Ever since the Torah recorded Joseph’s seven days of mourning for his father Jacob, the Jewish People have taken a set amount of time to recoil and regroup from profound loss. The seven-day period of mourning, the Shiva, literally meaning “seven,” gives the mourner a structured setting to talk out grief, to be alone with sorrow, and to confront pain. Shiva allows mourners to explore the texture of the rupture that death has ripped through their lives. All normal activities can be stopped in a traditional Shiva observance, and the sole obligation of the mourner is to mourn – in various forms and through various means.
How Long Is Shiva?
A death in the family stretches and slows and blurs time. The seven days of Shiva are counted differently than seven calendar days. Throughout Shiva, partial days count as whole days. The day of the funeral counts as one day, even if it ended moments before sunset. The morning of the seventh day completes Shiva.
In pressing circumstances, an abbreviated three days of Shiva suffice. Day one would be the funeral. Day two would be a full day of mourning. The next morning would count as day three. Shiva traditions, such the ones that require a mourner to take off from work, could be suspended at this point. But just because one part of Shiva isn’t being kept, it doesn’t mean all other Shiva customs must be ended.
Where to Sit Shiva? Shiva is sat in the home of the deceased or in the home of the mourner. Sitting Shiva with siblings may make the make the burden lighter. Then again, it may not. A parent’s home may be far from the friends who wish to visit. Splitting the Shiva by spending the first days at a parent’s home and the last days at home is a common compromise for far-flung families.
Who Sits Shiva?Close Relatives
A small circle of relatives is obligated to sit Shiva. Adults who have lost a parent, sibling, spouse or child are the only one with formal mourning obligations. Friends, lovers and other relatives may take on Shiva observances as well.
According to the letter of halacha, adoptive relatives do not have keep all mourning observances, but keeping some outward signs of mourning is praised.
For A Jew Who Converted Out Shiva is an honor for the dead as much as it is a balm for the bereaved. If a family member has chosen to convert out of the trials of Judaism, it is traditional that the choice also brings with it a denial of the Shiva tribute.
That being said, many Jews choose another religion because they weren’t familiar with the richness of Judaism. Converting out, in these cases, is not the cold act of a self-hating or opportunistic Jew, but a bright, inquisitive Jewish soul lost. A rabbi can be very helpful if such questions should arise.
For Non-Jewish Relatives
Questions about the Jewish way to mourning non-Jews have proliferated as more non-Jews are interwoven into Jewish families. For most in this situation, Shiva obligations turn into options and avenues of mourning.
Honor the memory of a loved one by attending the funeral, wake, and visiting hours. Which signs of mourning a Jew takes on for this loss can be as varied as saying Kaddish and lighting a memorial candles or wearing a mourning ribbon.
Formal Jewish mourning - burial, eulogies and synagogue memorials – are questions with answers as varied as the spectrum of Jewish opinion. Each rabbi will answer according to synagogue custom and personal comfort level.
Personal Dos and Don’ts
Physical comforts, shaving and wearing leather shoes, are suspended during Shiva . Spiritual joys of learning Torah and wearing tefillin (for the first three days of Shiva ) are withheld. Reading Jewish books pertaining to mourning does not fall within this category. Sensual pleasures as great at making love and as mundane as wearing makeup are withheld from the Shiva observer.
Halacha marks the space for personal mourning by offering restrictions but is largely silent on what to do during Shiva. Shiva means different things to different mourners. Sharing memories with old photos and letters may be too much too soon for some, but comforting for others. Beginning a journal will help account for the long days of Shiva with a record of the feelings and memories that rushed past.
Wearing dark clothing is not a must. But it is hard to muster the energy to wear cheerful patterns.
Fussing over personal appearance with haircuts and shaving is thought to diminish grief and is put off until after Shiva.
The decision to observe Shiva is not an all or nothing choice. Keeping several days of Shiva, but leaving the home to shuttle kids to and from school. Covering the large dining room mirror, but not the small ones on the bureau. Shaving after the first three days of Shiva. Or any variations on tradition are part of the choices Jews make in creating a Shiva that speaks to personal needs and feelings.
Sitting Low Shiva observances give the mourner full permission to indulge in the waves of conflicting emotions of grief. None is more symbolic of the whole Shiva observance than sitting on a low chair. The common phrase “sitting Shiva ” refers to this practice. The Talmud mentions the practice of overturning beds and chairs during Shiva. Job, whose suffering is recorded in the Book of Job (pronounced jobe) and is the source for many Jewish mourning customs, sat on the ground to mourn with his friends. When a mourner sits low it gives place for the lowness of spirit.
