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Can I Go to Shiva Instead?

From the searches that brought people to this blog: “Can I go to shiva, instead of to the funeral?”

If you were to stop me on the street and ask me this question, I’d say, “Tell me more.” I am very curious about what’s behind the question. I’d buy you a cup of coffee and we’d chat.

However, I can imagine two possibilities:

(1) “I really cannot get off work but I want to comfort the mourners.” Sometimes we just can’t do everything we want to do. I’m so glad you want to comfort the mourners! It’s an important mitzvah, and you will certainly be performing that mitzvah if you attend shiva at the house. Don’t forget to give them a call a few weeks later, just to say hello and check in.

(2) “The funeral is at the cemetery and I hate cemeteries.” Well, let’s talk about this a bit. Are you so freaked out by cemeteries that you literally cannot enter one? Because if that is the case, perhaps I should offer you a referral to a good therapist. But if it’s dislike, let’s dig at that a bit: why do you dislike cemeteries? Cemeteries are uncomfortable for many of us because they remind us of our own mortality. It’s hard to avoid the thought that I am going to die someday, when I am standing by the grave of a friend. Jewish tradition tells us that our discomfort at that thought is a good thing: it can motivate us to live better lives, because we remember that our days are limited. If that’s the issue, and it isn’t at the level of a phobia, I’d be inclined to encourage you to grit your teeth and give it a try. Also, what if everyone gave in to discomfort and no one showed up? How would the family feel?

The funeral and shiva are not an either/or choice. They are actually two separate mitzvot. The funeral is levayat ha mayt [accompanying the dead] and it is the last good deed we can do for a friend. Attending shiva is nichum ahvaylim [comforting mourners] and while it also happens at the funeral, it really gets down to business at the shiva.

Mortality is a bummer. We are naturally inclined to think that we will live forever. However, that simply isn’t the case, and our tradition is clear that it isn’t good for us to entertain the fantasy of living forever. Getting in touch with our mortality, once in a while, is one way to truly appreciate the present.

How would you answer this person’s question? Have you ever been to a funeral that was very sparsely attended? Any other thoughts to share on this topic?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

21 thoughts on “Can I Go to Shiva Instead?”

  1. As I just experienced again what it feels like to be on the receiving end as a mourner as I just lost my mother after I had lost my father last year, I very much appreciate your blogpost intended to people who wonder whether they should perform one or the other mitzvah.

    As you explained they are really different, and one should definitely try to attend both opportunities. When attending a funeral, I never expect the mourners to know that I have attended, but I can tell that the quality of the comfort I am then able to provide, either at the end of the ceremony or at the shiva call, or if a closer friend any time later, is much more personal and in sync with the grief of the mourner than if I had not attended the funeral and just paid a shivah call.

    As for me, having buried both my parents very far from home, it has been a wonderful thing that so many attended the funeral because they are part of my family anyways.

  2. It’s all about Comforting The Mourner. There’s a Shiva Minyan, where folks gather for a short prayer service, and chat with the mourner. It becomes a sad-party. I did it a little differently.When my mother died, a few months ago, I didn’t go to work on the 4 days after the funeral. It was announced at the funeral that I would have my door open from 8:00am until 4:00pm each day. A total of 50 people showed up, in groups of 1s and 2s. We sat and chatted for 15-30 minutes. Why was this so important? The first time I told the story of my Mom, and what she meant to me, I could barely get the words out of my mouth. Telling the story was cathartic and therapeutic for me. Having friends around was comforting, and, also distracting. I rejoined my extended family in the evening for the Shiva Minyan in the evenings.

    1. I agree with you except for one detail. The funeral is also about “accompanying the dead” – that is, making sure that the body is put away safely so that it can’t be eaten by animals or treated disrespectfully. Some of the sages say that’s the “greatest mitzvah” because it is a kindness the recipient is not in a position to repay. Granted, they “aren’t there anymore” but it is a form of respect to the person who was, and insurance that no indignities will be visited upon a helpless dead body.

