Sitting shiva reformjudaism.org shell gas credit card 5

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The psychological brilliance of Judaism is nowhere more apparent than in its carefully ritualized structure for dealing with grief. The open expression of sorrow is permitted, even encouraged. Yet, beginning with the family’s arrival at their home after burial, a process is set into motion that leads the bereaved gently but firmly back to life and the world of the living. The first stage in this gradual process of healing is called shiva. What is the meaning of shiva?

The Rabbis of the Talmud cite Genesis 7:10 as the earliest instance of shiva: “And it came to pass, after the seven days, that the waters of the Flood were upon the earth.” The seven days, say the Rabbis, were a period of mourning for Methuselah, the oldest man who ever lived. In Genesis 50:10, the reference is made even more explicit. The text states: “And he [Joseph] mourned for his father [Jacob] for seven days.” When does shiva begin?

It is customary to observe shiva in the home of the deceased. Where this is not possible, shiva may be marked in the home of an immediate family member or even a friend. Most importantly, however, the family should be together during this time. For whom is shiva observed?

This custom originated out of superstition and is generally explained in one of three ways. In ancient times, when an individual died of mysterious causes, the inhabitants of that city often washed their hands at the cemetery, symbolically affirming that they had not shed innocent blood.

While many scholars feel that the custom originated in the thirteenth century, others hold that it emerged from the Italian kabbalists in the seventeenth century. Regardless of its actual beginnings, however, it is clear that the candle was intended to symbolize both the soul of the deceased and the Shechinah, the light of God’s presence. Scholars, in discussing the matter, often cite Proverbs 20:27: “The light of Adonai is the soul of man.” Does Jewish tradition prescribe any physical changes in the house of mourning?

It is customary for members of the immediate family to sit on low stools or boxes during the shiva period. Indeed, it is probable that this practice resulted in the expression “sitting shiva.” No one knows exactly how the custom originated. Most scholars cite Job 2:13, which, in relating the arrival of Job’s three friends to comfort him, says: “For seven days and seven nights they sat beside him on the ground.” Others trace it to II Samuel 13:31, where King David is described as tearing his garments and laying himself on the ground in grief. Still others hold that we sit on stools to be closer to the ground and thus, symbolically, to our loved ones.

Generally, mourners do not leave the home during shiva. Nor are they to shave, use makeup, or attempt to “look their best.” The custom of covering mirrors implicitly conveys to the grief-stricken individual that personal appearance simply does not matter now. In doing so, it tacitly removes any cause for embarrassment that mourners might feel.

The first mention of the s’udat havraah occurs in the Talmud. It directs that the first meal after burial of a loved one must be provided by friends. The meal prepared by neighbors, relatives and fellow congregants thus helps the mourner to begin to accept life again. What foods are served at the s’udat havraah?

Eggs are an obvious symbol of life. At the seder table on Passover, a joyous occasion, they are dipped in salt water to acknowledge that life sometimes brings tears and pain. And, at the s’udat havraah, a time of grief, we eat hard-boiled eggs to affirm hope in the face of death. Why do we eat bread?

Yes. In fact, one Talmudic passage infers that it is praiseworthy for friends to provide mourners with wine. This teaching is based on Proverbs 31:6–7: “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul; let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more.” Of course, wine or liquor should be drunk in moderation and should not be used as an attempt to avoid the reality of bereavement or feelings of loss. The meal of consolation is a mitzvah, not in any way a social event. May friends bring food to the house of mourning throughout shiva?

Yes. It is considered an act of great caring to free the family from everyday concerns during shiva. The beginning of shiva also offers friends an opportunity to express their sympathy through visits to the home. At the same time, those in mourning initiate a process that will ultimately lead them back to the world. This process involves many customs with a twin rationale: acceptance of death and a determination to return to life.