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A Guide to Jewish Funerals

A Guide to Jewish Funerals
The Funeral Service
Shiva Customs
Stages of Mourning
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Glossary of Jewish Funeral Terms
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Shiva Customs

The psychological brilliance of Judaism is nowhere more apparent than in its carefully ritualized structure for dealing with grief. The open expression of sorrow is permitted, even encouraged. Yet beginning with the family’s arrival at the home after the funeral, a process is set into motion that leads the bereaved gently, but firmly, back to life and the world of the living. The first stage in this gradual process of healing is called shiva.

Observing Shiva

Shiva, meaning “seven,” refers to the seven-day period of formalized mourning by the immediate family of the deceased. Jewish law prescribes that one observe shiva for a parent, sibling, child or spouse. It begins immediately after the burial and concludes a short time after the morning service, Shacharit, on the seventh day. Many people change into their non-leather shoes worn during shiva while still at the cemetery, to indicate that they are now aveilim, or mourners.

Upon arrival at the place of shiva, prior to entering the house, the hands are washed with water in a pre-placed container and dried with disposable towels. Then, a family member lights the shiva candle, provided by the funeral home, which burns for seven days and serves as a mark of respect for the deceased as the flame is symbolic of the soul. It is customary to sit shiva in the home of the deceased. When this is not possible, shiva may be observed in the home of an immediately family member or a friend. Most importantly, the family should be together during this time.

Lows Stools & Covering of Mirrors

As part of the shiva observance, there are two traditional practices which are the covering of mirrors and the sitting on boxes, low stools or low chairs by the immediate mourners. Mirrors are covered to remind us that shiva is not about ourselves, but a time for us to concentrate on the deceased. Additionally, it is customary for the aveilim, or mourners, to sit lower than usual, which is a recognized sign of mourning.

Meal of Consolation

Upon returning from the cemetery, the first meal served to the mourners is known as Seudat Havra’ah, or more commonly, the meal of condolence. The Talmud mentions this meal and directs that the first meal after the burial of a loved one must be provided to the mourners by friends or other family members. Typically, this meal includes foods that are associated with life in Judaism including lentils, hard-boiled eggs and bread. It is customary to make this a dairy meal and it may also include other simple and easily digestible foods. During this time of grief, we eat eggs, a symbol of life, to affirm hope in the face of death. We eat bread as it is the staff of life in Judaism, and during this time of mourning it is especially appropriate. It is considered an act of great caring to free the family from everyday concerns during shiva and it a specific mitzvah to provide the Seudat Havra’ah. In many communities, a friend or member of the congregation coordinates the provision of meals during the shiva period.

Condolence Calls

Jewish tradition holds that visiting the house of mourning is a mitzvah during the shiva period. As it is customary to make no effort at consolation before the burial, the appropriate time for a condolence call begins after the interment and continues during the week of shiva. Most mourners do not leave their home during this period as it is a time to grieve, work through pain and take a first step back toward life. Many people are reluctant to visit a house of mourning, but this emotional period cannot be undertaken alone and the presence of a support system of friends and family is essential to healing. As you enter the house of mourning, simply take a seat in the room where the mourners are sitting. It is customary to wait to speak until after the mourner speaks. Once you are acknowledged, you may express your condolences to them, offer a touch or a hug, which mean more to the mourner than you can ever know.

During the shiva, we reminisce, remember and recapture memories of a loved one. During the condolence call, we usually sit and listen to those memories the mourner wishes to share. You may also offer to share your own memories of the deceased. It is important to follow the hours of visitation prescribed by the family during this difficult and emotional time. Your primary goal during your visit is to support, listen to and visit with the mourners. Except for food, it is not customary to bring anything with you to the house of mourning. If you wish to, you may contribute to the deceased’s favorite charity or to a synagogue fund established in his or her memory. If you cannot be present at the shiva, you may offer comfort by writing a card or note to the mourners.

Shiva Restrictions

The shiva period is divided into a three-day intensive mourning period followed by the remaining four days. The first three days are considered the most intense as the first few days after the death of a loved one are a time of shock and disorientation. While many people observe the full seven-day period prescribed by Jewish tradition, some people modify the length of the mourning period to suit their family’s needs. During shiva the following acts are prohibited for the mourners:

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

Abstaining from shaving, haircuts and the use of cosmetics is for the same reason we cover mirrors in the home, which emphasizes the belief that personal appearance is simply not important during a time of grief. We refrain from wearing leather shoes, except on Shabbat, as they are considered a luxury and a sign of satisfaction with our status and quality of life, a feeling that is antithetical to mourning. Abstaining from sexual relations is also required as we refrain from all pleasurable activities during this period. Likewise, mourners will not watch television, read books for enjoyment, listen to the radio or read sections from the Bible that provide pleasure during this time. Instead, we only read those sections of the Tanach that deal with grief.

The Minyan & The Kaddish

There are two other customs of shiva that bear mentioning; the first of which is holding a service each day, morning and evening (except for Shabbat), that allows the mourners to recite Kaddish without having to leave their home and the widespread practice of the mourners walking about the block after shiva to symbolize their re-entry into the world around them after the week of secluded mourning. Jewish law requires mourners to recite the mourner’s Kaddish three times each day during shiva. Since a minyan is required to say the mourner’s Kaddish and mourners should not leave their house, friends and family come to the home to enable the bereaved to fulfill this Mitzvah.

The Kaddish prayer praises God, expresses the hope that the messianic kingdom will come soon and supplicates God to bring peace to the world. We recite it for parents, spouses, siblings and children. For parents, Kaddish is recited daily for eleven Hebrew months following burial. For all other relatives, it is recited for thirty days or the period of sheloshim. We recite the Kaddish for eleven months based on the beliefs of the great scholar Rabbi Moses Isserles, who thought no child should ever have to acknowledge the possibility of a completely wicked parent. While originally only sons said Kaddish, today there is a wide range of customs and observances regarding the recitation. One should follow the practice of the community or congregation or reach out to their Rabbi for consultation.

Sheloshim

The thirty-day period of mourning following burial is known as sheloshim. It includes the seven days of shiva and the remaining twenty-three days, which are far less restrictive. After shiva ends, mourners may return to work. The rules for the balance of sheloshim, however, prescribe that they not immediately resume a normal daily routine. During sheloshim, mourners continue to recite Kaddish three times daily and do not attend parties or other festive occasions. If there is a simcha that is previously planned, a mourner may attend the religious service but not the party. If the simcha is in the immediate family it should not be postponed, but music might be curtailed. Additionally, mourners do not attend movies, concerts or purely social gatherings as these are forms of entertainment prohibited during this mourning period. The end of sheloshim concludes the end of the traditional mourning period for all loved ones, except for parents, and most mourners may return to a full business and social life. Sheloshim may be affected by a Jewish festival, which will end the period. If you are mourning the loss of a parent, we continue to recite Kaddish for eleven months and follow the traditional restrictions for the remainder of the mourning period. The rules for this are somewhat complicated and your Rabbi can best advise you as to your individual circumstance.

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