Jewish Ancestor Veneration: How I Care For My Dead In a Kosher-Ish Way

Jewish Ancestor Veneration: How I Care For My Dead In a Kosher-Ish Way

Bunny Morgan-Brown

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Witchiness and Jewishness go hand-in-hand, and as I have said many, many times over the years, a lot of what people describe as "vaguely pagan" or "witchy" in its aesthetic, is likely to be Jewish. That being said: a lot of young(er) Jews – Jews in general – don't necessarily realize that there is a substantial ground of Earth-based, magical beauty wrapped into the spiritual culture of Jews world over.

As I have slowly but (un)surely creeped into the limelight with my own complex Jewitch identity, folks have continued to ask me about Jewish magical things! I, admittedly, feel very much out of my depth on that front, so I tend to wave a hand and say something about the beautiful work of Dori Midnight.

But, there IS one thing I feel less embarrassed to share 🫣 and that's the fact that I have a separate ritual practice for honoring my Jewish ancestors in an attempt to keep it more kosher-than-not.

But Is It Kosher?

Jewish witches & adjacent spiritual seekers – when de-assimilating in a mystical way – have to navigate introducing creative, grounded practice while also remaining rooted in tradition. Part of that also includes tap dancing that line of avoda zara, which is translated into English most commonly as 'idolatry', or as I personally observe and understand it, 'putting gods and egregores before Life/Creation.' [1]

On a small side tangent, I do, in fact, believe in gods with the little g and I engage with them regularly enough. They are good friends, they are coworkers, even friendly companions of spirit. But, in alignment with the practices of my African ancestors, I see these beingnesses as fellow emanations and children of Creation...just with different strengths and skills. There is only one Source, it is transcendent as well as immanent, it is genderless and all gender, it is impersonal and personal, it is non-dual. I call them Bondye, HaShem, Shekhinah, Nature, Creation, Gd, Nzambi, Gxddess, Gxddexx. Everything is a reflection of HaShem and our Interbeingness within Creation. Even the demons are Gd's children, imo, just like...ill-behaved ones (sometimes, depend on the demon and the day). We're all infinite dandelion seeds on the winds of Creation. As the late, great, and of blessed memory, Octavia Estelle Butler once wrote, "Gd is Change."

If this is copacetic to your way of engaging your Jewishness: read on!

Revitalizing The Tradition With Fresh Hands

Davening (prayer) with clear kavanah (sacred focus/intention) is a fundamental aspect of Jewish ritual life, as sound is a key part of engagement within our tradition. While I could use a more West African-oriented approach, I like to create distinctly Jewish space and ritual when it's available and makes sense. As a result, I have chosen to build my Ancestor Veneration practice from traditional Jewish liturgical tools, but by approaching them in a true-to-form-but-fresh way, because...Jewish magic, that's why.

For reference, I am sourcing my prayers & translations from the Siddur HaKohanot, the prayerbook organized by the now retired Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. I also opt to use predominantly using feminine-language versions of liturgy, too.

Step-By-Step: How I Honor My Jewish Dead

Step 1 – I start by performing ritual handwashing and covering my head.

Ritual purification and cleanliness are supposed to be a part of our day as Jews. We are intended to start our day by ritually cleaning our hands, also known as netilyat yadayim, as we pray and engage with Divinity primarily through our hands and our actions. While the traditional tools used for this process are a double-handed cup and sometimes a bowl, you are free to use whatever is meaningful for you, as long as the cup and/or bowl are only used for handwashing purposes. If you are unfamiliar with this practice, Ritualwell – a repository for spiritual practice curated by the Reconstructionist movement – has a lovely walkthrough that you can read here.

I utilize this practice not only to ensure I present offerings to my ancestors with clean hands, but also as a reminder that all magical and spiritual gestures I do must be undertaken from a state of clarity and peacefulness, so that I do not dirty my hands with ill actions. I also cover my head with a light-colored, usually white, kerchief, headscarf, or a mantilla (a triangle-shaped piece of lace used to cover the head and hair of women in very 'traditional' Catholic congregations) because I am married, and because head coverings are an integral part to honoring my Blackness, too.

