Before my mother died, the only thing that I understood about the Jewish mourning practice of Shivah is that you sit it, i.e. “they are sitting Shivah for their Mom.” The mourners stayed at their house and guests would sometimes come over. But after actually doing it this past week (until last Wednesday), I have come to understand that there is a real genius to the process.
Shivah, it seems to me, is a time for withdrawal from the outside world in order to allow for quiet reflection and spiritual focus. It’s not necessarily sackcloth, ashes, and wailing — often, anything but. The point is to block out distractions. I took the time to pray and read, particularly the writings of the Sefat Emet, the great 19th century Hasidic master. If you have any interest in Judaism, the Bible, or mysticism — run, don’t walk, and pick up Arthur Green’s spectacular translation of the Sefat Emet’s Torah commentaries. (In honor of Andy Sabl, and to make sure I didn’t get completely sucked into the ether, I also took in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.).
I didn’t read a newspaper for a week. (I didn’t even read RBC.) I didn’t follow politics at all. A last, great blessing from Mom!
Shivah blocks out bitterness in many ways. Your loved one has just died; your world is transformed. But if you carried on as before, everything around you would seem the same — traffic jams, news reports, commercial frenzy. That would add insult to injury. My world has changed! Why hasn’t everyone else’s?
The seven days allow one to put the death into perspective, to let a little time to come between the death and the mourner’s new life. You can’t just do the funeral and have the reception and go on like before. Judaism requires that funeral occur very quickly after the death, usually no more than 48 hours. Shivah allows the mourner to come up from the experience in a gentle and meaningful way.
But it seems to me that perhaps the greatest blessing of the process is what it allows for the mourner’s friends. Traditionally, daily prayers are held at the mourner’s home because he or she cannot go to the synagogue. My brother and I did not do that, but we held prayers for the first four days of the week.
Those were wonderful moments precisely because a couple of nights we had a hard time getting a minyan, i.e. the required quorum of 10 adult Jews. So I went around my Mom’s cul-de-sac, seeing who was available. And people came running. My Mom’s 93-year-old neighbor, who probably hadn’t been to shul in half a century, came right over, and then the next night, and then the next.
When a loved one dies, people come to the mourner and say, “Is there anything I can do for you?” And with shivah, the answer is “Yes! Yes! There is something you can do for me!” You can come make a minyan. The mourners aren’t leaving the house to get groceries: you can bring over a brisket. (Someone actually did this). Out of the death of a loved one comes the love of a community.
Shivah is perfect for the world of the shtetl, where everyone knows each other and everyone lives two blocks away. But that hardly implies that it is outdated today: far from it. Shivah is actually more meaningful because it builds connections in today’s environment, where it is so easy to be detached. It is more relevant and powerful than ever.
Now, the sloshim, the thirty days after the death, where (inter alia) one is not supposed to shave or engage in public celebrations. And of course the 11 months of saying Kaddish. Notice: the whole process gently and slowly lifts the mourner up, from death to life, from grief to strength, allowing time to heal wounds. Not bad for an archaic tradition.