"Shiva," referring to the seven-day mourning period which begins immediately after the funeral, is based on the Hebrew word for seven — (shiv'a). Seven is a mystical number in most religious traditions. In the biblical account of creation, the world was created in seven days and in a sense begins again every seven days. Every human death diminishes the world by the same measure. The Jewish custom of mourning for seven days is based on the verse in Genesis where Joseph mourns his father Jacob for a week.[1]

The phrase "sitting shiv'a" probably derives from the custom of sitting low to the ground during the intense period of mourning after the funeral. Mourners do not sit still for seven days; they move around the house, stand, sit at the table to eat, lie down to sleep. And yet, the image of sitting during shiv'a — of motionlessness — is an apt metaphor for what happens over the course of this week. During shiv'a, mourners sit with their grief, remembering, weeping, dreaming, telling stories, sharing memories.

During the week, mourners are exempt from all the requirements of daily life and restricted from its pleasures, too. The bereaved do not work or play, call the office or wash dishes, watch TV or go to the gym. Shiv'a is for one thing only, and that is exploring the emotional catalog of regret, relief, guilt, anger, shame, self-pity, remorse.

Jewish law requires that the immediate family spend this week in formal mourning. This includes adult children, parents, siblings, and spouses only. However, other relatives and friends sometimes join for some or all of its observance. Though seven days may sound like a long time to "sit," in practice the seven are more like five because fractions of days are considered full days. Thus, the day of the funeral is counted as the first day of shiv'a, even if the burial occurred in the afternoon. Likewise, shiv'a ends on the morning of the seventh day — traditionally, right after shaharit, the morning prayer service.

A Funeral
Solomon Borisovich Yudovin (1892-1954)
Vitebsk Regional Museum
Click to view enlarged

Shiv'a is traditionally observed either in the home of the deceased or in the home of a principal mourner. If possible, mourners spend the whole week in the shiv'a house together, sleeping under the same roof. Where this is not practical, mourners share their waking hours.

The seven days of shiv'a transform how mourners pass time, and change the look and use of space.

• After returning home from the funeral, mourners remove their shoes and refrain from wearing leather shoes — an ancient sign of luxury — while in the shiv'a house. Wearing cloth slippers, socks, or going barefoot is a sign of being humbled by loss.

• A basin of water and a towel may be left outside the door for people to wash their hands, a ritual gesture that separates the mitzvah of honoring the dead from the mitzvah of comforting the bereaved.

• It is customary to light a large shiv'a candle, also called a ner daluk — burning light — which burns for seven days and nights. Candles are universal symbols of the divine spark that inhabits the body. In the words of the Bible, "The soul is the lamp of God."[2]

The candle is placed in a prominent spot and lit without saying a blessing. The immediate family might gather and designate someone to light the flame; this honor can go to a child, close friend, or other "unofficial" mourner. The funeral home provides a long-burning candle or a special electric light that stays lit throughout shiv'a.

• In the Shulkhan Aruch, a sixteenth-century guide to Jewish law, Rabbi Joseph Karo wrote, "The first meal eaten by the mourner after the funeral is called seudat havra'ah (the meal of recuperation or consolation). At this meal, the mourner is forbidden to eat of his own food, and it is a mizvah for friends and neighbors to bring him food. The custom is to include round cakes or eggs in the meal of recuperation."[3]

Serving a meal to mourners upon their return from the cemetery is a tangible act of condolence; although the bereaved tend to be uninterested in eating, friends provide nourishment to signal that life must go on. It is customary for people who attend the funeral and burial to share this meal with the bereaved. Rabbi Karo's suggested menu of round foods recalls the cyclical nature of life, thus lentil dishes are traditional. Bread, the most elemental of foods, is always served. The meal is usually non-meat, or milchig (dairy).

• Sitting low to the ground — on the floor, on cushions, or special benches provided by the funeral home — is an outward sign of being struck down by grief (visitors sit on regular chairs and couches.)

• The practice of covering the mirrors began centuries ago and was based on a belief that spirits were attracted to mirrors. Some people thought that the soul could be trapped in the reflection, or that the dead person's spirit lingered on earth for a time and might reach out from"the other side." The rabbis reinterpreted the folk custom, declaring that mirrors should be covered to discourage vanity and encourage inner reflection. Regardless of its symbolism, covering mirrors is a striking visual cue, a token of the disruption and grief felt by everyone who enters the house.

• Doors are left unlocked so that visitors can enter without knocking or ringing the doorbell, which would distract the mourners from their grief and cause them to act as hosts.

• Jewish law is very specific about the prohibitions given to mourners. The bereaved do not cook, or run errands, or attend school. They do not wear makeup or shave. Mourners abstain from pleasures of all kinds: sensual, sexual, or even intellectual. Mourners are not supposed to read the Torah, which is considered one of life's great joys.

Distractions are not permitted: so no television, card-playing, shopping, or computer games.[4] This kind of self-denial is usually explained as an aide to grieving. However, there may well be a penitential aspect to some of the prohibitions and customs. Regardless of how much the deceased was loved and how complete the reconciliation at the time of death, mourners may be feeling anger, relief or regret, as well as sadness; for these, the relatively modest privations of shiv'a make a kind of restitution.

Shiv'a is a protected island in time for the bereaved, seven days set aside for reminiscence and condolence. At its core, shiv'a is the way that Jewish mourners begin to tell time after a loved one has died.

[1] Genesis 50:10 [back]
[2] Proverbs 20:27 [back]
[3] Yoreh Deah 378:1 [back]
[4] The list of don'ts is extensive and much debated. See Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (Jonathan David Publishers, 1969), pp. 111-120. [back]
From: Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead and Mourn as a Jew, by Anita Diamant (Schocken Books, NY, 1998).

SEVEN Table of Contents



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