Why do we wish mourners a long life

August 10, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Why does Anglo-Jewish custom include telling a mourner, “I wish you long life”?

A. The implication is that the deceased has died too early and we are telling the survivors, “We pray that you yourselves will have length of days”.

The Torah promises a long life as a reward for ethical living (Ex. 20:12, Deut. 5:16, Deut. 22:7, Deut. 25:13-15). If then, someone has not been blessed with long life, we hope there is no implication that they did not merit the reward of a long life.

How we define long life depends on the particular stage of history. The traditional concept is that long life is 120, like Moses who at that age was still hale and hearty and capable of leadership (Deut. 34).


Q. Is it true that there is a Christian hymn that uses the Friday night Yigdal tune?

A. The melody that Ashkenazi congregations use for Yigdal on Friday nights derives from the 17th century if not earlier.

A Wesleyan minister, Thomas Olivers, heard it at the Great Synagogue in London one evening in 1770 and used the tune for his hymn, “The God of Abraham Praise”, ascribing it to “Leoni”.

Leoni was Myer Lyon, a chazan or chorister at the Great Synagogue (in those days western-style choirs had not entered synagogue worship and the singers were not “choristers” but vocal assistants to the chazan). Lyon, who died in Jamaica about 1800, was a well-known opera singer and managed an opera house in Dublin.

An Anglo-Jewish musicologist, Bertram Benas, wrote that Olivers’ hymn “rhythmically fits the Yigdal theme with exactitude”, and adds, “A melody with a certain wistful beauty, it has a characteristic Jewish ring”.


Q. Is it true that six questions are asked of everyone when they knock at Heaven’s door?

A. What the Talmudic text says (Shabbat 31a/b) is, “When they bring a person to judgment they say to him, Were your dealings honest? Did you devote time to Torah? Did you engage in procreation? Did you look forward to salvation? Did you reason wisely? Did you deduce one thing from another?”

On the day of the final account and reckoning when you want to know, “Do I deserve the heavenly life of the next world?”, you will be asked by means of these questions, “Did you aspire towards heaven in this world?

The six things are deduced from the verse (Isa. 33:6), “There shall be 1. faith 2. in your times, 3. strength, 4. salvation, 5. wisdom and 6. knowledge”.

They are basic human activities, not necessarily measures of achievement but marks of commitment.

To take two examples, one does not need to become a great scholar but to give time to Torah; one does not have to produce a set number of sons and daughters but to make procreation possible.

In the Talmud, Resh Lakish links each of the six with one of the six sections of the Mishnah:
• “Faith” is “Zera’im”, “Seeds”: a person’s trade or profession must be aspire to be worthy of God.

• “Your times” are “Mo’ed”, “Sacred Times”: every occasion must be dedicated to the Almighty.

• “Strength” is “Nashim”, “Women” (i.e. marriage and divorce): one’s personal and family life must bring strength to the family and community.

• “Salvation” is “Nezikin”, “Damages” (i.e. civil and criminal law): the law must bring peace and quality to society.

• “Wisdom” is “Kodashim” (“Sacred Things”): the intricate rules of Jewish law require careful study and analysis.

• “Knowledge” is “Tohorot” (“Pure Things”): the standards of pure and impure require attention based on study.

The six are essential for a good Jew, but they all require the additional dimension of piety, “Yirat HaShem”.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


One Response to “Why do we wish mourners a long life”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    Six Questions At Heavens Door….
    I wonder how many make it through on face value……
    There was a time when Catholics never made past go without the Last Rites..

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