What Does It Mean When Someone Dies on Rosh Hashanah?

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Rosh Hashanah is a significant and meaningful holiday for followers of the Jewish faith. It’s a two-day celebration of the Jewish New Year, usually falling in September. Rosh Hashanah also marks the start of a ten-day period known as the Days of Awe, which ends on Yom Kippur. But what happens if you die on Rosh Hashanah?

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Because the holiday holds such significance according to the Jewish calendar, it makes sense that dying on Rosh Hashanah would have special meaning, too. So what is the significance of someone who died on Rosh Hashanah?

What Do Jews Believe Happens When Someone Dies On Rosh Hashanah?

According to Jewish tradition, dying just before, during, or just after Rosh Hashanah has implications about your life and your death. In fact, even if you don’t die on Rosh Hashanah, the day has a lot to do with your death and your afterlife. 

In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah is a Day of Judgment before God. And the following Days of Awe are a time for repentance and prayer so you might live another year and go on to a positive afterlife.

Judgment on Rosh Hashanah

According to Jewish tradition, God judges the creatures of Earth on Rosh Hashanah. He uses that date each year to decide whether each creature will live or die in the year to come. 

If God finds you worthy of living another year, He inscribes your name in the Book of Life. If He finds you undeserving, He immediately condemns you to death in the coming year and an afterlife in Gehenna or Genion (the Jewish hell). If you fall between the two categories — the wicked and righteous — you have until Yom Kippur to repent. This repentance is known as teshuvah in Judaism. 

Of course, this tradition is up for interpretation, and people tend to have their own understanding of what it means. For example, no one can live forever, no matter how righteous they might be. Countless good people die each year, and countless people who do bad deeds continue living. 

Death before Rosh Hashanah

Although the teachings about Rosh Hashanah can be interpreted differently around the world, much of the Jewish community seems to have agreed upon one idea: dying just before Rosh Hashanah means you’re a righteous person. This belief came to light on social media in 2020, with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the evening before Rosh Hashanah.

Keep in mind that within the Jewish faith, a “day” begins at sundown. For example, any time after sundown on Friday evening, as we observe it according to the secular calendar, would be considered Saturday. Any time after sundown the day before Rosh Hashanah, as we would observe it secularly, would be considered the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away as the sun was setting into Rosh Hashanah, which to many indicated her righteousness. Essentially, it’s believed that God waited as long as he possibly could, until the very last moments of the year, to take her to the other side. This shows that she was a tzaddika (female version of tzaddik or “righteous person”), and that she had good deeds to complete on Earth before she departed. 

Death on Rosh Hashanah

According to tradition, dying at the very end of the year — in the moments before Rosh Hashanah — means you were a righteous person. So it follows that dying on Rosh Hashanah at the very beginning of the year may in fact, indicate your wickedness. 

After all, Rosh Hashanah is the date that God chooses who will live and who will die, based on their good and bad deeds that year. If you pass away immediately, God must have placed you in the latter category. 

But the idea that dying on Rosh Hashanah means you were wicked isn’t widely believed. In fact, followers of the Jewish faith often assert that dying on Rosh Hashanah, at any time, is a mark of righteousness. This might be because dying on Rosh Hashanah allows nearly immediate entry into the heavenly afterlife.

Death on Shabbat

Another factor to consider is whether or not Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat. In the example of Ruth Bade Ginsburg, Rosh Hashanah began on a Friday night (Shabbat), which further indicated her status as a tzaddika for many people. 

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How Does a Death During Rosh Hashanah Affect the Deceased’s Funerals, Mourning, or Legacy?

When a member of the Jewish faith dies on Rosh Hashanah, it can affect his or her family, and the funeral they hold. The timing of such a death can make grief and mourning more complicated, with the date holding so much meaning and importance. In addition, dying on Rosh Hashanah can also impact the legacy a person leaves behind. 

Funerals and burials during Rosh Hashanah

The first complication if a loved one dies on Rosh Hashanah is arranging a funeral. Jewish tradition requires burial to take place as soon as possible after death — preferably within 24 hours. This tradition stems from Jewish law’s respect for the dead. Before the burial, many Jewish families hold a traditional Jewish funeral or a more secular funeral.

And it’s especially important to bury the dead who die shortly before Yom Kippur, given the significant belief that the righteous are thought to enter paradise in the afterlife on that day.

However, you cannot hold a funeral on certain holy days, including the Sabbath and the first, second, and last days of the High Holy Days. That includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah and the last several days of that ten-day period. So if a loved one passes away on Rosh Hashanah, you’ll need to wait at least two days to hold the funeral and bury the body. 

Sitting shiva and Rosh Hashanah

Another important Jewish death tradition is sitting shiva. Traditionally, the family sits shiva as a mourning period for three to seven days following the funeral and burial. If a person passes away on Rosh Hashanah, the family is often advised to delay sitting shiva until after Yom Kippur. 

This allows for the Days of Awe to proceed as intended, with followers of the faith reflecting on the previous year and making amends for wrongful deeds. Of course, it’s impossible to stop yourself from mourning or grieving immediately after a death. But Jewish tradition recommends delaying the official mourning period in honor of the holy days. 

Personal mourning on Rosh Hashanah

You might sit shiva until after the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur come to an end. But that doesn’t mean you can’t mourn your loved one privately. In fact, it’s important to acknowledge your loss and your feelings of grief when they come up. 

In place of sitting shiva for the time being, confide your feelings in family and friends and write them down in a journal. You can also incorporate prayers and remembrances for your departed loved one into your holiday observances.

Dying on Rosh Hashanah and your legacy

As described above, dying on Rosh Hashanah carries unique implications. To many modern Jews, dying on Rosh Hashanah means that you were a holy or righteous person. 

In the case of a well-known personality, such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this can lead to an increase in praise and honor. Many members of the Jewish community around the world took the opportunity to recognize Ginsburg as a tzaddika on social media following her Rosh Hashanah death. 

For those who aren’t in the public eye, it’s up to you how you want to interpret a death on Rosh Hashanah. The legacy of your loved one won’t be entirely determined by the date of their death. But if you consider your loved one a righteous and all-around good person, their death on that holy day might just confirm your beliefs. 

Dying on Rosh Hashanah, the Birthday of the World

According to the Hebrew calendar, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of Tishrei, which is when God is thought to have created the world. That means that each year, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the “birthday” of the entire world. 

At the same time, Rosh Hashanah ultimately reflects on death and the afterlife. Whereas secular New Year’s celebrations are raucous and joyful, Rosh Hashanah is often a subdued and contemplative holiday. 


Sources

  1. Harris, Ben. “Did dying on Rosh Hashanah make Ruth Bader Ginsburg a ‘tzaddika?’” Jerusalem Post. 22 September 2020. www.jpost.com/judaism/did-dying-on-rosh-hashanah-make-ruth-bader-ginsburg-a-tzaddik-643110
  2. “A guide to Jewish mourning laws and practices.” Congregation Adat Reyim. images.shulcloud.com/618/uploads/PDFs/mourning5.pdf
  3. “Rosh Hashanah.” History. 27 October 2009. www.history.com/topics/holidays/rosh-hashanah-history  

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