During the period of Nihum Avelim (Comforting the Mourners), mourners observe a variety of different traditions. When TBA clergy meets with a family who has lost a loved one, we discuss the concept of and planning for shiv’ah, the seven days of mourning that are distinguished by specific observances in Jewish tradition as well as subsequent markers in the mourning cycle.
Who is a Mourner?
The mitzvot associated with mourning are limited to seven relationships: spouse, father, mother, son, daughter, brother or sister. For the death of these relatives, the mitzvot include: observing the Shiv’ah and Shloshim periods, recitation of Kaddish (duration varies according to different relationships), marking the Yahrzeit anniversary of the death, and participating in Yizkor memorial services held on Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot.
What is Shiv’ah?
Shiv’ah means “seven,” and refers to the days following burial. Shiv’ah begins the day of the funeral, immediately following the first Mourners’ Kaddish recited at graveside. The first day of shiv’ah is constituted by the portion of the day that is remaining after the burial. The second day of shiv’ah begins with sunset. During clergy meetings with the family, we assist the family with counting and understanding the exact days of shiv’ah, taking into account holidays that may affect how shiv’ah is counted and observed. Although Shabbat is counted in the days of shiv’ah, the public expression of mourning is suspended. Mourners remove the kriah ribbon from their clothing before Shabbat come to the synagogue for services.
Before entering the home, we wash our hands to mark the transition from the funeral to consoling the mourners. Some wash directly upon leaving the cemetery and others wash at the home with a pitcher of water, a bowl and paper towels provided outside the home for this purpose. At this time a seven-day candle, symbolizing the soul of the deceased is lit in the home and burns throughout the shiv’ah.
The first meal after the funeral is known as the “Se’udat Havra’ah,” the meal of consolation takes place at the shiv’ah home. This meal is provided by members of the community and typically features round foods such as hard-boiled eggs to symbolize the circular nature of the lifecycle and wholeness. TBA has designated volunteers to help with this mitzvah and our Lifecycles Coordinator helps to connect these volunteers with mourners. The mourner should refrain from the role of host, but rather allow the community to care for and comfort them in a time of need. Shiv’ah participants are encouraged to bring food to the home while avoiding flowers, candy, or liquor.
On the other days of shiv’ah, (except Shabbat) morning and evening services are held in the mourners’ home. Mourners leave routine activities aside and concerns for personal appearance are set aside by covering mirrors and avoiding cosmetics. TBA congregants come to the mourners’ home to attend services there and to comfort the mourners. Our tradition focuses on turning the private space of a home into a public prayer space during the period of shiv’ah. TBA provides prayerbooks, kippot and low mourners’ chairs for each shiv’ah home and our Lifecycles Coordinator works with our clergy to help provide prayer leaders for the services during Shiv’ah. Traditionally these prayer leaders also share a Dvar Torah or a teaching from our tradition as a part of each service.
When visiting a shiv’ah home, we take cues from mourners. Rather than initiating conversation ourselves, we provide a quiet presence to allow the mourner to share memories of the deceased. We avoid typical greetings and resist the natural inclination to try to “cheer up” the mourner or distract him/her from expression of grief.
At the end of shiv’ah, it is traditional to be pulled up from the low chairs after the final kaddish is said. The mourner(s) are escorted on a brief walk around the block to symbolize their return to aspects of their routine, including a return to work.
Shloshim, 11 months and Yahrzeit
Shloshim, the thirty days that are counted from the time of the funeral, also marks a significant period in the mourning process. Mourners continue to say kaddish throughout this period and some observe other restrictions on attending joyous celebrations and listening to live music. With the conclusion of shloshim, mourners are no longer obligated to recite kaddish on a daily basis for the loss of a spouse, child, or sibling. However, children continue to say kaddish for the loss of a parent for eleven months and some continue to observe the restrictions of shloshim.
Around the first anniversary of the death, a simple tombstone is prepared for the deceased and a brief ceremony, an “unveiling” takes place at the grave.
Yahrzeit is the Yiddish word for the anniversary of the death that is determined by the Jewish calendar. Each year this is a time to recite kaddish in the synagogue minyan and to remember the deceased. Also the El Malei Rahamim prayer may generally be recited during a weekday or Shabbat afternoon Torah service during the week of the Yahrzeit. On the eve of the Yahrzeit, it is traditional to light a Yahrzeit candle in the home that burns for twenty-four hours.
Yizkor (Memorial) services are held at the synagogue on the eighth day of Pesah, the second day of Shavuot, the eighth day of Sukkot, and on Yom Kippur. Those who have lost a parent, sibling, child, or spouse participate along with the entire congregation.