  3. I know that when my mom passed away in June it did mean more to me at the time that people came to the funeral and in the end mom’s funeral was much better attended than any of us anticipated. Did it make me feel better knowing my friends were at the funeral? in retrospect, probably, but at the time it was only something I know I wanted but didn’t really grasp as it was happening. Having friends come during shiva though broke apart the monotony of being in the house with a father who was in pieces and a brother who kept telling him that he needed to keep it together. It was comforting to talk about my mom and to also talk about nothing having to do with the entire illness/sudden death experience.

    1. Sheloshim can be very powerful, an opportunity for the family to acknowledge the passage of time and for there to be continuing contact of comfort with the community. I am so sorry that your twin died; I cannot imagine what it might be like to lose a twin.

  4. YAY! I was able to post today!! 

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    From: Coffee Shop Rabbi To: pdfender@yahoo.com Sent: Sunday, September 6, 2015 9:26 AM Subject: [New post] Can I Go to Shiva Instead? #yiv8184450573 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv8184450573 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv8184450573 a.yiv8184450573primaryactionlink:link, #yiv8184450573 a.yiv8184450573primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv8184450573 a.yiv8184450573primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv8184450573 a.yiv8184450573primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv8184450573 WordPress.com | rabbiadar posted: “From the searches that brought people to this blog: “Can I go to shiva, instead of to the funeral?”If you were to stop me on the street and ask me this question, I’d say, “Tell me more.” I am very curious about what’s behind the question. I’d buy you ” | |

  5. I did both, and am glad I did. Shiva lasts for a longer time and is less emotionally fraught. Plus, you can’t chat during the funeral and tell stories of happy times to the mourners.

    My young friend’s mother was crying and screaming during the burial, so she really didn’t know who was there. However, she wrote me a lovely note of thanks for coming during shiva.

    Sparsely attended funerals — I’ve been to those… it depends on the scheduling.

  6. Funerals. A very timely post, this. I have my own issues, problems, whatever…..

    Although I was born Jewish, I didn’t become observant till my late 50s….almost four years ago. Im now 60.

    None of my (Jewish born) family were religious in any way( except a cousin who has become an evangelical fundamentalist a Christian, and sent me little cartoon booklets showing me how and why I was going to hell, but that’s another matter…..)

    My mothers funeral was almost four years ago. She was burned to death in a house fire. I was estranged from her at the time(my choice, to preserve what little sanity I had left) and the police came to my door at 7am on the Saturday morning to inform me.

    I had decided some time previously that if she died before me, I would not be attending the funeral. That was the correct thing, for me….the amount of family crap that would have occurred was not something I could have dealt with(I got enough already) and I had been grieving for the two years since our estrangement, so it was a very strange and surreal situation(seeing your mothers death on the tv tea time news is…..surreal. No other word for it….)

    My husband beamed up to heaven just over a year ago: he was my soulmate, my bashert, my imzadi, the only person who knew and understood my background, and he had arranged everything beforehand, paid for, for his funeral, so that it would be the least possible as he wanted it : a nominal Presbyterian, he wanted no service, no mourners, no flowers, nothing.

    My experience with funerals I have attended are not good or positive ones. So, not sure if I should say all this, but, it’s how it is/was for me.


    1. Trauma complicates everything, Alex. Our first responsibility is to take care of ourselves, because if we don’t we are not much good to anyone else. I wish you comfort among the mourners of Israel, and a shana tova, a new year of blessing and peace.

  7. I sat shiva with my rabbi at my first shul, although I felt shy. I had never done anything like that before, and I was a bit intimidated. I think her mother was buried in Philadelphia, where Rabbi SaraLeya is from, so I do not go to the funeral.

    My Rabbi was a role model for me, so I would never avoid comforting her after such a painful loss, no matter how scared I felt about doing something new. She supported me, and so I did the same for her when the time came to do so.

    1. Anne, you are a blessing to the Jewish people – such a beautiful understanding of this mitzvah! L’shana tova – may this new year be a year of blessing for you!

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