A shivah is not the time for a tea party

We go through the do’s and don’ts of mourning etiquette.

By Rabbi Barry Marcus, July 22, 2010
Rogue comforter: Derek Jacobi (right) as Sidney Turtlebaum, the eponymous anti-hero of the award-winning film about a conman who gatecrashes shivahs

Rogue comforter: Derek Jacobi (right) as Sidney Turtlebaum, the eponymous anti-hero of the award-winning film about a conman who gatecrashes shivahs

A colleague once told me about a call he received from a congregant informing him of the death of a family member. Before the rabbi could even offer his condolences, he was asked if he could recommend a good caterer for the one-night shivah.

All communal rabbis face a daily challenge in dealing with the lifecycle events in their communities, whether births, bar/batmitzvahs, weddings or sadly, bereavements. All these events are charged with various levels of emotion which demand sensitive handling.

Despite different levels of knowledge, understanding or observance, I believe most people are keen to do that which is right and correct when it comes to dealing with the death of a loved one.

Halachah (Jewish law) talks about the ikar – the fundamental essence of the law or custom, and the tafel – the secondary or less important.

Communities often cultivate their own customs: some are not in keeping with our traditional beliefs and practices and some in our Anglo Jewish community often latch on to the less important practices at the expense of more important ones.

The socialising that accompanies the prayers is totally inappropriate

The most important issue in bereavement is the dignity of the deceased and that entails doing absolutely everything to bring a person to burial as soon as possible. All too often this fundamental principle is overlooked: it has been my colleagues' experience that many a funeral is unjustifiably postponed for the wrong reasons.

It is considered an indignity initially to leave a body unattended and likewise to allow it to languish in a mortuary for a number of days, for example in order to enable a distant relative or friend to be present at the funeral. This is why in Jerusalem for instance, funerals take place even at night.

It is equally important to give respect to the deceased by sitting shivah - which means "seven", for a week - and saying Kaddish for the eleven-month period. Here too, all too often, a variety of inappropriate practices are to be found, some of which were highlighted in Steven Berkoff's recent comic play, "Sit and Shiver".

The purpose of having a minyan at a mourner's home, is first and foremost because the mourner is meant to stay indoors for the first seven days of the mourning period. In order to help mourners fulfil this obligation, a minyan is then made at their house, which thereby saves them going to shul.

But in many parts of our community, the popular perception is that shivah means anything but seven, and usually means "eight" ie, that we have prayers at eight o'clock and only at eight o'clock, as if this "prayer frequency" is only available at that time throughout the year.

One needs to make a distinction between making a minyan for the mourner and the obligation to comfort a mourner. One can offer comfort to a mourner at any time of the day during the shivah period and beyond. In fact, holding prayers at eight o'clock in winter is counterproductive as only the ma'ariv service can be recited, which means that any mourner who desires to fulfil his obligation in terms of shivah and Kaddish, has to leave his home and go to shul to pray minchah and say Kaddish. The correct practice is to have a minyan in the mourner's home, morning, afternoon and evening throughout the week of shivah.

The slavish devotion to eight o'clock prayers, which invariably turns into a tea party, is again not in keeping with Jewish practice. The inevitable socialising that accompanies the prayers is totally inappropriate and insensitive to mourners, as the purpose of one's presence at the house of mourning is to console the mourner and not an opportunity to indulge in small talk and petty gossip. According to Jewish practice, if we go to a house of mourning, we are meant simply to sit down in their presence and wait for them (if they so desire) to speak to us first. If we were all to follow this practice, many an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation would be avoided.

Comments I have heard directed at a mourner such as "Oh well, don't worry - they're better off where they are now" are certainly out of place. Initially remaining silent is part of Judaism's sensitivity to the mourner, as in most cases a mourner does not desire to indulge in any, and certainly not idle, talk. This is also one of the reasons a mourner, on returning from the cemetery, eats an egg which has no "mouth", reflecting their traumatic state. We are meant only on leaving to console the mourner with the traditional words, "May the Almighty comfort and console you amongst the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem".

The pressure that mourners often feel to provide food is also out of step with correct Jewish practice. All the mourner's needs should be taken care of, not only in offering them tea and coffee, but by the provision of all meals during the seven day period, and not the other way round.

The practice of sitting shivah for seven days is designed to help the mourners through a difficult period. I find it curious that many a psychologist has marvelled and expressed admiration for our age-old practices, for they have recognised how effective the process is in dealing with bereavement, yet we often turn our backs and lose an opportunity to find genuine comfort and consolation.

As someone who ran a crisis centre for many years, I can testify to many a mourner who was plagued and scarred as a consequence of not going through the process of mourning.

In dealing with death and bereavement, we would all do well to be mindful of the statement in the Gemara, (tractate Berachot) that "kindness is the highest form of wisdom".

Barry Marcus is rabbi of Central United Synagogue

Last updated: 11:22am, July 22 2010