In Deuteronomy 34:8, we are told that the children of Jacob observed a mourning period: “The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.” The normal mourning period for a person in Jewish culture was seven days. Genesis 50:10 notes this as the initial mourning period 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 mourning period may have been common. When Aaron died, mourning also lasted for thirty days (Numbers 20:29).
In the case of Moses, the Israelites’ mourning period lasted for thirty 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. Jewish mourning periods have traditionally included the practice of the rending or tearing one’s garments, an act called keriah.
Jewish law requires a person to be buried the same day as his or her death, and then a seven-day mourning period commences. 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 thirty days before cutting their hair.
The Jewish mourning period traditionally featured professional mourners who would play instruments and chant dirges. Rabbinical rules allowed for even the poorest person to have at least two flute-players provided, along with one mourning woman. When Jesus came to the home of the synagogue ruler whose daughter had just died, He found much more than the minimum number of mourners: there was “a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly” (Mark 5:38).
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 a mourning period. Jeremiah 25:34 pronounces 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.” Sin and the fate it brings should cause us to mourn.