In Structure We Find Comfort
Jewish mourning practices give permission to mourners to fully participate in their grief. These traditional mourning periods offer protection from the demands of daily life and allow adequate time for psychological adjustment, with a gradual re-emergence into society.
One is a mourner by obligation for the death of parents, children, siblings or spouse. However, anyone is allowed to observe the mourning rites. The mourner is called an onen during the time between death and the funeral, and an avel after the funeral.
Shiva is the Hebrew word for seven and refers to the second stage of mourning which begins immediately after the grave has been filled, and lasts for seven days. After the funeral, hands are washed either at the cemetery or outside the mourner’s home and a seven-day candle, ner daluk (burning light), is lit to symbolize the soul of the deceased.
For seven days, the mourner is not expected to place emphasis on their appearance nor participate in regular business routines or joyous occasions. Friends and Jewish community members may provide food and assist in household duties to relieve the mourners of these tasks.
The first three days are the most intense, after which a mourner may return to work if financial loss is a critical issue. Some observers cover mirrors, refrain from sexual relations, do not wear shoes, and sit on low stools to differentiate this time from all other times in their life. Full participation in their grieving process is a priority. Shiva is suspended for Shabbat and Holidays, allowing the mourner to attend services.
At the end of the seven-day period, mourners are encouraged to walk around the block as a first step back into the real world.
Meal of Consolation
A seudat havra’ah, meal of consolation, is prepared for the mourner by volunteers in the Jewish community and usually occurs after the funeral service. This tradition includes a simple meal of round foods, such as lentils, to symbolize the continuity and hopefulness of the life cycle, and hard-boiled eggs, a symbol of life. Meat is excluded. Bread is provided as the staff of life and dairy foods are often included for ease of digestion. The Meal of Consolation is not in any way a social event.
Etiquette of Shiva Calls
Directly following the funeral, family and members of the Jewish community provide nichum avelim, comfort to the mourner, by visiting their home for a short amount of time to participate in their grief. Shiva is not meant to be a party and conversation should focus on the deceased. The tendency to make shiva a festivity with entertainment, food buffets and socializing is strongly discouraged. Mourners are not obligated to have food or drink available for those who visit. Shivaetiquette calls for a deep respect for mourners, leaving them to decide with whom they talk and for how long.
Minyan and Kaddish
A gathering of ten Jewish adults form a minyan, which is required before the mourner’s Kaddish may be recited. Friends and family go to the home to enable the bereaved fulfillment of this mitzvah.
The second stage of mourning lasts for thirty (shloshim) days from the time of burial and is less intense than that of shiva. Mourners may return to their regular activities in business and home. However, it is appropriate for mourners to refrain from festive activities such as going to the movies, theater, dances or parties.
The first Hebrew year (Shanah) of mourning is often called Avelut, Hebrew for lamenting. This period is observed only when mourning ones parents. Reform Jews may recite Kaddish for 11 of those months at a daily minyan or regularly at Shabbat services. The restrictions on social activities are a matter of personal choice. After the first year, mourners are encouraged to resume all usual social activities.
Our prayer after the passing of a loved one is that their memory might be for a blessing. Remembrance is at the heart of Jewish tradition and the formal remembrance of a loved one is done by observing the Yahrtzeit (Yiddish for anniversary) of their death.
It is also traditional to observe the anniversary according to the Hebrew calendar, but one is free to observe the secular date as well.
Public observance takes place in the temple, on the Shabbat after the anniversary. The name of the deceased is recited and the Mourner’s Kaddish may be said if a minyan is present. Contributions to charity are also traditional on yahrzeit dates.
Before lighting the Yahrzeit candle:
In this quiet moment, I light this light as I remember _____________. I will always be grateful for the light of love, joy and compassion that he/she brought into my life. Adonai, help me to use his/her memory to inspire me to live well and to do a little better each day. May I always cherish and reflect to the world all that was admirable and beautiful in his/her character. Help me, God, to keep my faith that we cannot go where You are not, and to remember that he/she brought into my life.
After lighting the Yahrzeit Candle:
For remembering a Male: Zichrono livracha, his memory is a blessing.
For remembering a Female: Zichronah Livracha, her memory is a blessing.
Hebrew for ‘remembrance,’ Yizkor is a memorial service held four times a year, but most solemnly on Yom Kippur, as the entire community joins together in remembrance of loved ones who have died recently or in years past.
Unveiling the Gravestone
An unveiling is a brief graveside ritual held any time after Shloshim, marking the formal setting of the deceased’s matzevah, or gravestone, at the cemetery. A cloth or veil is removed from the gravestone in the presence of immediate family and very close friends, with the reciting of prayers and memorials.
Visiting the Grave
Traditionally, Jews visit graves every Yahrzeit and before the High Holy Days. Pebbles or torn blades of grass are placed on gravestones as a sign that members of the family have come to visit and remember.