ancestors in Jewish culture
IN ANTIQUITY: IMPORTANCE OF GENEALOGY
Lineage and ancestry have been important to Jews since antiquity.
The Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) dedicates an enormous portion to genealogy and ancestry. The Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, serves three main roles: (1) it tells the story of the creation of the world, according to the ancient Israelites, (2) it tells the origins and the story of the Israelite nation, and (3) it outlines the laws of the Israelite nation. Points one and two especially deal with genealogy, from Adam to the Israelite nation.
Jewish status is inherited. According to Halacha (Jewish law), Jewishness is passed down through the mother. Today, the Reform movement accepts patrilineal descent, so long as the person was raised Jewish. Some other groups have traditionally practiced patrilineal descent, such as the Beta Israel and Karaite Jews.
Jewish tribal affiliation is also inherited; in this case, descent is patrilineal. For example: if your father is a Levite, then you too are a Levite.
Jewish priestly status — or “Kohen” status — is also inherited, passed down from generation to generation. Kohanim served in the days of the Temple; yet, ever since its destruction, Kohanim, as well as Levites, continue to carry with them special duties, restrictions, and responsibilities. For example, Kohanim are called first to the Torah during a service.
In archeology and linguistics, Kohanim, or the Priestly Caste, particularly during the time of the Temple, are believed to have written parts of the Tanakh, likely sometime in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. These portions of the Tanakh deal with ritual, law, and especially, with genealogy.
ZEHUT AVOT: THE MERIT OF OUR ANCESTORS
“Zehut Avot” is a Hebrew phrase and Jewish concept that translates roughly to “the merit of our ancestors,” specifically meaning the ancestors of the Nation of Israel.
In Judaism, reward and punishment have a collective dimension. In fact, Jewish consciousness and the Jewish experience is a collective one. The Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) frequently alludes to the idea that we may enjoy the benefits — or suffer the consequences — of the actions of our ancestors. However, transgenerational punishment is generally understood to only apply to grave transgressions, such as idolatry.
As is often the case with Jewish thought, there is not a clear consensus on Zehut Avot. Some early Mishnaic interpreters believed that the concept no longer applies, and that it stopped applying sometime during the First Temple period (10th century BCE-587 BCE). Other sages and rabbis over the centuries disagreed with this interpretation.
Every Amidah — the main section of morning, afternoon, and evening prayers — begins with a mention of the ancestors of the Nation of Israel: “Blessed are You, Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob.” Some streams of Judaism also mention the matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Our ancestors are mentioned because we must shift our focus from our individual experience to the collective Jewish consciousness and so that we can understand our place in the long chain of Jewish lineage.
Additionally, mentioning our ancestors emphasizes that everything that we Jews know today about the divine we learned through the wisdom of our ancestors recounting their direct experiences with God.
The concept that the human soul goes on after death has been characteristic of Judaism, in various forms, since antiquity.
It’s possible that explicit ancestor worship was present in ancient Israel. The Tanakh implies that many of the Jewish rituals associated with mourning — lamenting, making incisions, shaving the hair, and tearing garments — were done for the sake of the dead, rather than the living; in other words, these rituals were offerings to the dead.
There are references in the Tanakh to the summoning of the dead for wisdom. In the Torah narrative, King Saul, the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel (1047-930 BCE), calls a Canaanite witch, known as the Woman of Endor, to summon the spirit of Samuel to receive advice on how to defeat the Philistines in battle.
The graves of our patriarchs and matriarchs are considered sacred and are still sites of worship. However, our veneration for our ancestors should not cross over into idol worship.
The Cave of the Patriarchs, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second holiest site in Judaism (Hebron, West Bank).
MOURNING OUR ANCESTORS
Judaism places a sacred emphasis on the mourning of the death of a first degree relative, such as a parent, child, sibling, and spouse. In fact, this process is considered both a Minhag (“tradition”) and a Mitzvah (“commandment”). There are specific traditions and duties reserved specifically for those mourning a parent.
The process of Jewish mourning lasts an entire year. It begins with the burial, which is supposed to take place as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours. After the funeral, the community and/or extended family greets the mourners with a “meal of consolation.” Then comes the Shiva, meaning “seven,” during which the immediate family remains at home for seven days while the community takes care of their basic needs (e.g. food). Every day, the mourners will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish along with visitors so that they don’t have to mourn by themselves. Then comes the stage known as “Sheloshim,” meaning 30, which is a thirty-day period following the funeral. The mourners will return to everyday life (e.g. school, work) but will ease back into it slowly; for example, they will not attend parties, concerts, or other forms of entertainment.
A year from losing a parent, the mourners will mark the Shnat Ha-Evel, or the First Year of Mourning.
The Hebrew calendar anniversary of a loved one’s death is known as “Yahzreit.” To honor our loved one, we light a Yahzreit candle, which burns for 24 hours, and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
The Mourner’s Kaddish honors our dead ancestors and is meant to be repeated on a daily basis. In English, it states the following:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.
Though reincarnation is not generally associated with Judaism, there is actually a long Jewish tradition pertaining to reincarnation. This concept is known as “Gilgul” or “Gilgul Neshamot,” or the “transmitigation of souls.” Gilgul translates to “cycle” or “wheel” in Hebrew, whereas “Neshama” (or “Neshamot” in the plural form) translates to “soul.”
According to Gilgul Neshamot, reincarnation of souls is neither a reward nor a punishment for behavior in a previous life. According to Kabbalistic interpretation, souls are reincarnated just enough times to fulfil the 613 Mitzvot (“commandments”). The souls of the Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jewish people who have protected Jews from persecution, a concept usually associated with the Holocaust) may be reincarnated enough times to fulfil the Seven Laws of Noah.
The Jewish belief in the reincarnation of souls dates back to antiquity, though it is not mentioned in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), and as such, it’s not considered a tenet in Judaism. Like almost everything pertaining Jewish thought, sages across the centuries have disagreed with each other regarding reincarnation, with some sages deeply believing in the concept and others rejecting it entirely.
Gilgul Neshamot is associated with Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism and is a concept especially prominent in Hasidic Judaism. It’s also commonly observed in Jewish folklore.
NAMING A CHILD AFTER THE DECEASED
One of the ways that Jews honor our ancestors is that we name babies after deceased relatives; this is particularly prominent in Ashkenazi culture, where it’s considered especially taboo to name a child after a living person.
In Ashkenazi tradition, babies are named after deceased relatives with the hope that they will embody the positive attributes of that ancestor and that they will carry a part of their ancestor’s soul with them. It’s also done with the hope that the child will exhibit interest in their namesake, their ancestry, and their lineage.
It’s important to note that there is no Halachic prohibition on naming a child after a living relative; it’s simply an Ashkenazi tradition. Many Sephardic families name babies after living relatives, particularly grandparents, and it’s considered a great honor.
Judaism heavily emphasizes the power of names, as it is believed that your name is the “key to your soul.” The Hebrew word for soul is “Neshama.” The two middle letters, shin and mem, spell “shem,” meaning name. We believe that we are not named by accident, but rather, that our names capture the essence of our soul and can even be prophetic. This is why a person who undergoes the process of gyur (“conversion,” naturalization into the Jewish tribe) will choose a Hebrew name.
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