Specially shortened padded folding chairs are available through funeral homes. Removing couch-cushions or sitting on cushions that have been placed on the floor achieves the same effect.
Not Leaving Home
It takes a while for pain to settle into a steady place. Not leaving the Shiva home keeps a mourner in touch with the loss throughout the day. Going to work, where the routine demands of the day take no notice of a life overturned by loss, was restricted by traditional Jewish law.
The first three days of overwhelming grief left even the poorest mourner too tender for work, but it was not the intent of Shiva to force the mourner into poverty. Mourners facing extenuating financial circumstances were permitted a return to work after the three days (which, according to how Shiva is reckoned, is the afternoon of the second day following the funeral – see “How long is Shiva” for more details).
Seeing the same walls and the same people is not easy, especially when everyone else is grappling with the waves of grief, guilt, anger and despair. A walk, a nap, a brief sprint of journal writing helps keep the peace in the Shiva house.
Holding prayer services in a house of mourning surrounds a mourner with a loving community, with whom to say the Kaddish prayer. Traditional communities place emphasis on honoring the deceased by hallowing a former living space through prayer. The Torah is brought to the home (except in some Sephardic communities). Although the Torah is only read Monday and Thursday, the scroll is left in the home for the Shiva week to spare it disrespectful shuttling to and from the synagogue. In many communities, gathering a separate minyan at a mourner’s home several times a day is not feasible. Even traditional halacha allowed the mourner to attend synagogue services to say Kaddish.
Special sensitivity is shown to the mourner during Shiva week services. Tachnun, the prayer that deals with regret for misdeeds, is not said in a house of mourning to keep the mourner from feeling as though personal sins brought about the death of a loved one.
Mirrors were thought to call spirits from the other side, keeping souls from reaching a peaceful rest. The custom to free the souls to make their heavenly ascent by covering the mirrors was adopted into Jewish mourning rites. Covered mirrors remind a mourner to look to others for sympathy and not to expect to be a tower of self-reliance and strength. Shiva is a time to look inward at the deepest parts that hurt, when superficial answers and the mirror’s reassurance “you look like you’re holding up well” do not help.
Cover a framed mirror by hanging a fitted sheet over the corners. Another way to cloud mirrored surfaces is to smear them with very sudsy water. For small mirrors it may be easier to remove or turn them around.
Thirteenth century Jewish literature speaks of the flame representing a soul surging upward to the heavenly spheres. Other references point to the flickering movements of the flame as exhibiting soul-like vibrancy.
There is a custom to keep a candle lit throughout Shiva. Seven-day candles, much like tall votive candles in glass jars, are available through funeral homes and synagogues. Electric lights that glow to look like a candle are available. These lights can continue to be used on the yahrzeit.
Some Sephardic Jews have a custom to keep a candle lit for the whole year of mourning.
Shabbat and Festivals Duirng Shiva Shabbat and Shiva
Shabbat counts as a day of Shiva even though outward signs of mourning are suspended from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. Mourners sit on normal chairs, uncover the mirrors, leave the house and wear leather shoes outside.
Personal mourning observances aren’t suspended. The mourner is seen as not quite ready to leap back into life. Spiritual joys like learning Torah and being called up for a Torah honor are withheld. Sensual pleasures, as mundane as shaving and sublime as making love, are still put on hold.
Suspending Shiva During Holidays
Jewish holidays pit the community’s obligation to celebrate against an individual need to mourn. The rabbis who set out halacha consistently chose in favor of the rhythm of life. Mourners were told to not break with the community spirit and instructed to cease the outward signs of Shiva during festivals.
Exact details of what to do are numerous. In general, a mourner rises from Shiva when the holiday begins even if the seven days aren’t completed. If the holiday begins before Shiva, then the mourning is suspended until after the holiday ends. A rabbi can point out the particular customs regarding specific holidays.
Shiva is comforting and is hard to let go of just because the calendar dictates it. Some choose to continue to observing Shiva as they see fit during or after the holidays.
Last Day of Shiva
The first waves of shock and grief cloak the bereaved during Shiva, a full retreat from life’s routines. On the morning of the seventh day, Shiva ends. Reconnections with life and the world of the present slowly resume. It is customary for a mourner to walk around the block, symbolizing an emergence from the days of sitting with grief. Once, grief confined the mourner to the home. Now the mourner must learn how to shoulder the burden.
Recognizing a walk’s ability to clear the mind and free the spirit, some cathedral floors were plotted with spirals for pilgrims, who could not make the journey to holy sites, to walk along. Walking these concentric circles and mazes became prayers in motion.
Some mourners find added solace in ending Shiva with a walk around the neighborhood or in a more natural setting, along the beach, up a hiking trail, in a forest.