The Blessings of Shivah

You know those rabbis 2,000 years ago whose views are so archaic? Turns out they were pretty smart.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

12 thoughts on “The Blessings of Shivah”

  1. That was lovely, Johnathan. I'm sorry for your loss. And I'm glad you found a blessing in the rituals of your faith tradition.

  2. Wednesday is my mother's yahrzeit. I said Kaddish for her for the requisite eleven months. I had not done so for my father and regret it even now, 37 years after the fact.

    There is something comforting not only about shiva, but about the entire year-long mourning process. From personal experience, I can tell you that it will be your mother's lasting gift to you.

  3. All I can say is "Y E S " It would have made such a difference.

    Instead I mourn sporadically and nothing is finished.

    thank you Jonathan for sharing your loving farewells to your mother

  4. That is beautiful and I am glad you shared these thoughts. That is just why traditions should not be regarded as archaic. The fact is that traditions serve an essential, timeless human need, and modern life does not change our essential nature or essential needs. Mr. Zasloff, may you be well comforted in your sorrow.

  5. A beautiful post.

    Shiva is not for everybody. When my mom died, my uncle (93 years old) was going to sit shiva with me and my brother. But he couldn't tolerate dealing with his sister's death, and couldn't bear to admit this. Fortunately, G-d sent an impending snowstorm, which provided the perfect excuse for my taking him back home. So I couldn't sit shiva. But at least my uncle regained his equilibrium.

  6. I'm sorry for your loss, Johnathan. May happy memories of your mother bring you peace in your sorrow.

    How are non-Jewish friends and neighbors included in your mourning? I guess your mother lived in a Jewish neighborhood, so all the neighbors you talked to would be eligible for a minyan (women too?).

  7. While reading this lovely description, I found myself wishing that this deep understanding of what so many people need after a loss extended to other religions and traditions in our society. Instead, so many people are faced with messages from friends and co-workers that, after a short time, we should just 'get on with our lives.' The recognition by our society that 'our lives' are never quite the same after the death of a loved one and that we all need some time, some space, and some understanding would be quite a blessing.

  8. Couple of remarks:

    First, to Cardinal Fang (nice name). As with most things Jewish, the answer to your question depends upon what sort of Jew you're talking to. Jonathan and I were raised Conservative – accordingly, although our non-Jewish friends were not counted in the quorum for praying, any and all were welcome to join in. I think a good many dozen friends and associates came over at various times, to chat or hang out or feed us (we both noticed that there was more food in the house over that weekend than at practically any time in the previous six months, to such an extent that at times the refrigerator wouldn't close). In short, there is no specified role for non-Jewish friends in Jewish mourning, but I imagine that the following Talmudic law could apply equally well to visitors of all faiths: When paying a condolence call, one goes into the house of mourning and waits for the mourner(s) to speak first. This is because, although one would wish to console the mourner immediately, one doesn't really know what the mourner needs at that moment – to speak of the dead, to speak of something else, or to be silent. As is often the case in Jewish law, we all want to be decent, sensitive people, and Talmud tells us just what actions to take in order to fulfill that wish.

    Second – I'd like to acknowledge Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard of Adat Ari El Synagogue, who met with us on Wednesday and officiated at the funeral the next morning. We both wanted to sit Shiva, but found ourselves flailing about somewhat, since we had never done it before and were not (as Jonathan points out) part of a community where the appropriate steps were familiar. Rabbi Bernhard was a gem. He's the one who reassured me, when I wondered how we'd get groceries in during the week, that it would be taken care of. And it certainly was.

  9. Cardinal Fang: Non-Jewish friends and neighbors, and for that matter Jewish women and children, can participate fully in every aspect of consoling the mourner except for making up the count of 10 adult (over 13) men needed for a minyan for Jewish prayer.

    In fact, praying at the shiva house is a tangential aspect of shiva — a practical necessity to allow the mourners to pray at home since they can't go out to the synagogue (except on Shabbat), as Jonathan notes — and not by itself considered consoling the mourner.

    What we Jews refer to as "paying a shiva call" is accessible to all: visiting the mourner(s) during the shiva period, letting him/her set the tone depending on his mood/needs at that moment: telling stories of the deceased, asking for memories of others, or not. And, by definition, showing your respect for the deceased and the mourners by showing up. See, e.g., A Practical Gide to Paying a Shiva Call at http://www.aish.com/jl/l/dam/48970361.html . And yes, family, friends, the community are supposed to ensure that the mourners are fed throughout the week and offer to help in any other way necessary (watch little kids, pick up medicine, whatever). After the week of shiva, too, as needed.

    A very meaningful ritual, along the lines that Jonathan discusses of gently lifting one from death back into life, occurs on the last day of the shiva. After morning prayers, the mourners go outside and literally walk around the block, rejoining the living as it were.

    Jonathan — thank you for the beautiful piece. May you and your family be comforted along with those mourning for Zion and Jerusalem.

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