Since my grandpa died, I’ve been expanding beyond morning rituals to a new category: mourning rituals. Two practices speak to the transformational power of rituals.
The Transformational Power of Mourning Rituals
In my work developing rituals for myself and others, I often share with clients the science behind my systems, to help them understand why a certain practice will create the end result they desire. Since my grandpa died, I have studied more about the various mourning rituals in Judaism. What I learned expanded my views on the transformational power of rituals and reinforced my experience that the most effective rituals are backed by psychological principles.
Here I want to share two specific mourning rituals that illustrate the transformational power of rituals and how science supports these transformations.
Ritual 1: Reciting the Kaddish
The Kaddish Ritual
The Kaddish — a prayer said in praise of God — elevates the soul of the deceased as it faces Divine judgement. The laws around mourner’s Kaddish require a child to say the prayer for his deceased parent for 11 months from the date of death. A child who assumes this responsibility makes a significant commitment:
- The Kaddish is recited three times a day, during morning, afternoon and evening prayer services. Every day. Including holidays.
- According to the “official rules,” Kaddish may not be said privately; it must be recited in the presence of a minyan — the quorum of ten required for communal prayer.
According to Chabad,
… this service of holiness must be recited only in public, eliciting the response of a congregation. The Jewish experience has taught that such values as peace and life, and the struggle to bring heaven down to earth, of which the Kaddish speaks, can be achieved only in concert with society, and proclaimed amidst friends and neighbors of the same faith.
Of course, some people might decide to recite Kaddish when they can make it to a place with a quorum, and recite it on their own at other times. There is at least one site that offers a streaming evening prayer service to accommodate mourners who wish to say Kaddish in the communal setting.
But the mourner who commits to reciting Kaddish as intended must go to a synagogue, or gather a quorum at another place, three times a day for a year. That’s a significant commitment of time and effort. It make my fitness and meditation rituals look lightweight by comparison.
The Transformational Effect of the Kaddish Ritual
For a mourner who commits to this practice, transformation is inevitable. Here are three transformations and how they occur.
(1) More Presence and Greater Awareness
The Kaddish ritual requires a mourner to create space for prayer in his daily routine. He also must be intentional with his day, so that he arrives on time to services. The natural result of creating space for prayer and being intentional with time is that you will live each day with more presence and greater awareness.
(2) More Optimism and Gratitude; Less Fear
Even if the mourner attends services only to recite the Kaddish, and doesn’t intend to join in the rest of the prayers, it’s inevitable that he will eventually open up to prayer.
The principle at play here is the foot-in-the-door technique, a compliance tactic that involves getting a person to agree to big requests by starting with smaller requests. The mourner shows up to the synagogue. He holds the prayer book. He opens the book to the page for Kaddish. At that point, standing amidst the other men who are praying, with the book opened, he is likely to engage in at least some of the prayers. Over the span of the year, he will almost certainly participate in the full service.
It’s highly unlikely that by the conclusion of a year he wouldn’t find some aspect of services that he enjoys and that fulfills him. He may not continue to attend daily prayer services three times a day, every day, but my guess is that he would find some aspect of the prayer service that resonates with him.
His three-times daily prayer ritual is likely to create a deepened faith. And because faith is the antidote to fear, his deeper faith will result in less fear. He will become more grounded and centered, even in our world of chaos.
- increased optimism and gratitude
- a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life
- more ease in forgiveness
- broadened perspective
Through prayer, we transform ourselves, creating a vessel for receiving the Divine blessings.
(3) Shift in Mindset and Beliefs
Even if the mourner does nothing other than recite the Kaddish, the mere fact of being surrounded by a group of people committed to spiritual practice on a regular basis will influence his beliefs and actions over time. This is the peer group effect, the concept that the people who you surround yourself with influence what you believe and think.
Science proves the adage that “you become the company you keep.” This adage itself is a restatement of Proverbs 13:20:
He that walketh with wise men shall be wise… — Proverbs 13:20
(4) Improved Health and Well-Being
There is compelling evidence that the effects of prayer can promote physical healing.
Science has shown that prayer offsets the negative health effects of stress; specifically when the focus of prayer is on others. In reciting the Kaddish, a mourner is focusing on honoring his deceased parent and praising God.
Ritual 2: Engaging in Study
The Study Ritual
The other custom that sparked my interest is the custom to engage in the study of Mishnayot. Engaging in study is a source of merit for the soul of the departed.