Step 2 - I recite a modified version of the Tikkun HaKlali

I developed a particular interest in the work and teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (affiliate), a Hasidic tzadik and teacher, because he might be a many-times-great uncle of mine. Who knows. But that's not important.

The Tikkun HaKlali is a minhagim (custom) that is specific to Breslover Hasidim, and a lot of their strict interpretations of halacha therein, but the practice itself is meant to be a form of teshuvah (repentance; amends making) for *all* of the sins one may have recently ran through like a dingus because none of us is perfect, Gd only asks that we try our best. So the Great Remedy, as it's colloquially called, involves the recitation of 10 tehillim (psalms), in a specific order: 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150. I recommend sourcing your translation from Sefaria.

I usually do that and make it a point to open and close with asking Gd to allow the spirits of my ancestors to visit me if they so desire. I also affirm that I am operating with pure intention, doing this ritual to maintain the connectedness of our collective soul as Jewish family, and to ask Gd to ensure I am of pure heart and mind so I can hear them clearly and ask them to pray for me and intercede on my behalf if it does not upset the balance of Creation.

Step 3 - I recite the first two blessings of the Amidah/Shemoneh Esreh

The Amidah (lit. 'standing') is, alongside the Sh'ma - the profession & affirmation of the covenant - part of the central liturgy of Jewish life. It is customarily recited three times a day, and consists of 19 blessings that affirm the majesty of the Divine. It is, as the name implies, recited while standing.

Modelling after traditional custom, I take three steps backwards and then forwards towards my altar where I am honoring my Ancestors. This is very important - I do holding the intention of INVITATION, *not* summoning. They are INVITED, they are not SUMMONED, which is how I skirt the prohibition against necromancy: ain't nobody 1-900-capture-a-ghost up in this bish. I always ask Gd for permission to speak with and to invite forth the dead when I work, esp. when Jewish ancestors are involved. 'Tis good manners.

As is also traditionally customary when one recites the Amidah, I do bow at the appropriate spots, but you can do what you want/leave this out if you don't have a foggy fuck of a clue what I'm talking about. I follow the Sephardi minhagim of bowing with the body but not the knees – you can leave this out, I literally do not care, it is my preference. I recite the first blessing which is called the Avot, literally, ancestors, and after doing that, I invite my ancestors to join me again in prayer and connection as a reflection of our collective soul.

I repeat the process of taking three steps backwards and forwards to symbolize welcoming my ancestors to my sacred space, before reciting the second blessing, Gevurah ('might'), which affirms Creation's sole authority in matters of Life and Death ("Your lovingkindness sustains the living, your great mercies give life to the dead.”) This is mostly to affirm that my ancestors are only in my presence because Creation permits it.

Step 4 - I present and give them their offerings

I keep my offerings to my Jewish ancestors to the items that would be present during a Tu B'Shevat (the new year/birthday of all trees; it is one of my favourite holidays!) seder, or that have specific blessings for them within Jewish liturgical tradition. I recite the corresponding blessing over the item(s) I present, and I ask that my ancestors come and go in peace after they take their fill, and to not cause any mischief while they're about. It is usually here that I will talk to them at length and will sometimes do divination with my Alef Bet just to catch a vibe on their opinions about things.

I will let the offerings be for a minimum of 36 minutes or up to 3 hours (180 minutes; 18 being a reference to chai, life) and then dispose of them in the trash, although I would prefer to compost them.

Annnnnnnnnnnnd...that's it! That's how I feed my Jewish ancestors, go forth fellow spawn of Yisrael and do with that what you will 😅

[1] My interpretation of idolatry is reflective of the sentiment of pikuach nefesh (no commandment comes before preservation of life; so therefore by extension, nothing is more important than ensuring all beings are treated with inherent dignity) and to not mistake gods, egregores (*cough* capitalism, money, colonialism, nationalism *loud violent cough*), other people, or your ego as being anything other than part of the Collective Beingness that is the Divine. To quote Klee Benally, may he rest in peace and power, "An Anarchist would pronounce, 'There is no authority above yourself.' An Indigenous Anarchist would offer, 'There is no authority but nature."

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