Shivah Minyan

Image: Mishkan Tefilah for a House of Mourning, CCAR Press.

There are days when I bless my lucky stars that I get to be a rabbi.

I spent the early evening tonight with a grieving family. They had come together to mourn the loss of a man in his fifties, dead of cancer. He was a gifted musician and human being, and everyone who knew him misses him terribly.

These days, many Reform families opt out of shivah or shorten it to one or two days. They give many reasons. I suspect that for many of them, the idea of a whole week of official mourning is a frightening prospect at a time when they are already disoriented and upset, and I can understand that. It’s a shame, though, because shivah can be wonderfully healing.

This family has chosen to embrace the process of mourning. They’ve opted for a real week of shivah: for seven days his widow is staying home, surrounded by family and friends. I am a rabbi temporarily serving at their synagogue, and I have been invited in to lead the evening prayers most nights.

Last Thursday evening after the funeral the entire group was in shock. They were in that deep place of mourning where there is no consolation, only grief. I steered them through the service, hearing voices in the group check in and out as they were able. This was clearly a family that had just suffered an unthinkable loss. When we reached the point in the service where I offer the option of sharing stories or sitting in silence, they opted for silence. We sat quietly for a good five minutes. Afterwards, someone mentioned that it was good to be quiet together; they were all exhausted.

Tonight the mood had shifted. The family was relaxed but no longer exhausted. They are beginning to absorb the loss. The dog greeted me, snuffling, and a few people chuckled at his obvious pleasure at the “messages” from my dogs.

Tonight we sat in a circle. I began the service with “Hinei ma tov,” a song about how good it is to be together. We used some of the alternate prayers in Mishkan Tefilah for a House of Mourning. Since we began shiva last Thursday they’d been looking through the book a bit and several had requests for readings that they liked. There were song requests, too, and we sang “Oseh Shalom” twice because someone remembered a favorite melody. I let the service take the shape they needed, then we finished traditionally, with Psalm 23, El Male Rachamim, and Kaddish.

I said my goodbyes and slipped out. As I left, family and friends gathered in the kitchen, getting plates of food. Life is returning to this house, slowly but surely.

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Why Go to Funerals?

Image: Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

As regular readers know, sometimes I get topics from looking at the searches that brought people to my blog (thank you, wordpress.com, for the great info!) Here’s a great one:

How is it a good thing to go to a funeral?

 

Jewish tradition gives us two big reasons to go to a funeral, two mitzvot, commandments. The first, levayat hamet [accompanying the dead] is exactly what it sounds like: we accompany the dead person to the grave. The reason behind that is that dead bodies are vulnerable. They can’t defend themselves. Bad things can happen to them. So we accompany the dead person to the grave to be sure that they are put in the ground with respect for the person that they were.

The second reason to go to a funeral is menachem avel [comforting the mourner]. “Comforting” does not mean “make them feel all better” – that’s impossible. Comforting, in this context, means simply being with them, letting them know that you care. You do not need to “say the right thing” – all you really need to do is to avoid saying the wrong thing. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be silent.  “I am so sorry for your loss” is perfectly fine. The traditional words of comfort are “May you be comforted among the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem” – another reminder to the mourner that he or she is not alone.

Things not to say:  “You’ll get over it.” “He was old.” “He’s in a better place.” “She’s better off.” or even “She’s watching you from heaven.” You have no way of knowing that they match what the mourner believes, so don’t say them.

All funerals are uncomfortable if you are not used to them. Jewish funerals are generally quite short and simple. There are a few traditional prayers and psalms, and either the rabbi or the family stand up to talk a bit about the person who died. At graveside, there are brief prayers and then family and friends take a shovel of dirt and put it on the casket in the grave. These things are done to help bring home the reality of the death and to help the mourning process get moving.

The more funerals you attend, the more accustomed to them you will become. For tips on attending your first Jewish funeral, check out this article. Death is a part of life. It is a great kindness to mourners to reach out to them when they are grieving, and especially to attend the funeral.

How is it a good thing to go to a funeral? It is a good thing because it is a kind thing. No one should stand alone by the grave of someone they love.

How to Mourn as a Jew

Image: A Jewish cemetery with stones left on the markers.

Mourning is a time like no other.  Someone with whom we had a close connection has died, and our world is out of balance. We have spent years depending on that person, or supporting that person, and interacting with that person and suddenly they are … GONE. On top of that, there is much to do:  arrangements must be made, legal requirements fulfilled, and all while we are stunned by the news.

For American Jews, it is particularly confusing because as with many things, we are pulled in two directions.  American secular culture largely avoids mourning, and encourages us to be self-sufficient individuals, bravely getting on with life with as little disruption as possible. The dominant Christian religious culture teaches that loved ones have gone “to a better place.”

Jewish tradition takes a different path. It structures mourning as a staged process undertaken by those who are closely related to the deceased:  children, siblings, parent or spouse.  This definition of “mourner” can be updated to reflect the needs of all kinds of families, but the principle behind it is that we recognize some relationships as especially close. If you have lost someone whose absence will significantly alter your life, then consult with your rabbi for help in following the Jewish mourning process.

1. ANINUT is the time from the death itself until the burial is completed.  This is a time of concern for the body of the person who has died. Because it is so important in Judaism to treat the body with respect, the mourners have no responsibilities other than to make the funeral arrangements. They are relieved from other ritual requirements, and all social niceties. They are also assumed to be in deep shock and mourning, and friends should be available to assist if need be but should not intrude. Persons in aninut do not go to work, and are not responsible for other commitments.  They may tear an article of clothing and then wear it during shivah, or pin a torn ribbon to their clothing, to express their feelings of loss.

