In My Own Write: Mourners of Zion

Sitting shiva: Observing the Jewish mourning period - from the Hebrew word ‘sheva,’ meaning seven (days).

candle flame 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
candle flame 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Very occasionally in the Jewish world, one sees a death notice in the newspaper that states the name of the deceased and expresses the usual family sentiments of loss, but then requests: “Please refrain from condolence calls.”
There’s something chilling about such an appeal, even though the reasons for it are understandable.
For, in one sense, is there anything more private than the loss of a mother, father, sibling, spouse or child? And if the deceased was dearly loved, can any outsider really appreciate the quality of the bond in all its intricacy and depth – and hence the enormity of the loss?
These feelings – often only half-recognized – lead some Jews to shrink from “sitting shiva,” seeing the week-long flow of comforters into the open house, from morning until evening, as an unwelcome burden and an exhausting intrusion.
Exhausting, yes, as anyone who has sat shiva can attest. But exhaustion is just one feature of the structured Jewish mourning period that, paradoxically, contributes to making the reality of the bereavement more bearable.
At the very least, these seven days act as a cushion; their minutes and hours, unrolling, insert themselves between the survivors and their loss, easing the transition back into regular life.
IN THE absence of such a cushioning structure, what could a sensitive bereaved individual do on returning from the cemetery? Flip on the television? Unthinkable. Try to plan life without the deceased whilst in acute shock over the immediacy of the loss? Impossible. Attempt to return – too soon! – to normal everyday activity, an iron band of grief tightening around the heart, threatening to crush it totally?
Those who sit shiva need not struggle with these lonely, agonizing and unsatisfactory choices. They know that very soon after the funeral, friends and colleagues of theirs and of the deceased – often even only slight acquaintances – will begin to arrive at the “shiva house,” usually the deceased’s home, to sit for a time with the mourners, each visitor bringing his or her own kind of comfort.
They take their cue from the family: listening to or telling stories about the deceased, participating in communal prayer, sometimes just sitting silently.
Traditionally, mourners sit on low chairs or other seating to symbolize the emotional reality of being “brought low” by grief, and wear a garment with a tear in it. They do not prepare food or engage in any work. Customs include not wearing jewelry or leather shoes, not bathing for pleasure, and eschewing marital relations and even Torah study.
TWO FRIENDS of mine sat shiva recently, one for her husband, the other for her sister. The first called shiva “remarkable, a catharsis, one of the great Jewish institutions,” and feels sorry for people who opt to forgo it.
“They don’t know what they are missing,” she said.
“On the one hand, you feel you are in limbo, because nothing is ‘happening’; but on the other hand, you feel how people are so unbelievably giving – and I don’t mean only the endless food that they bring. It’s wonderful for children to see this caring aspect of Judaism.
“I’ve made shiva calls, of course,” she said, “but never sat shiva. It’s only when you do it yourself that you appreciate the flood of support, the outpouring of love and emotion, the bonding of the family.
“I was on an emotional high all the week,” she concluded, “but in a positive way. I mourned my husband during the months of his illness; during the shiva, I celebrated his life.”
My second friend described “10 of us, all close family members, sitting together to mourn my sister, who was much loved in her community. Everybody came and talked about her.”
For this friend, however, the shiva stood out chiefly as a time for the family to share reminiscences about their loved one.
“Sharing is a big deal,” she reflected. “Shiva is a time for memories – sad and happy and funny – a time for reconstructing a picture of the person who has died, for inserting the pieces each participant brings, sometimes getting a totally different image of the person one thinks one knew. Perhaps that’s why one so often has albums on the table.
“Do you remember when…” “Who’s this person?“ “I’d forgotten that Auntie Sadie always wore such ghastly hats…”
“It was very heartwarming to have that time to sit together, to share memories and look over old photographs.”
Shiva gives you a timeout that is totally disconnected from the real world, my friend observed. “You are mollycoddled, in the best sense of the word, totally relieved of your daily concerns.
“And all that fried fish and smoked salmon” – she sat shiva in England – “was very comforting, in a very Jewish way.”
In contrast, she mentioned a first cousin, “Jewish, through and through,” whose parents became Quakers. Both of them, her father particularly, “who came from a nice Orthodox home,” had thrown off all vestiges of yiddishkeit.
“They died two years ago, within six weeks of each other, and were cremated, their ashes buried under the same tree – a gorgeous view, I may say.”
It was not until a couple of years later, my friend said, that the cousin could bring herself to talk about her parents and explore her feelings of Jewish denial.
“We all have our roots,” my friend commented, “and somewhere along the way, we begin to search for them. My cousin is now making her slow way back to Judaism.”
A THIRD friend’s father died in Israel on the eve of Pessah. According to Jewish law, the onset of a festival, or yom tov, cancels the shiva – there is no religious obligation to observe the seven days of mourning. But even though this friend is not religiously observant, she felt that her need to sit shiva was paramount, and so the funeral was held only after yom tov. Shiva began on the first Intermediate Day of the festival (hol hamo’ed).
“The shiva period enabled closure by forcing me to concentrate on my father himself,” she told me. “In a nutshell, it allowed me to come to grips with the actual loss.”
Yet another friend observed that a death – like a wedding – is part of a community structure, and its rituals are there to help people cope. Sitting shiva leaves them little time to engage in painful thinking, allowing them instead to give room to their emotions, knowing that the community is there to support them.
“When you see the grave, and the body lowered into it – the path we are all on – that is a frightening thing,” he said. “Shiva helps soften that reality by surrounding the bereaved family with love and concern, distracting them from thoughts that are too sad to cope with.”
If that is true when the deceased was with us for a good many years, it is all the more true when loved ones are snatched away long before their time as a result of accident or injury or – as happens all too often in Israel – malice aforethought on the part of those who have been taught to hate and to sow death and destruction among us.
In such a case, the shiva and its massive outpouring of empathy can take the mourning family only to the very beginning of the long, hard road back to everyday life. But it is a vital part of the process, nonetheless.
WHEN MY father, Charles Lowy, died in 1998, I sat shiva with my brother in London. My dad, a cantor, had been loved and widely respected, and there was a near-constant stream of people.
One I remember in particular was a colleague from another synagogue, who arrived during a lull when there were no other visitors.
He came in, sat down, and for a full half-hour regaled us with one funny story after another about congregational life and the traditional rivalry between rabbis and cantors. He was a born storyteller, and – shiva emotions heightened as they are – we laughed and laughed until the tears ran down our faces.
When he left, my brother and I looked at each other, out of breath, amazed and, perhaps, a trifle abashed at having enjoyed a shiva call so much.
But there was no doubt about it: We had been comforted, and we felt it.