When we hear someone has died, we need a way to express ourselves. Jewish tradition provides a very powerful and brief sacred phrase: baruch dayan ha'emet (pronounced bah-rukh, dah-yahn, hah'eh-meht). This phrase seems to be the bare minimum of a blessing, truncated from our usual blessing form, as many as twelve terms short*; cut down, as has been a life.
What does this phrase mean?
Ha-Emet – The Truth. While we were doing chevruta (sacred study, one-on-one) on baruch dayan emet, my colleague Rabbi Shawn Zevit noted that for him: "The emet—Truth-- is the focus. I am acknowledging that, this is the Truth. In this way, we help ourselves move into acceptance, rather than denial."
Emet is one of the 105 metaphorical names for God in Judaism. Emet fits best as a form of address while we are frozen in the immediate learning of a loss of life, because other names might feel false on our tongue, e.g., anthropomorphic names of adulation: Adonai Eloheynu (Lord, our God), of fealty – melech (king); or the wonderful holy feeling embedded in most blessings of engaging in good deeds – mitzvot.
There are many mitzvot involved in supporting a family, friend, or community, who are dealing with a death; these all come later. The moment of hearing of a death, is a uniquely personal. Even a death that comes as a kindness for one who has been suffering terribly, that death, in truth, also may herald a radical change in our lives.
Dayan – Judge.
Upon hearing of a death, we feel acted upon, disempowered, bereft. We didn't misplace our loved one, as when someone says: "I lost my husband." No, lives are ended – by war, accident, disease, error, suicide, old age. There is no effective bakkashah, "plea," to bring someone back, nor will expressing fealty to "My Lord," or "Our God," change a thing. Our sages ask us to accept derekh ha-teva, the way of nature, to realize that no cosmic judge was punishing our friend, associate or loved one for some known, or unknown, evil. We know things that are horrible from our vantage point, happen to good people.
Often loss hurts, sometimes almost beyond endurance, to the point that we can't help but plead to know why must we be sentenced to endure this transformation in our loves and lives. This is why Dayan, "Judge," is another fitting name, as an anthropomorphic metaphor for how we feel – that a difficult verdict has entered our own lives -- loss, death, the departure and ascent of a soul beyond our world of experience.
Baruch – Bless.
There is a mitzvah called yirah, living in awareness of the awesome/fearsomeness of creation. We are being embedded in a larger field of being than we can ever hope to control or fully understand. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi terms this the Godfield. We appear to co-create the Godfield with our blessings; shaping the experience of learning of a death ever so slightly by saying baruch dayan ha'emet. It is not given to us to know if our sages were right, and a young soul was recalled because it had other lives and only a tiny bit of work to finish up in this life. We can't know if a soul has a particular talent that is needed in another dimension, and it has been recalled for higher service. We can't penetrate the mystery called death. We only know the awesomeness of life and the blessing that this person was in our life. This we can bless – the time we had, our awe at the gift of life, and the fearsome/awesome threshold called death of the body, beyond which we, the living cannot go.
Baruch dayan ha'emet. Blessed be the True Judge (other translations are possible). These words reappear at the funeral, as first degree relatives receive a kriyah (tearing) ribbon and rend it to signal they are mourners and, to symbolize their hearts torn open in grief.
So few words and they help us to address and express so much.
Note: This blessing also applies to other situations where difficult news is received, see Mishna Berachot 9:2. The sages seem to build this understanding upon the words of Job to his wife: "Shall we accept the good from God, and not the bad?"(Job 2:10).
The blessing Baruch Dayan Haemet is in fact recited upon hearing any form of bad news, but most commonly when hearing about someone’s passing. The Mishna in Berachot (54a) states that a person is required to praise God for both the good and the bad. The Mishna there cites the verse that one should love God with all our heart – all of our heart implies under all circumstances, both good and bad. We understand that our relationship with God is total and incorporates both good and bad occasions, but our love is complete.
As for the specific formulation, “Blessed is the Righteous Judge,” we are our affirming that the world is ruled by a righteous judge even when at times, particularly when we hear bad news, from our perspective it might seem that at times justice is lacking in the world. As God declares to Job, his thoughts are not ours, and that God has acted in the world in a way that God sees as just.
In affirming our belief that God is a righteous judge at these moments, we should not derive that there is a never a time when justice is lacking and that we do not have an obligation to seek more justice and healing in the world. While God’s actions are just and we declare so at these tragic moments, it is still our obligation to continue to make progress in healing the sick and uprooting injustice from the world.
Since the days of the Mishnah, Jewish tradition prescribes a special blessing for nearly all aspects of Jewish life. There are blessings said over new fruits; there are blessings said before the performance of a religious precept; there are blessings even for when you see the President or the Czar! Every aspect of life is bound up with the theme of blessing. In fact, the fundamental meaning of the word, “Jew” means in Hebrew, “to give thanks.”
With this thought in mind, the Sages teach there are blessings for happy occasions, and there are blessings for sad occasions. The exact nature of a sad occasion is a matter of discussion. According to the Talmud, when hearing bad news one must acknowledge God as the “Just Judge,” (Dyyan HaEmeth—literally, “the Judge of Truth”). Originally, this blessing was not limited to death per se, but applied to any kind of tragic news, e.g., the loss of one’s home due to a natural disaster or fire, the loss of the Temple, or the loss of a friend or valued family member who has died, and so on . . . 
