"Greater is the day of death," declares King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, "than the day of birth." At first glance, this seems a curious statement, especially for a life-celebrating philosophy and religion such as Judaism. But the Chassidic masters insist that this is no contradiction. The time of a person's passing, they explain, is the culminating moment of his or her mission in life. This is the moment at which the
The time of a person's passing is the culminating moment of his or her mission in life
sum-total of his or her achievements in this world come to fruition. Physically, one may be in a diminished state, but spiritually, this is our moment of highest potential.

The moment of yetziat neshamah ("departure of the soul") is a most lofty moment, and should be utilized by the dying person (or, when this is not possible, by those present with him or her) for two fundamental actions: 1) The affirmation of G‑d's unity with the saying of Shema; 2) Teshuvah, repentance and "return."

1) The Shema

If there is a single sentence that encapsulates the faith and life-mission of the Jew, it is the words of the Shema. Shema yisrael, Ado-nai E-loheinu, Ado-nai echad — "Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G‑d, the L-rd is one." We say these words every morning and evening of our
Jews strove to depart life as they lived it—with the words of the Shema on their lips
lives, and they express the ultimate goal of our every deed and activity: to make real the truth that G‑d is one. That G‑d and the created existence, G‑d and our lives, are not two separate entities, but a unity, for everything is an emanation and expression of the Divine oneness.

And these are the words the Jew proclaims at life's culmination. We proclaimed them facing the crusader's sword or the ovens of Auschwitz; we cried out these words when death came suddenly and violently, or peacefully in bed. Throughout the ages, Jews strove to depart life as they lived it—with the words of the Shema on their lips.

2) Teshuvah

According to Jewish tradition, we can repair, enhance and put to rights any aspect of our lives —as long as we still live.

Through deep regret and firm resolve, we have the power to literally "return" in time to past iniquities and failings. In a single soul-wrenching moment, we can repair the damage and fill the lack.

In a single moment teshuvah, we can repair the damage and fill the lack An important component of the Teshuvah process is the Vidui--confession of sins—that acknowledges to G‑d our failures and seeks that G‑d heal them and their results and make us whole.

Teshuvah can be achieved at any and every point in life, but at no time is it more opportune and necessary than in life's closing moments. In the words of the Sages, "If not now, when?"

Getting Practical

Life's closing moments — some basic observances and customs:

  • As death nears, one should recite the Shema and other verses affirming our belief and faith in G‑d and G‑d's oneness. All who are present at the time should recite the Shema along with the dying person. If the dying person is unconscious, those present should recite those verses for him or her. (Click here for the text of the Shema and "verses of unity")

  • In the closing moments of life, a person should repent with all his or her heart for all wrongdoing she or he may have committed in the course of her or his life. If there is anyone the person feels they have wronged, s/he should seek the forgiveness of the offended party; the Talmud tells us that G‑d can forgive us for trespasses against others only after they have forgiven us.

  • The Vidui--verbal acknowledgement of one's sins—should be recited. There are various texts for this verbal acknowledgement. A person may also recite a personal acknowledgment in his/her own language. (Click here for the text of Vidui)

  • One should recite the Shema and Vidui even if it is not certain that death is imminent, lest he or she lose consciousness or be otherwise prevented from doing so closer to the time of death. In the words of the Sages, "Many recite Vidui and live, while many do not recite and lose the opportunity to do so."

  • In this day and age of long and drawn-out dying, where patients are usually unconscious and deeply medicated at the time of their death, the opportunities to say the Shema and the Vidui at the time of death do not always present themselves. In such cases, those present should do so and give voice to the departing soul.

  • It is a matter of the greatest respect to watch over a person as he passes from this world on to the next. No person should be left to die alone; rather, every effort should be made that there be loved ones, or even a caring stranger, present. During the last minutes of life no one in the presence of the deceased may leave, excepting the physically ill or those whose emotional state makes remaining in the room impossible.