Is it ok to sit less than a full week’s shivah?

August 7, 2014

Question: When my mother died, I wanted to sit shivah for the full seven days, but my sister only one. In the end, we agreed to have prayers for three nights. My sister also wanted to serve tea for visitors afterwards. I wasn’t keen but I conceded. Was I right to compromise?(Question)

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Sitting shivah is a mark of respect for your deceased mother. It symbolises that, at least for a week, life for her children cannot continue as normal. The prayers conducted each day and the Kaddish recited are positive ways in which to honour as much as to accrue merit to the deceased.

Shivah also has important therapeutic value for those who have just suffered a bereavement. It allows time for the loss to sink in and for the mourner to go through the various stages of grief within a supportive framework of tradition, family and close friends.

Unfortunately, many Jews do not see it this way. They perceive shivah as an inconvenience that needs to be curtailed as much as possible so as not to intrude on one's otherwise busy and full life.

This is especially sad when one considers how much selfless devotion a parent puts into raising and nurturing a child. Is taking out a week from one's life to honour the parent who gave you life really too much to expect?

Besides sitting a full week is a misnomer. The operative halachic principle here is that a fraction of a day is considered a full day. In practical terms this means that if, say, the funeral is on a Wednesday, Wednesday night is already considered the second day, meaning that the Wednesday and Thursday night are effectively days two and three. Friday and often Saturday night (days four and five ) are generally not marked by services at home, which leaves Sunday night (day six) and Monday night (day seven), so Tuesday morning shivah is over. So, in essence, a full week of shivah involves four nights of prayer services at one's home. Is this really excessive?

I don't think you should have compromised since the disagreement was not of a zero-sum nature. It did not have to be a question of one night or a full shivah, it could have been both. You could have sat shivah for the full week while your sister could have chosen to attend just the first night.

As far as serving refreshments, it is a subversion of the traditional practice of the visitors bringing food for the mourners. The last thing mourners need to worry about is entertaining their visitors by serving tea.

It's the visitors who should be nourishing and supporting those who are grieving over their loss.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

The heart of this issue is not a numbers game - seven, three or one - but the question of what is a shivah for?

Ultimately, a funeral is for the deceased and a shivah is for the relatives. At the funeral we pay our respects to the person who has died; at the shivah we try to offer comfort for those who have survived.

Thus the purpose of a shivah is to be helpful, by visiting the relatives and letting them know we care; by giving the warmth of our physical presence even if we do not know what to say; by providing company and food; by letting them tell the story of the death over and over again so that, cathartically, they come to terms with it themselves.

A shivah is also the initial stage in a careful structure of grief, taking the mourners from the intensity of the first seven days to the lesser period of the first month (sheloshim), through the first year, and then the annual yahrzeit, gradually re-immersing them in the stream of everyday life.

At its best, therefore, the shivah can be enormously valuable. However, there may be situations where it does not work so well, be it because of a person's lifestyle or because the area where they live lacks any Jewish community, in which case, although the word means "seven", you can keep the concept but observe a fewer number of days. There is no objective right or wrong; what counts is what helps the mourner.

In your case, it was sensible to consider the different preferences of both you and your sister and reach a compromise. Another option might have been that she held one night at her house and then the remainder were at your house. The only wrong result would have been to have fallen out over it.

As for tea, it is certainly appropriate to have refreshments, which act both as a thank you to guests and to keep people present for longer, while offering tea is probably better than having spirits, which can lead to a less decorous atmosphere.

Some hold that mourners should do absolutely nothing and just be served by others, which is fine if it feels right, but not if it leads to a sense of frustration. A successful shivah is one that brings families closer to each other and that should be your key criterion.

Last updated: 1:33pm, September 3 2014