The specific time to say this blessing is at the time of death itself. In practice, it is traditionally said before performing the kri’ah (the rending of the garment for an immediate family member or a spouse). Note that there is no blessing ever said for tearing a garment since blessings are never said for acts of destruction. Some authorities hold that the kri’ah should be done in public—which is when the feelings of grief are strongest and most visceral. The blessing should be said with God’s Name, i.e., Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam Dyyan HaEmet.
The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Akiba, “A person should always accustom himself to saying, “Whatever the All-Merciful does, is for the ultimate good.” To illustrate the truth of this principle, the Talmud tells an anecdote about Rabbi Akiba. Once he arrived at a village and looked for a local hotel. To his dismay, there were no vacancies to be found. So, Rabbi Akiba decided to camp out in a quiet field; he brought with him a rooster, an ass, and a lamp for the evening. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew out the lamp! Then a weasel suddenly attacked and ate the rooster. A lion appeared and ate the ass! In every instance, Rabbi Akiba affirmed, “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for the good!” Later next day, Rabbi Akiba discovered that some robbers attacked and kidnapped several of the townspeople!
As mentioned above, in Jewish tradition, upon hearing about the death of a loved one, it is customary to say this blessing. Obviously, it is not easy to acknowledge God in a time of death; in fact, it’s probably much more natural to feel resentment toward God for taking a loved one away–especially when the person who just died happens to be a young child or adult. Nevertheless, the blessing teaches us on some psychological level to acknowledge that the binary opposites of Creation, e.g., light and darkness, good and evil, suffering and prosperity—all serve a higher purpose and contribute toward the overall welfare of the world. Were it not for death, the world could not contain or sustain all of the world’s inhabitants; there would be food shortages, war, and countless other social evils. Death is what we share with all that has ever lived.
When consoling someone, it is important to acknowledge their pain and loss. Mouthing platitudes about “God is just,” or telling someone, “I know how you feel,” are inappropriate ways to express condolence. The simple truth is, you don’t know what the mourner is experiencing. One might ask, “How appropriate is it to tell the mourner to say something he or she might not be willing to acknowledge?” Perhaps it is best to follow the sensible advice of R. Simeon b. Eleazar who says, “Do not try to comfort our fellow when the corpse of his beloved is lying before him . . .” Ecclesiastes also offers some practical advice as well: “A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak” (Eccl. 3:7). In the beginning of the Jobian story, Job’s friends “offered sympathy and comfort” (Job 2:11). They expressed no verbal criticism of him. Sometimes we have to simply "let it be."
When we lose someone to an illness, it is worth remembering that it is better to live a good life than to live a long and meaningless life. Death is sometimes preferable to a life of pain and incessant suffering. From this perspective, death is a release. Although none of us know the amount of time we have, we must make the most of the precious gift of time that God has allotted us. The blessing teaches us to be grateful for the gift we were entrusted with, but no gift of life can last forever. Sooner or later, we will lose what we have loved until we meet again with our loved one in the world of Eternity.
When one receives the unwelcome news of a death in the family, our tradition prescribes the blessing, Blessed are You, Ruler of the Universe, who is the true judge. I suspect that most mourners do not focus on the meaning of these words. They stand before a rabbi, place the black ribbon over their heart, and, at his direction, tear the ribbon and recite the words. The meaning is found in the act more than the words.
What does that act represent? Many commentators suggest that this represents a statement of total acceptance. Despite the depth of our loss and the pain of our broken heart, we accept that God knows something of the rhythm of the cosmos that we cannot know.
I disagree. I believe that the act carries a different meaning, one that I believe is more compassionate.
Remember the setting. The mourner is tearing the clothing (or a ribbon) that covers the heart. The Talmud explains that one tears their clothing in order to expose the heart. With one's heart exposed before God and community, the words, Blessed be the True Judge, are recited. Rabbi Joel Wolowelsky (The Mind of the Mourner, OUPress, 2010) explains that the keriyah, the tearing of the clothing, may allow “emotions that may border on frightening rage to be expressed as controlled, healthy anger. It both permits the bereaved to express these feelings and teaches that it is neither uncommon nor uniquely wicked to have them.” (pg. 13) In practice, the blessing is linked with this cathartic act.
The blessing first appears in Mishnah Berachot, ch 9:2, where is is prescribed for any report of bad tidings. It is found among a list of blessings, including those for wonders of nature, such as earthquakes, lightnings, mountains and seas, deserts and more, all evidence of God's Presence and power. Note that the list does not qualify these acts of nature as good or bad – tornados and earthquakes are not good, but they do testify to the power in God's creation. I read our blessing, Blessed be the True Judge, in the same way. In the presence of death, filled with a range of emotions (including anger), I cannot understand anything more than my loss at the hand of some power beyond my control. I can, if I must, acknowledge the power, even if I cannot endorse it at that moment. Even in my grief, I can note God's Presence.
I do not believe we recite this blessing as a theological affirmation. Rather, at this dark hour when we feel the loss deep within our being, this blessing asserts God's Presence alongside the mourner. We are not abandoned, though we feel very much alone. We are not without consolation, though it is hard to hear any words. God stands with us as we face the mystery of death.
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