4 periods are set aside for study:
- During the shiva, between Mincha (the afternoon prayer service) and Maariv (the evening prayer service), where visitors study aloud.
- During the remainder of shloshim – the 30 day mourning period, during which time the mourners study alone or by taking part in group study and discussion.
- During the entire first year, until the 1st yartzeit (anniversary of the death).
- Each year on the yartzeit of the deceased.
It is customary to deliver a D’var Torah — a talk about the topic of study — on the yartzeit of the deceased. My grandpa modeled this practice, delivering talks on the yartzeits of his parents and sisters. In the past couple of years, as he became too weak to walk around the corner to the temple, he emailed his talk to the Rabbis so they could read it to the congregation. He also shared his talks via email, to a list of recipients of wide ranging degrees of faith and religion.
The Transformational Effects of Study Rituals
(1) Greater Intention
Like with reciting Kaddish, to create space in our daily routine for study requires being intentional about how we spend our day. The practice of daily study creates time for contemplation and reflection away from the mundane elements of life. It opens space in which the student gains a wider perspective on life and himself.
(2) Eliminate Distractions and Enhance Focus
Proper study requires space away from distractions. By devoting time to study deep material, we practice the art of focused attention and learn to eliminate distractions.
(3) Improved Communication Skills
I would offer that true study is only completed in the teaching of the material to others. Otherwise, all you’ve done is consumed information.
The best way to understand a topic is to teach it to someone else.
Science backs this up. Researchers have found that students enlisted to tutor others work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively. This is called the protogé effect.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we know something because we read it in a book or took a course on it. Teaching others what we learn requires us to fully understand the concept. It removes the possibility of self-deceit. The process of distilling what you learn into an article or a talk forces you to organize the information and contemplate how you will communicate it. This often involves struggle, for example, over which parts to include and omit and how to explain the concepts. This struggle is how we integrate the information and turn it into knowledge; it is essential to the process of study.
(4) Expanded Emotional Awareness
The process of synthesizing what we study and creating a tangible deliverable — in the form of a talk and written piece — facilitates this integration. On this level, we engage in the process of intellectual assimilation, through which we turn information into understanding.
My grandpa took it to the next level. In his talks, he would share pieces of his experiences that related to his chosen topic. By including snippets of his own life experiences, he emotionally assimilated the information. This process of emotional assimilation is how we convert understanding into knowledge.
The Hebrew word for knowledge — Yada — is often used in the Torah as a reference to sexual intercourse. For example, “Adam knew his wife Eve.” True knowledge is embodied; it lives in our physiology and nervous system.
Connecting what we study to our own experience enhances our emotional awareness and intelligence. Also, it helps us to expand our empathy for others. This ability to relate concepts on an emotional level is the X-factor that defines great teachers.
My grandpa was a man of deep knowledge and wisdom not because he read a lot of books (although he did), but because he engaged in ritual practice of study that involved both intellectual assimilation and emotional assimilation. This is likely why people with no experience in Judaism resonated with his talks.
Summary: The Transformational Power of Rituals
Of course, we need not be in mourning to adopt the rituals of prayer and study. In fact, I incorporated both of these rituals into my routine before my grandpa died. Like my other rituals, they add rich meaning to my lives. As I considered the transformational power of all rituals, I came up with three common elements that summarize the transformational power of rituals.
(1) Building Strength
- Daily fitness strengthens our bodies.
- Daily meditation and prayer strengthen our souls and spirit.
- Daily study strengthens our mind, intellect and emotions.
(2) Creating Space with Intention
As I say often, these practices are not habits. Fitness, meditation, study, and prayer are intentional acts. They don’t just “happen.” We must decide to engage in them daily. We must create space for them. They require us to give up something else – or reschedule something else – to fit them in. Whether it’s a television show, a weekly card game, a night out with friends, or time online, we must be willing to make the sacrifice for what we will gain in the process — even if we don’t know what we will gain when we start out.
When we create space for these practices, they create space in us: in our joints, our hearts, our souls and our minds.
(3) The Process is the Outcome
These rituals are not about achievements or an end-goal. It’s about committing to a course of intentional living. The process is the outcome. The journey is the destination.
Do you want to infuse your life with greater meaning? My program, The Ritual Revolution, will guide you through the process.