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Additional Shiva Customs & Restrictions

The shivah period is technically divided into two parts:

  1. The first three days, considered the period of most intensive mourning.
  2. The remaining four days.

Why are the first three days considered to be the most intense?

Modern psychology has demonstrated that the first few days after the death of a loved one are a time of shock and disorientation. Long ago, our Jewish ancestors intuited this same phenomenon without benefit of scientific evidence.

What does tradition forbid during shivah?

Among those things Jewish tradition generally proscribes during shivah are:

  1. Leaving the house, except to go to synagogue on Shabbat, or even during the week if there is no minyan at the shivah house.
  2. Work or any business pursuits.
  3. Shaving or haircuts.
  4. Bathing, other than for basic hygiene.
  5. The use of cosmetics.
  6. The wearing of leather shoes.
  7. Festivities of any kind.
  8. The wearing of new clothes.
  9. Engaging in sexual relations.
  10. Study which gives pleasure, including reading the Bible, except for Job, Lamentations, and some sections of Jeremiah.

Why are we allowed to leave the house on Shabbat?

Jewish tradition forbids public displays of mourning on Shabbat and therefore mourners may go to the synagogue on the Shabbat during shivah.

Are there any other circumstances under which we may leave the house during shivah?

Yes. As noted earlier, Jewish law allows mourners to go to the Synagogue every day during shivah if there is no minyan at home.

Why are shaving, haircuts, and the use of cosmetics forbidden?

We have already discussed the custom of covering mirrors in the house of mourning, which is also a way of emphasizing that personal appearance is simply not important at a time of grief. The same rationale holds for shaving, haircuts, cosmetics, bathing, and the wearing of new clothes.

Why do we refrain from wearing leather shoes?

It is customary to wear non-leather slippers or rubber or canvas shoes during shivah, except onShabbat. Leather shoes are not worn because they are considered a luxury and a sign of satisfaction with our status and the quality of our lives, a feeling antithetical to mourning. In addition, since the wearing of leather shoes is associated with going out of the house, there is no need to wear them during shivah.

Why do we abstain from sexual relations?

During shivah, mourners are to refrain from all pleasurable activities, sex among them. Likewise, mourners traditionally will not read books for enjoyment, watch television, listen to the radio, or engage in other similar pursuits.

Is this also why we do not read from the Bible?

Yes. Traditionally, we read only those sections of the Tanach which deal with grief, specially Job, Lamentations, and portions of the book of Jeremiah. Additionally, it is certainly permitted to study the laws of mourning.

There are two other customs of shivah that bear mentioning. It is an established tradition that there be, whenever possible, a service twice each day, morning and evening (except on Shabbat), in the place of shivah. This allows the mourners to recite the Kaddish, without having to leave their homes during the shivah period. There is also a widespread practice that, at the conclusion of theshivah, the mourners walk around the block, symbolizing their re-entry into the world around them after the week of secluded mourning.