Question: "What did the Israelites do during a mourning period (Deuteronomy 34:8)?"
Answer: In Deuteronomy 34:8, we are told, “The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.” The normal period of mourning for a person in Jewish culture was seven days. Genesis 50:10 notes this as the initial period of mourning for Jacob: “When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father.” For a great or well-known person, a longer period of mourning may have been common. When Aaron died, mourning lasted for 30 days (Numbers 20:29).
In the case of Moses, the Israelites mourned for 30 days. It is uncertain what specific mourning practices were in place at the time Moses died, but Judaism includes elaborate practices of mourning the loss of a loved one. Jews often practice the rending or tearing of garments, called k’rah.
Traditionally, a person is buried the same day as his or her death, followed by seven days of mourning. A special meal of condolence is provided after the burial. Mourners remain in the house of mourning with friends and family throughout the week. Prayers are offered, and readings from the Torah are shared. Memorial candles are often lit. Traditional grooming stops, as do marital relations, entertainment, and regular study. In some cases, mourners wait 30 days before cutting their hair.
The New Testament speaks of mourners’ loud wailing. For example, when Jesus came to the home of the synagogue ruler whose daughter had died, He “saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly” (Mark 5:38). This took place on the same day as the girl’s death, as her body was still inside the home.
Mourning sometimes included shaving one’s head or putting ashes or dust on the head, in addition to rending garments. These actions communicated to everyone that the person was in mourning. Jeremiah 25:34 mentions the actions of a mourner in a judgment on evil rulers: “Weep and wail, you shepherds; roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock. For your time to be slaughtered has come.”
In summary, the formal actions involved in Jewish mourning today have developed throughout history. The 7- and 30-day periods of mourning practiced today are based on examples of biblical leaders, including Aaron and Moses. Though the exact details of mourning at the death of Moses are not known, it is clear there was much weeping and likely rending of garments, abstaining from celebration and work, and remembrance of Moses’ life.