave before they ensued.

      So – because my wife and I straddled the religious and non-religious Jewish worlds, and especially because we honor both of these worlds and the friends and family members who occupy them, we put a lot of thought into our ceremony. (there are many more details that I haven’t mentioned to you in this response)

      I hope that answers your question, Mr. B. 😊

      1. Wow! Thank you, Ben, for such a detailed, informative response. It certainly sounds like you had far more preparation than our wedding – we decided on marriage three weeks beforehand, got a cancellation at our local (secular) registry office in front of two witnesses (the legal minimum), and we both informed our parents on the phone, afterwards, while celebrating with afternoon tea! And did I mention that she was already five months pregnant? 🤣. But certainly, we both chose our own path and our daughter has too.

          1. Do you know that it is only this year, I think, that all that happened here? Well, we obviously had marriage for ever, and people cohabiting, but they did not have the same legal rights. We had all the progressive, same-sex stuff go through in the 2000s, but hetero couples fell through the cracks until this year, I think.
            It impacted tax a little, but more importantly, things like inheritance when one of the partners dies.

          2. Speaking on your inclination toward cohabitation, first allow me to apologise for taking up so much space since I also want to comment about your feelings and sense of sorrows which you also include.
            I am Old Order Amish. ( traditional) I live now, with my wife of over many years ( we exclude “anniversaries”, “Birthdays” and never talk about our own age)
            Suffice it to say that I am elderly and been married to the same woman a long time.I love her more each passing day.

            We live outside of our district ( community) among the “English” ( anyone who is not Amish..though they may be, say, Asian.)
            In the truest sense, we live in two totally different worlds…two so incomparable as to escape description by our limited earthly language. So, let me try.

            Sometimes I weep in the comforts of two sorrows: at times for my lost English neighbors and at times for my lost Amish neighbors.
            Sometimes I feel assimilated by the English Culture, though I still live Old Amish…no car, no electricity, no SSN, so on.
            I obey the command ( Das Ordnung) of my order not to discuss doctrine with outsiders or to talk in the [holy] language of our tongue to English folk
            Yet, I use Solar power and a cell phone..assimilation?

            In the 80s I grieved over the loss of both parent. In the 90s I grieved over the loss of Jacob Yoder, and then the loss of Joseph Yoder ” Walking Joe”
            I felt that the earth had lost its light.
            I have since mourned grievously over the loss of English friends whom were shining their mortal,yet pitiable light for orhers.
            Pitiable, did I say?
            Yes. Our pitiable yet necessary light we shine for others in a world careening into darkness and madness.

            Walking Joe who walked everywhere he went throughout Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, sleeping on the ground in bushes and pines preaching to all who would listen, about simple lessons easily understood, but rejected by modern man. Who, for example, understands the perfect hatred of God, and how is it applied?

            My parents knew no greed. A stranger ( Hobo) walking up a lonely and frightful path on some journey was always met by my precious parents with cold well water and a large platter of food , and a small bunk house to sleep in as long as needed .
            Then there was “Red”, an English man who did not understand Amish ways, but shined his light into the same darkness that tripped and stumbled so many others.
            His passing was felt by me and others as a great loss.
            Red took 1/2 of his salary each week and, with his Bible always under his arm, sought out campers under a bridge and visited them with the gift of food, discussion, and his light.

            Living in two worlds is a discussion for philosophers. I am unable to collate the pages into a book of sorrows and of Joy, but when I say I understand the existence of such, remember that I never will understand it; I just live it.
            BE A LIGHT;LET IT SHINE!

              1. Ben, since the borders of understanding lap the shores of CONFUSION, let me try to answer that with its beginning: Shunning.
                My cousin, Andrew, was shunned for reminding Bishops ( who were under the age of most of the church) about forgiveness.
                One of Andrew’s friends had been shunned for the use of a Chainsaw.
                Without going into details ( which may lead to public dancing 😀) let me just say that he was shunned.
                Shunning is a very serious matter; it can lead someone to repentance or it can lead to their alternatives, which could be destruction
                In this case, “John” asked for forgiveness, which was denied.
                ( there is a process for repentance which John did not follow…they say)
                Andrew was shunned for his “challenge” and of course his Brother and parents obeyed the Shunn order..painfully.
                Now Andrew was shunned. His father stood up in church one day and said, “This has gone far enough! Forgiveness has been asked for and denied!”
                A Bishop, ( who was unworthy to even wash the feet of this man) replied, ” o.k. then we will shun you too!) So it was ordered.
                The next year, the Elderly Father died…unrepentantly.
                I prayed and prayed for understanding in this matter. I wept, beat my chest, and prayed.
                One night, both me and my wife had the same dream…leave! Go into the world. So we did.

                Forgive me, God, but what a horror awaited us!
                Socially retarded, literally “Horse and Buggy” thinking, and completely at the mercy of an opinionated world vs. Opinionated self.
                Can I ever “go back”?
                No, no, and no!
                I have been contaminated; I have been exonerated.
                I hold two official but conflicting ideas: to be or not to be? Yes.😀

                1. Wow. Thank you for sharing part of your story with me, Homer. I have never spoken with an Amish person, but I’ve seen them near Lancaster, PA… You have opened a new window for me.

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