Giving a eulogy for another person is never easy. How do you sum up an entire lifetime of experience, relationships, and memories? In the Jewish faith, eulogies have even more significance. Within Jewish funeral traditions, eulogies are known as a “hesped,” or a speech given in honor of the deceased.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Understand What a Hesped Is
- Step 2: Decide Who Delivers the Eulogy
- Step 3: Plan the Order of Service
- Step 4: Prepare the Eulogy
- Step 5: How to Deliver the Hesped
- Step 6: Invite Others to Speak
The hesped is typically recited during the burial or funeral service. They could also take place throughout the first year after the passing. In Judaism, eulogizing loved ones who died is a very important custom for the family of the deceased.
This practice dates back centuries, and it still brings families peace and comfort today. Learn how to recite a hesped or Jewish eulogy in this step-by-step guide.
Step 1: Understand What a Hesped Is
On its surface, a hesped is a eulogy. A eulogy is a speech that honors the deceased usually by recounting aspects of his or her character and giving an overview of his or her life, relationships, and so on. In Judaism, this is a particularly important custom that dates back to Abraham. In Genesis, Abraham eulogized his wife, Sarah, and this forms the basis for today’s tradition.
The hesped is about praising the achievements and qualities of the deceased as well as evoking emotions amongst family and guests. There are specific laws that go along with hesped in the Jewish faith. They are:
- Mourning - Mourning is an important part of Judaism. Those who cry upon the death of others are rewarded, while those who don’t eulogize another are less worthy. This is Mitzvah, or a commandment.
- Maspid - In the past, it was common to hire a eulogizer to recite the hesped on behalf of the family. In some communities, this is still done today.
- Truthful - It’s essential that the eulogy is truthful and high in praise. The saying “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all” reigns supreme here.
- Single eulogy per city - Finally, there was not to be more than one eulogy given simultaneously in a single city unless large crowds gather for each.
Over time, these rules above lessened in severity. Depending on the family’s belief and practice, they might follow all of the above or none at all. However, the goals of a hesped remain the same: to praise the deceased and bring about an emotional response from the audience.
Step 2: Decide Who Delivers the Eulogy
With the above rules, you might be surprised to learn that anyone is free to deliver the eulogy. Traditionally, this was done by a rabbi or maspid, a professional eulogizer. Today, many families choose to have someone close to the deceased recite the hesped. Painting an accurate visual of one’s life is much easier when the eulogizer knows them personally.
There’s no “best” person for the eulogy. Because this is often a stressful occasion, it’s helpful to have a rabbi take over if the family is dealing with strong emotions. Rabbis have experience navigating eulogies sensitively, so they provide much-needed relief in the family’s time of need. At the same time, choosing someone close to the deceased, such as a family member, is an honorable way to pay tribute to a loved one.
Step 3: Plan the Order of Service
Next, plan the order of the funeral or burial service to determine when the speaker gives the eulogy. There are no rules about the order the hesped should be. However, it’s common for it to be given during the funeral before the burial.
To start, the family or rabbi typically leads guests through Jewish funeral prayers. Then, it’s time to deliver the eulogy. If the funeral takes place on one of the major festivals like Passover or Sukkot or during a holiday, the family should postpone the eulogy. As mentioned, the family has the freedom to recite hesped up until a year after the death of a loved one.
Someone might perform the eulogy during the shiva period, at the burial, or at the headstone unveiling.
Step 4: Prepare the Eulogy
It’s time to find the right words to say. Preparing the eulogy ahead of time is the best way to overcome public speaking nerves and also ensure you cover everything important. Not everyone knows how to write a eulogy.
This isn’t something most people do regularly, and that’s why it’s helpful to enlist the assistance of a rabbi or other leader.
What’s included in the eulogy?
The hesped follows the same format as most other eulogies. However, the emphasis is on their best qualities, as well as their impact within the community. Whether you write the eulogy for your loved one or have a rabbi create one on your family’s behalf, consider the following:
- What were the deceased’s biggest accomplishments?
- How would loved ones describe the deceased?
- How did they meet their spouse or partner?
- Did the deceased have special interests, hobbies, Jewish connections, or involvement within the synagogue?
- What are the names of surviving and predeceased relatives?
In the Jewish faith, it’s believed that everyone has good in them. Even those who led seemingly unremarkable lives have moral and ethical achievements. Everyone’s life is worthy of celebration.
How long should the hesped be?
The hesped is one of the biggest focuses of the funeral tradition. Jewish funerals are simple, straightforward occasions. There are no extravagant, lengthy programs. As such, the eulogy should be under 10 minutes in length.
Be mindful of other speakers, prayers, or aspects of the service. Short and sweet is the best rule of thumb for most aspects of the funeral, including the eulogy.
Step 5: How to Deliver the Hesped
There are a few things to know about the best way to deliver the hesped at the funeral, shiva, or service. The eulogy is primarily for the audience, not the deceased. It’s an emotional reflection on one’s life as a way to bring peace to the mourning family. Ensuring you’re in the right mind space to deliver a strong, evocative narrative is key.
Can the hesped be read by someone else?
If you’re not confident or comfortable reading the eulogy for your loved one, you might choose to have someone else read it for you. Whether a rabbi or another family member recites it, it’s important for the hesped to be heard by the guests.
If you do choose to read the eulogy yourself, make sure you practice. Public speaking isn’t easy. This is even more difficult when emotions are running high. Whether or not you choose to read or give your notes to someone else, it comes down to personal preference and comfort levels.
Tips for speaking at a funeral
When giving the eulogy, most public speaking tips apply. Remember to keep the focus on the family, the deceased, and the lasting impact of your loved one’s life. Try these practices below:
- Speak slowly - It’s easy to speak too quickly when you’re nervous. Slow things down to ensure everyone in the audience hears your words. This is a meaningful speech. You don’t want anyone to miss what you’re saying.
- Let go of perfection - Perfection simply doesn’t exist when it comes to summing up one’s life in under 10 minutes of speaking. Keep in mind that everyone is grieving the same loss, and they don’t expect you to be perfect. If you stumble over your words or make a mistake, just keep going. It’s truly the thought that counts.
- Make it personal - The best eulogies are personal. Don’t be afraid to let your emotions and own experiences show through. Be yourself and talk as they’re you’re speaking to friends and family (because you are).
Read our full guide on how to speak at a funeral for more tips and tricks.
Step 6: Invite Others to Speak
Finally, it’s common to invite others to say a few words after the eulogy is complete. If there’s room in the service schedule, ask if any other friends or family have something to add. Many guests want to share a few words about the individual, their impact, and their feelings.
It’s a good idea to let everyone know ahead of time if there is an opportunity to speak. Feel free to set a general time limit as well. The person reciting the hesped is typically the one who invites others to say a few words. They do this by saying something like:
- Thank you all for joining me today. Would anyone like to add anything about [Name]?
- [Name] touched many people with his/her time on earth. Does anyone want to say a few words?
- Your presence means the world to our family. We are inviting anyone who wishes to speak to do so now.
Give a Hesped with Confidence
A Hesped, or Jewish eulogy, is a way to honor the passing of a loved one. In the Jewish tradition, there’s a large emphasis on paying respects to the dead and mourning as a family. This form of Jewish condolences reminds us all to consider our impact.
What legacy will you leave? Start end-of-life planning today to begin making these decisions for your family. There’s no way to predict the future, but you can design your own impact with the time you have now.