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The Ways We Mourn

Of all the issues I engage with my congregants around, I find shiva–Jewish mourning practices–to be among the strangest and most challenging. The vast majority of my congregants –like the overwhelming majority of Jews in this country today–don’t understand themselves as bound within a halachic (Jewish legal) framework that obligates them to act in particular ways.

The original purpose of shiva minyans (the quorum of 10 adults, traditionally men, for prayer) after all, is to allow mourners to maintain their obligation not to leave their home (except on Shabbat, when shiva is suspended) while simultaneously providing a minyan so they can fulfill their obligation to recite kaddish (the prayer recited in honor of the dead) for their loved one: If you can’t take yourself to the minyan, we bring the minyan to you.


But most of the people I work with simply don’t think that way. They may want to stay home for a few days so close friends can stop by, and they’ll want minyanim in the evening–but usually more because this provides a focal point and activity for bringing community than for the service itself.

The truth is, the way our suburban community is organized, many of the traditional mourning rituals don’t make sense. Dual-career households mean fewer people can stop by and visit during the day. Mourners themselves may wish to take off from work for a couple of days, but sitting at home for a week on low benches feels odd and oppressive. Other observances, such as not shaving or greeting visitors, also feel arbitrary and awkward, especially when so many of the visitors–Jewish and non-Jewish–don’t come from a cultural context where these observances make sense.


Of course, many aspects of Jewish practice require education–and, more important, experience–to be fully appreciated. Shabbat is a prime example of an observance that does not “fit” with the way we tend to order our lives–precisely because it is not supposed to, because it is a step outside of and a counterweight to our usual daily activities.

Similarly, I see great beauty and dignity in many aspects of traditional Jewish mourning practices. But following the death of a loved one, when the family is looking for comfort, doesn’t feel like the right time to launch into a shiva dos-and-don’ts lecture. Better to find a way to incorporate those mourning practices that families find meaningful and comforting–lighting a shiva candle, covering mirrors, inviting guests in for scheduled services and close friends to stop by as they wish–than to fit a family’s grief into a more standard set of rituals that may or may not be meaningful, or even familiar, to the mourners. And if this includes practices not part of a traditional shiva–planting a tree, playing music special to the person who has died, looking at photographs–well, that’s OK too.


There are, of course, Jewish communities where the traditional rituals of shiva are organic and nourishing to their members, and they should appreciate and maintain them. But in places where these practices only confuse rather than comfort, make angst rather than make sense, we must allow mourners to express their sorrow and move toward healing in ways that draw on the traditional practices but also feel more natural to them.

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posted June 22, 2006 at 2:30 pm

The first time I ever had the solemn responsibility of leading a shiva minyan, I was nervous about nusach, because I barely knew the weekday evening melodies. (That’s still true; I’m looking forward to learning them this summer in the liturgical leadership training program I’ll be beginning.) My rabbi smiled ruefully and pointed out to me that many contemporary liberal Jews only encounter the weekday evening nusach during shiva, and therefore believe those melodies to be specific to mourning! It made me laugh a little, which calmed me down, which was exactly what I needed at the time. Still, I return to that conversation often. I wish I knew how to make things like nusach compelling to my community.

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posted June 22, 2006 at 3:18 pm

I appreciate the effort the rabbi makes to ease what I see as the possible psychological and emotional burden of following traditional shiva practices “just so” during a time of great loss. It’s hard enough for a Jew like me, raised without deep knowledge of practices but still with a sense of Yiddishkeit and wanting to do the right thing, to know what to do when the time comes. Putting the advice in terms of incorporating practices into daily life to make it meaningful is helpful, whether it applies to shiva, Shabbat, or any other time where great ritual is usually involved.

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Dorothy Hanna

posted June 22, 2006 at 10:49 pm

Why cover the mirrors? I’ve always done this. I don’t know why, but it felt right, and so I do it. Why do the Jews cover the mirrors, during mourning.

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posted June 22, 2006 at 11:36 pm

I never thought about creamation in that way. I thought when I passed away that I would be cremeated. But after what you said I want to be buried the right way. Thank you and God bless you.

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posted June 23, 2006 at 2:54 am

Thank you for explaining why jews should not be creamated. When I was in the service and was in Vietnam, I always “specify” that I do not want to be creamated.

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posted June 23, 2006 at 2:15 pm

One covers the mirrors so one is not thinking about something mundane like vanity during the time of mourning/shiva.

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posted June 23, 2006 at 7:01 pm

I think a lot of people feel this way. If I am mourning, how does Shabbat take over, I am hurting over the lost of a love one and the Shabbat is surpose to make me happy? I can start mourning again on Sunday? It don’t make sense. I have a yahrzeit on Purim and I can never get into the total celebration anymore.

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posted June 23, 2006 at 9:45 pm

The first time I ever came to daily services in a synagogue, I was really creeped out when some very nice gentleman asked me if I was there for a yahrzeit, as though nobody came to daily prayers for any other reason. But I was a lot younger then, and still had both my parents. Since then, I have really come to appreciate the Jewish rituals for mourning–not just the first few days and weeks, but the entire first year. I believe it is a very constructive spiritual path, and psychologically sound. Showing up every day for kaddish forces you to become part of an ongoing community when grief might otherwise drive you into isolation. Special tzedekah projects give you a really constructive way to relate to the person you have lost. We should educate our young people about this before they have to deal with it in their own lives, so they can fall back on it when they need it.

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posted June 30, 2006 at 7:38 pm

When my father passed away, the rabbi gave us a copy of a book on mourning customs, I think it was Lamm’s. My sister and I passed it back and forth, glad to have something concrete to be anchored to in a time of chaos.

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posted July 15, 2006 at 12:03 pm

One covers mirrors in the Jewish mourning ritual so that the spirits of the dead cannot look back through them. The occult science of SCRYING, (looking into mirrors to see the dead…and the past and future), and the ancient Greek practice of the PSYCHOMANTIUM, (which Oprah Winfrey discussed with Dr. Ramond Moody, when he was a guest on her show), do the same thing…as do crystal balls. But Jews are forbidden these things. As they are also forbidden to put flowers on graves of loved ones. Instead, Jews must put STONES. I think these things are terribly unfair–flowers, with their wonderful scents, seem to invite beloved dead to return. Stones keep them in their graves! It has been said that the 21st century will be the time when the “veil” between the living and the dead will begin to part….and we will finally at least begin to know what happens after death. Experiences around MRI machines, older televisions, and other electronic devices, have proved fascinatingly tantalizing beginning glimpses into this. “GhostHunters” is a big hit, as is “The Dead Zone”, and “Medium”. I surely hope that Jewish law will allow Jews, too, to explore in this direction if they wish to. If not….well, if you had to chose between being a “religiously-correct” Jew, and meeting your lost loved ones once again….what would you choose? What would most people choose? (I am sure of what I would choose!)

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