2. SHIVAH begins at the moment the body is safely laid to rest, and continues for a period after that, usually a week. (For calculations for the exact length of shivah when holidays are near, consult a rabbi.) Mourners in shivah remain at home, and friends help them with the necessities of life.  Friends visit to offer comfort.  (For more about the mitzvah of a shivah visit and what to say to a person in shiva, see Five Tips for Shivah.)

If you are the mourner, it is OK to ask for what you need, even if what you need is silence.  When you are sitting shivah, you are not entertaining. People may come to the house, but you do not have to look nice or have a neat house. It is OK for other people to do your dishes and to bring food to you.

Often American skimp on shivah, saying that they need to get back to work, or they don’t want to be any trouble.  If you possibly can, let shivah do its work. It can be boring and uncomfortable, but its purpose is to allow you time and space to mourn. You have suffered a loss.  It is OK to take time to acknowledge that loss.

3. SHELOSHIM is the 30 days after burial, including the seven days of shivah. At the close of shivah, mourners leave the house again.  Gradually, mourners will return to the routines of life.

4. MOURNING A PARENT goes on even longer, for eleven months or a full year, depending on local custom. One says Kaddish for the parent.

5. UNVEILING the tombstone (matzevah) is a ritual that became common in the 19th century, when close family gathers at the grave to unveil the marker and read Psalms and Kaddish. Timing of the unveiling depends on local custom: in some communities it is done at one year, in others at the end of sheloshim, and in others, at any convenient time at least a week after burial. It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones, and to leave a stone on the tombstone as a sign that someone has visited.

6. YAHRZEIT is the observance of the anniversary of the person’s death.  (The first yahrzeit is observed at the anniversary of the burial; after that, it’s the anniversary of death.)  Mourners say Kaddish for the person and it is the custom in some places to burn a yahrzeit candle. It is an opportunity to remember the person, and if the feelings are still there, to grieve in the arms of one’s community. Many people visit the grave on the yahrzeit, and it is customary to leave a stone on the marker.

7. YIZKOR is a memorial service attached to the major Jewish holidays. It means “May [God] remember” but really, it is an opportunity for us to remember, and to have an opportunity to feel the feelings that may come up with memory. Yizkor takes place as part of services on Yom Kippur, on Shmini Atzeret, on the last day of Passover, and on Shavuot.

It takes time and effort to rebuild our lives after a significant loss. Jewish tradition allows us the time and space to fully mourn, then put away mourning for a return to life, all the while honoring the memory of the deceased.  Remember that if you have to deal with people who want you to “get over it” and get back to work or social obligations, Jewish mourning is a religious obligation as well as a psychologically healthy approach to dealing with loss.

If you are a mourner, may you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Five Tips for Shivah Visits

Image: Couple receiving visitors bringing food. (Iakov Filimonov /Shutterstock)

Shivah (shee-VAH or SHIV-uh) is the Jewish period of deep mourning after the death of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child. It begins immediately after the burial and continues for no more than seven days. It may pause for Shabbat (we do not officially mourn on Shabbat) or for certain holidays. When a person is “sitting shivah,” it is Jewish custom to visit them at the designated home as a way of providing comfort and support.

It is a mitzvah (sacred duty) to visit a person during shivah. However, it is not like a regular social visit. The rules of shivah are set to provide the best support for the bereaved, and to help us in what is for some a challenging mitzvah.

1. Visit only at times when you are welcome. If the bereaved is part of your synagogue community, hours of shivah may be available from the temple office. Alternatively they may be put on a sign on the door of the house. They will certainly be announced at the end of the funeral.

2. Be helpful.  Bring prepared food to the shivah house, if you are able, but do not bring dishes that will have to be returned to you. If you visit the shivah house and see something that needs to be done (welcoming guests, simple cleaning, work in the kitchen) it is very helpful to do so. A mourner is not a host, and should not be expected to entertain in any way.

3. Comfort with your presence. The general rule in speaking to mourners is: don’t speak unless they indicate a desire that you talk with them. It is perfectly fine to sit next to a mourner and say nothing at all.

4. Listen. If the mourner wants to talk, listen. Let them talk, acknowledge what you hear from them. Let them express whatever emotion they are feeling: do not try to make them feel “better” or judge what they say. Do not, DO NOT tell them how they “should” feel.

5. Don’t overstay your welcome. Unless you are extremely close to the family, make it a short visit. Do not use the shivah gathering as a social event to visit with others. The mourners are likely exhausted.

WAYS TO HELP THE BEREAVED

During Shivah:

  • Be there. Listen.
  • Offer to run errands, cook, deal with practical matters.
  • Give tzedakah in honor of the dead, arrange for a card to be sent to the mourner.

After Shivah:

  • Make sure the bereaved are included in social invitations.
  • Make sure that a mourner does not sit alone at services. Invite them to join you.
  • Call just to say “Hello.”
  • Drop a note to say hello, or to share a memory of the deceased.
  • Listen to their memories.

Too often, because we don’t know what to do, we withdraw from mourners, leaving them to grieve alone. This is an act of cruelty, even if it is done out of confusion. Do not abandon a mourner.