A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning

Image: Two gray-haired women sit on a hammock together beside a pond, looking at the water. (silviarita/pixabay)

Sheloshim (which means “thirty” in Hebrew) is the thirty-day period of mourning after a funeral.

I am very grateful for all the kind words and comfort that were offered to me over the past weeks since my mother’s death. I am more convinced than ever of the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions, as I move through the process of Jewish mourning.

And it is a process. First, there is the period of shock after a death, which we call aninoot. That is the time between death itself and the burial, and no matter what your tradition, it is a busy time with many duties to fulfill. Even for me, a ┬ámourner at a long distance from the funeral, unable to help with funeral preparations, there was a profound feeling of shock. No matter how “expected” death is, it is a shock to the living. A mourner in aninoot is relieved of all responsibilities other than funeral preparations – no mitzvot to perform, no social obligations to fill.

With the funeral, a mourner passes into the period of shivah, the intense week of mourning after the burial of a loved one. They sit with family and receive the comfort of friends. They do not leave the house. The idea is to take the time to allow feelings and memories to emerge. Friends visit, and sit quietly with the mourner. They may bring food and remind the mourner to eat. They do not tell the mourner how to feel; they simply witness the emergence of feelings without judgment. Their presence reminds the mourner that while someone important has left this life, the mourner will not be abandoned by the living.

At the end of the week of shivah, the mourner leaves the house and if possible takes a walk, perhaps around the block. It is a return to the world.

The mourner is still in the period known as sheloshim, the thirty days following burial. In this lighter period of mourning, the mourner may go back to work, but they stay away from parties, concerts and similar joyous events. A mourner in sheloshim does not marry and does not attend weddings. Often there is an event marking the end of sheloshim, traditionally a study session in honor of the departed.

After that, formal mourning ceases, except in the case of the death of a parent. In that case the mourner observes the shneim asar chodesh, twelve months of mourning, saying kaddish and attending services.

The purpose of this process is to move mourners from the side of the grave back into the world of the living. Of course human grief is not simple and tidy. A scent or a melody can bring back a sharp memory of a loved one years after their death. Some losses never heal, and certainly no one wishes to forget loved ones. However, this gentle, wise process of Jewish mourning provides us with a framework for our grief and instructions for those who wish to comfort. As such, it is a blessing.

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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.

12 thoughts on “A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning”

    1. My understanding is that, while the recitation of Kaddish lasts for 11 months, the mourning period nevertheless extends until the “yahrzeit,” the anniversary of the date of death, which is most often 12 Hebrew months later (when my mom passed away a few years ago, the ensuing year had an Adar II, so her yahrzeit didn’t come until 13 Hebrew months had passed).

      1. As with many things, the precise timing comes down to local custom. When in doubt, consult with your rabbi!

        The calendar can sometimes be cruel. I will never forget conducting a funeral on the afternoon before Kol Nidre, and having to inform the family that the shiva period would end at sundown. They were shocked – what, no shiva? Unfortunately some major holidays put an end to shiva.

        They were people who did not have a congregation or a rabbi – I was a rent-a-rabbi supplied through the local rabbinical association – so there was no opportunity to consult on this and to schedule the funeral with this thought in mind. And sometimes, in truth, it just happens. I’m so sorry that Adar Bet extended your year of mourning!

        1. It was just weird to be in that in-between state, where I was no longer saying Kaddish but hadn’t reached yahrzeit, for so long, 2 Hebrew months.

  1. Beautifully and concisely described. It is amazing to me that such a wise and practical process was developed so very long ago and still seems to me the most rational and spiritual and meaningful process I’ve been exposed to. I hope you’re healing well yourself, and I’m grateful you’re moving back into the world!

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