One of the great gifts of the Jewish people to civilized society generally is the Sabbath, and with it, the ordered idea of a seven-day week.
The seven-day week has become standard throughout human society and adopted by all different faiths. The anti-clericalist, atheistic leaders of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries attempted to impose a 10-day week upon their revolutionary society, but the attempt never gained popular support. Thus seven-day weeks became and remain the norm in the world.
The original seven-day week is naturally found in the biblical narrative of the formation and creation of the universe, with the seventh day of that "week" being the holy Sabbath. The notion of special seven-day weeks recurs in Jewish law and ritual. Having personally experienced lately two such special weeks, I take the liberty of commenting upon them.
One of these weeks is a very sad and heartwrenching one - the week of shiva (literally, seven) - the time of intense mourning over the loss of a beloved family member. The other special week is the week of shivat yemei mishteh (literally, seven days of food and drink) - the week immediately following a wedding when daily gatherings, tributes, meals and song are present to bring joy to the bride and groom and their families. Even though these two different special weeks are posed on opposite poles of a human being's emotional spectrum, Jewish ritual and custom bind them together with parallel observances and traditions.
The period of shiva is marked by visits from friends to the home of the bereaved. It begins to put in place the social support system that the bereaved will so desperately need in order to continue on in life. The mourners do not leave their house of mourning for the entire week except for Shabbat, when all public exhibitions of mourning are suspended. The mourners sit low to the floor, their garments rent, their hearts broken.
The rabbis of the Talmud enjoined that one is not to mourn excessively over the loss of a family member. It is the Jewish belief in eternal life and the immortality of the soul that allows for such an outlook. Thus the periods of mourning are clearly defined in Jewish law - seven days, 30 days and for parents, 12 months. Those are the limits of ritual forms of mourning. There is no time limit to the perpetual ache that now resides in one's heart. The seven days of shiva end on the morning of the seventh day, following the halachic principle that regarding the time of mourning miktzat hayom k'kulo - even a portion of the day is counted as a full day.
In Talmudic times, a series of blessings was recited at the conclusion of the meals during shiva in the house of the mourners. This custom is no longer observed in the Ashkenazi society, though it still is followed in many Sephardi communities. These blessings eerily parallel the recitation of the seven blessings that accompany birkat hamazon (grace after meals) in the presence of the bride and the groom during shivat yemei mishteh. We are bidden to bless God's name on all occasions and under all circumstances, both good and better.
The seven days of rejoicing for the bride and groom are meant to be complete 24-hour days. The meals during this week of rejoicing are festive and meaningful. The meals are usually occasions for words of Torah, moral insights, blessings and encouragement to the couple now beginning their life together. The meals require that "new" people - people who were not present at the wedding - now be invited and attend the mishteh meal. The presence of the "new faces" at the meal automatically increases the level of joy, satisfaction and support for the bride and groom and their families.
To help other people feel important and happy is a great Jewish virtue. The Lord Himself, so to speak, is pictured in Midrash as being the "new face" that helped Adam and Eve celebrate their marriage in the Garden of Eden. Mention of this is in fact the theme of one of the blessings that is recited at the wedding and at the meals of shivat yemei mishteh. God is thus the source of our joy and the hope for our consolation as well. Both special weeks - the life-cycle events of Jewish life - march in tandem in the Jewish view of life and the world. May we also all be blessed, consoled and uplifted by our observance of Torah and our faith in the God of Israel.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).