None of us want to be in the situation of mourning a loved one, but it happens to all of us at some point in our lives. Here is a brief synopsis of how Jews observe a mourning period after the death of a close relative.
What does a Shiva mean mean?
In the wake of the death of a close family member, Jews traditionally observe a mourning period known as a “Shiva”.
“Shiva” means “seven”, corresponding to the number of days after the funeral for which this official period usually lasts.
There are eight relationships for which a Shiva is normally sat; a father or mother, husband or wife, sister or brother, and son or daughter. In Hebrew a mourner is known as an “Avel”, and the period of mourning is called “Avelus”.
Days on which official mourning does not take place include Shabbat, or during festival periods such as Pesach, Shavuot, Succot and Rosh Hashana. In fact, if the first day of any of the above festival periods falls during a Shiva, the Shiva ends at that point and does not resume afterwards. Other days on which the laws of shiva are not observed include days of celebration such as Purim and the day after Purim (Shushan Purim). Time is not added on at the end of the period to make up for “lost” Shiva days.
Customs of the Mourning House
The verb “to sit” is often used in conjunction with “Shiva” because one of the key parts of the Shiva process is sitting – on a low chair, much closer to the ground than usual, in order to signify the status of a mourner. At the funeral, an item of clothing worn by the mourner will have been torn, in what is known in Hebrew as “keriah”. The torn garment is usually worn throughout the subsequent seven days, the outer badge of the mourner.
A yahrzeit memorial candle is usually lit in a house where someone is sitting Shiva, and a candle of this type is kept burning throughout the Shiva period (in some households, a light is kept burning for thirty days after the death of a close relative.
Yahrzeit is Yiddish for “year’s time.” Traditionally, a yahrzeit candle is also lit every year on the anniversary of the death of a close relative.
Clothes and bodily functions
Mourners do not have haircuts during this period, and men are not permitted to shave. Jewellery should not be put on, and leather shoes, seen as comfortable footwear, should not be worn – traditionally, the mirrors in the house are often covered over as well. Sex is forbidden to those observing the mourning period, and baths or showers should ideally not be taken, although mourners are permitted to use cold water to clean the different parts of their bodies.
Torah study is also prohibited to mourners; the only things which are permitted to be studied are the in-depth laws of the mourning period, as well as the books of Lamentations and Job.
Interactions with a mourner
In most places, it is customary for members of the community to make food for the mourner during the Shiva period. In some communities, food is also provided at a Shiva house for those who come to console the mourner, although friends or relatives of the mourner will offer food, rather than the mourner themselves.
It is considered a good deed to come and console an Avel, even if one did not know their deceased relative. When visiting a Shiva house, it is customary to wait for the Avel to speak first before engaging in a conversation. Anything can be discussed, although if the visitor knew the deceased, they will usually talk about their personal experiences vis-à-vis the individual.
Upon taking one’s leave of someone in mourning, Ashkenazi Jews recite the following blessing – “HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch sha'ar aveylei Tziyon viYerushalayim”, which translates as “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." Sephardi Jews will often say “min haShamayim tenuchamu”, meaning “May Heaven comfort you.”
The mourner should respond to the ritual words with an "Amen" or a nod of acknowledgement.
Many believe that the mourner should not thank those who bless them with the words of consolation or who wish them "a long life". Others have no problem with a mourner thanking those who have come to visit them.
The important thing to remember is that mourners may be in trauma, and every mourner will react differently. Although it is unusual to receive a "thank you" in response to the words of consolation, there is nothing wrong with doing so, especially if the mourner feels gratitude for someone's visit.
Prayer during the Shiva period
Since mourners will often say Kaddish – the mourners prayer – for their departed relatives, in the Orthodox community efforts will often be made to gather a minyan – a quorum of ten men – to hold daily prayer services at the mourning house, if at least one of those in mourning is a male of age thirteen or older. The prayer service will usually be led by one of those male mourners, who, along with other male relatives, will recite the Kaddish prayer at various intervals. On a Monday and Thursday, when the Torah portion is usually read out in the synagogue, efforts will be made to ensure that a Torah scroll is brought to the Shiva house so that the portion can be read there. Customs may differ slightly in this regard among Reform communities, where both men and women may gather to perform a service.
After the Shiva
At the end of the shiva period, the mourners officially “get up” from sitting Shiva. In Orthodox circles, they will now enter into the less extreme 30-day period following the death of a family member, known as the “Shloshim” – meaning 30 in Hebrew.
There is no suggestion that the mourning for the deceased is now “over”. However, it is to be hoped that the Shiva period has been cathartic for the mourner, who will hopefully have had the opportunity to discuss the life of the deceased and remember all the positive aspects of that person’s life – and maybe even find out some things about their loved one which they had not previously known.