Observing death in a Jewish home
In any family it is important to discuss how people will respond to a death. In an interfaith family this is particularly important because there is no shared tradition to fall back on.
Here are some basics about Shiva, to help you understand the role of observing shiva and to help you decide whether you are going to want to do this in your family. Different choices can be made for different family members.
Remember, you will need help and you can and should call your rabbi.
The role of the mourner
The mourner has no responsibilities. Whenever I read about the rituals around death and mourning I think that the ancient rabbis were the first therapists. Instead of leaving the grieving person to run around trying to bury their loved one, keep their job going, do the shopping, and feed the kids they said, STOP! The mourner must mourn and the community must care for them. This means that, for the mourners, all the daily tasks immediately end. Further, they are not expected to make polite conversation or to inquire after others. They are in an alternate reality. If you have ever grieved a loved one you know what I’m talking about. Things don’t matter anymore. The earth seems bare without your beloved one. You don’t care what others think, you may be so grief stricken that you can’t eat.
Jewish law states that the mourners do bathe or shave. The mirrors of the home are covered so that they are not distracted by their appearance. They tear their clothes as a symbol of the fact that their loved one has been torn away from them. A tear on the left side over the heart indicates the loss was a parent and a tear over the right side indicates other relatives. The tear is made at the time of hearing of the death or at the burial. In modern times you will often see a torn ribbon pinned to clothing rather than a literal tear.
The community is to bring food to the house of mourning FOR the mourners. Often these days I see a spread put out for the people who come to the shiva. But food is actually not supposed to be for the visitors; it is for the family so that they don’t have to cook. Often grief makes us lose our appetite. Who wants to cook then? So the community provides. Still if there are fifteen platters of cold cuts the food is often fed to the visitors because there is too much for the family. Typically one sees the community providing a big spread at a shiva.
At the house of mourning
It is a mitzvah, a positive commandment (sacred obligation), to go to a house of mourning, to comfort the bereaved and to assure that there will be a minyan (ten Jews, ten male Jews in an Orthodox home) to recite the prayer for the deceased with the bereaved family.
Traditionally you bring food to a house of mourning. It need not be on any particular day. So if you miss the first day, bring them something later. When taking food it is common to take round (or oval) food to symbolize the circle of life. You’ll see lentil dishes and hard boiled eggs. But any food is fine. Take a salad, a casserole, a loaf of bread. In a traditional environment you say a blessing before eating. When you eat at a shiva, preceded with a blessing, your blessing is said “for” the deceased and it is to their credit.
You are not supposed to speak to a mourner but to respond when spoken too. However, many people are uncomfortable in total silence and it is appropriate to say something simple like, I am so sorry for your loss. This allows them to control the conversation and to talk about what they want, with whom they want. In conversation with the mourner you are supposed to talk about their memories of their loved one, recalling times of health and happiness. The goal is to support positive memories rather than only the recent difficult times.
Traditionally the mourners sit on the floor or on low stools reflecting their state of mind.
After the week of shiva those close to the mourner are to walk with them down the street and back. This symbolized the gradual return to daily life.
The goal of the week of shiva is to allow the mourner to live in the reality of their loss. If any of you have lost a loved one you know the things that run through your mind – is this true? How can I go back and prevent it? Word will come and they won’t actually be dead. I can’t bear this; I won’t be able to go on. The mourner needs support thorough a period that may feel un-survivable.
Jewish law prescribes that the family will observe shiva (sit shiva) for seven days. The Hebrew word, shiva, comes from the word for seven. They do NOT sit on Shabbat, so no shiva on a Friday night. So you actually sit for six nights. In a Reform or Conservative home the family may opt to sit fewer nights.
It can be helpful to see what Jewish law prescribes so that you will understand the basis on which the variations of Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist and secular Judaism builds. Here is a website that goes into great detail.
Of course, call or email me if you want to discuss any of this in greater detail or relation to your own life.