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  mourner 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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How to Help a Jewish Mourner

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

At a time of trouble, good friends are apt to say, “Let me know if I can help.” However, the worse the disaster, the harder it is for the suffering person to articulate what they need. Here is a list of things you can offer to do for a Jewish mourner:

During shiva (the week following the funeral):

  • Bring food
  • Clean the kitchen
  • Pick up the children from  —
  • Assist with pet care
  • Run errands: grocery, dry cleaning, etc.
  • Make coffee or tea
  • Greet visitors at the door
  • Answer the phone
  • Make phone calls

After shiva is over:

  • Invite them to lunch or dinner
  • run errands
  • help with household chores
  • help with transportation for children, pets, or the mourner herself
  • invite them for part of Shabbat or a holiday
  • listen when they talk about the deceased or about their sorrows

Do not:

  • Tell them you know how they feel
  • Speculate about the afterlife
  • Tell them that they should get over it, or that they will get over it
  • Ask when they will be dating
  • Press them about anything that they don’t want to discuss
  • Ask for the belongings of the deceased

Mourners have been left behind by someone they loved. They may also feel abandoned by the living. You can help by including them in your life, and by making genuine, concrete offers of assistance at a difficult time.

A friend is a wonderful gift, but a friend who is willing to be present and help at a time of trouble is a treasure.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.