I grew up in a traditional United Synagogue family (if there is such a thing now — there was then), and remember vividly that my late father was a good person, involved with his shul and a doer in every sense of the word. He was always at funerals, shivahs and making up a minyan. I seem to have become him in some ways, although as a woman I cannot do all these mitzvot. In the last few years I have sat shiva for my husband and sister and feel that his generation somehow behaved more appropriately than I have found today.
Let me explain what I mean. Of course it is appreciated that visitors come to pay their respects, but I have sat with my family and watched as my (or their) visitors have long conversations with their own friends, in front of us, without consideration. I have also watched as the noise, the greeting, the reminiscences (gossip, catching up) shared are generally totally inappropriate.
Mourners are generally not comforted by hearing lengthy details about others — friends or unknown — most especially about their illnesses, subsequent death and so on. I have sat both on my low seat, or at other people’s shivahs listening to people on their mobile phones, both answering and making calls, and recall with some anger a recent occasion when one visitor had three calls, made no apology to the mourners but to the caller and continued speaking in the first line of seating. I was so incensed that I, a visitor, left the room.
Whilst sadly sitting shivah for my sister, we had a large amount of visitors from morning to night and I became so aware of those who have no idea what to say. For these people, I have sympathy and understanding. It is the others I found difficult.
Having just been bereaved, I did not want to spend an hour hearing about plans to go to Glyndebourne and the price of tickets. Nor did I need to be told about the horrors of parking nearby which meant that these visitors could not come into the shivah house, and I certainly did not feel obliged to offer lunch or supper to those visitors who arrived at 10am and left at 10pm, although of course we did.
There was disappointment from some — and I could hear them asking — that refreshments were not being served. I find it inexplicable that our caterers now have a new sideline in post-funeral and shivah catering.
I think we all need to look at ourselves and see how we behave on such occasions. The bereaved are not there to entertain their visitors, and people who are not close to the family are most appreciated for a short time at an appropriate time of the day (not mealtimes or at 11pm when the mourners are desperately tired and need to sleep.
Returning to my wonderful late father, I now can do a special trip through Bushey cemetery with a story about nearly everyone, as I walk to my parents’ graves. I have such poignant and also happy memories of so many who have passed through my 70 year life to date.
And with the sincerity with which I have written this I hope that sharing my shivah experiences will help visitors behave in a more appropriate manner.
How and why
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester
It's lovely when non-Jewish friends show respect for our religious traditions, so my aunt was touched when a gentile colleague visited her as she sat shivah. He made polite conversation, but then astonished everyone when he stepped into the kitchen, looked at the food laid out on the table, picked up a cake, tucked it under his arm and left. The next day, when a mutual friend discreetly asked him about this incident, he explained, 'I'm not familiar with Jewish traditions, but a friend taught me that it's customary to take food. I didn't want to offend anyone, so I took a fruit cake. It was delicious.'
His misunderstanding is understandable. Why would a gentile intuit that that his friend was trying to explain the practice of bringing food to shivah houses to help feed the bereaved with family during their week of mourning?
It's not just non-Jews who struggle to understand the rules. Many Jews are also unsure about the etiquette of visiting a shivah house and they're nervous about what to say to friends who have been devastated by bereavement. Mourners understand that their visitors cannot eradicate their grief; they don't expect us to. But, shivah is a carefully choreographed ritual which helps us to overcome those first awkward moments and cushion the mourners and their loved ones through their first days of grief.
Shivah etiquette is about sensitivity, so timing is important. It's not fair to show up late at night, at mealtimes or when the family is resting.
My favourite rule states that visitors don't open conversation with the mourners, instead we give them their space and wait for them to speak to us. If they are absorbed in their grief and they want to remain silent, we should respect that. If it means that we just sit with them quietly, so be it.
When we do speak, we should be thoughtful. Asking the mourners for intimate details of the deceased's final moments or sharing your own troubles is not appropriate. Better to share your finest memories of the deceased, and if that includes amusing anecdotes, that's fine too. Looking at photographs of the deceased is a great way to evoke warm memories.
Inevitably, at shivahs we're reunited with old friends and family and we're excited by the chance to renew ties. Judaism wants us to share that familial atmosphere that supports us through days of loss and vulnerability. Still, a shivah house is not the place for loud, raucous conversations, nor for chatting on your mobile phone. It can be hard to strike the right balance, but we should keep in mind the tension between marking the loss of those no longer with us and rebuilding family ties.
And with all those family members spending the week of mourning together, if you can help out by preparing food to take to the shivah; it's appreciated.
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi.
For more about the United Synagogue and shiva. click here
Show You Care
When it comes to shivahs, I live by the advice a wise man once told me. “If in doubt,” he said, “go”. And you know what? He was absolutely right.
Shivahs aren’t fun. But they’re not meant to be. What they can be is a comfort for the grieving family, and the way you can support that is by turning up.
It may not seem that important. Sometimes there are so many people at a shivah, you think you won’t be noticed. You’re wrong. What will be noticed is your absence.
Because absence means two things to a family trying to cope with a loved one’s loss. It means a) that you don’t care that much about your friendship with them and b) that you don’t (or didn’t) value their parent/sibling/husband/wife/child enough to go and pray for an hour one evening.
You may disagree. Or you may think such inferences weren’t your intention. But I am speaking from my own, heartfelt, experience.
When my mum died, it was horrendous, the worst time of my life. But I found great comfort in Judaism’s humane way of coping – the immediate funeral, the shiva, the saying of Kaddish. And I realised something else – that I would forever value and appreciate those people who came to the funeral and the shivah.
One friend of mine came to the shivah daily and I will never forget that. I am also so touched by the many who came to the funeral, while others, whom I would not have expected to come, did give up one evening of their lives, and shared their condolences. The problem is the others – some of whom I had known for years and I thought were friends – who did not come at all, did not write, or email, or even Facebook message. In fact, some have still not got in touch.
This did affect me. It made me sad that these so-called “friends” didn’t seem to care. And, although my mum would not have wanted me to feel like this, it made me judge them.
So, I would say that if you can, do go to a shivah. Do pray and say you’re sorry to those grieving. And if you can’t go, drop the bereaved a line to say you’re thinking of them. It doesn’t take long, but it means so much.