Jewish tradition divides the period of mourning into four basic periods, during which different customs are observed. The first is the period of aninut, the time between death and burial. After burial, there is shiva – the first week of mourning, shloshim – the first month, and the first year. After this, one commemorates the deceased's passing once a year, on the Hebrew date of his death. The customs observed and the signs of mourning diminish as one moves farther away from the moment of death. The purpose of the mourning customs is to help the mourners find a proper balance between their desire and need to mourn and the necessity that Jewish tradition sees in returning to everyday living. Customs of mourning guide the mourners in appropriate behavior at a time of grief and despair and help ease their confusion and doubts. As time passes, the expectation and hope is that people recover from their overwhelming grief, return to their routine, and require less and less external direction.
Jewish tradition differentiates between different relatives regarding the length of mourning. For parents one mourns an entire year, while for other relatives (brother, sister, child, or spouse) one mourns for 30 days. This tradition developed because of the presumption that a parent's death is generally natural, and thus the mourner is encouraged to mourn. Since other deaths are unexpected, it is common that a person will grieve excessively, and Jewish tradition attempts to encourage him to recover and resume his routine. One does not observe any period of mourning for a baby who died within 30 days of birth due to the high incidence of infant mortality throughout history.
Shiva, which begins immediately after burial, is Jewish tradition's way of guiding mourners to cope with their anguish and return to their lives. The mourners do not wallow alone in their grief but spend time surrounded by friends, family, and fellow mourners. The mourners do not leave the 'mourning house' the entire week, and with friends and acquaintances visiting constantly, generally they are not left alone for more than a moment.
Shiva is seven days long, seven being symbolic of the number of days of creation.
Shiva commences immediately after burial. The day of the funeral will count as the first day of shiva even if the burial takes place just before sunset (in Jewish tradition, the day begins and ends at sunset). Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day after burial, after the mourners have sat for merely a few minutes.
Customs of Shiva
Immediately upon returning from the cemetery, the mourners partake in a meal called the se'udat havra'ah. At this meal, it is customary to eat round foods, such as eggs, lentils, and bagels symbolizing the life cycle. Since the return to normal life is curtailed during the week of shiva, it is customary for your meals to be prepared and served to you by others. During this week, the mourners are also discouraged from bathing, changing or laundering their clothing, cutting their hair or shaving, applying makeup or cream, wearing leather shoes, engaging in sexual relations, or leaving the house. Some also have the custom not to eat meat or drink wine – foods that represent happiness and festivity. Mourners also do not study save the portions that deal with mourning, nor do they greet others and inquire about their welfare. Mourners sit only on low benches.
Some people spend the entire shiva in one house and even in one room, even when the house is small and there are many mourners. Others spend the day together but go home at night. The customs also vary regarding washing and applying ointments. Washing or applying creams for pleasure and wearing new clothes is generally discouraged. Some people, however, rinse, at least in cold water, parts of their body, and launder their clothing at night so that they can wear them again the next day.
Prayer, Blessings, and Study in the Mourner's House
In order to enable the mourners to say Kaddish in a minyan, some people organize regular prayer services in the house in which the mourners are sitting shiva. One must arrange for a Sefer Torah, siddurim, and kippot, as well as ten men who can commit to coming at prayer times. The order of prayer in the mourner's house is normative, except for the addition of the Mourner's Kaddish, and Psalm 49 or 16, and the omission of Tachanun, LaMenatzeach, and the Priestly Blessing. We also refrain from particularly joyous tunes in prayer. If one is unable to conduct prayer services in one's home, one may go to a synagogue in order to say Kaddish.
There are certain differences in the Grace after Meals recited in the mourner's house.
Some use the following special wording when reciting the zimun (the call to bless God recited before Grace after Meals when at least three men have eaten together) in the home of a mourner: 'Let us bless the one who comforts mourners, [and] of whose we have eaten’ instead of 'Let us bless the one from whom we ate’.
Some add the following special passage in the third blessing as a substitute for ‘Rebuild Jerusalem’:
O comfort, Lord our God, the mourners of Jerusalem and those who mourn this sad event. Console them from their mourning and gladden them from their grief, as it is said, ‘Like a man whose mother consoles him, so I will console you, and in Jerusalem you will be consoled’ (Isaiah 66:13). Blessed are you, Lord, comforter of the mourners and builder of Jerusalem speedily in our days, Amen.
When reciting Grace after Meals in the mourner's home, the fourth blessing is revised to read as follows:
Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, the Almighty, our father, our king, our sovereign, our creator, our redeemer, our maker, our holy one, holy one of Jacob, our shepherd, the shepherd of Israel, the good and beneficent king, for every single day He did good, does good and will do good to us. He is the living king who is good and who does good for all, God of truth, judge of truth, who judges with righteousness, who takes souls with justice, who rules His universe to do with it as He wishes, for all His ways are with justice and we are His nation and His servants. For everything we are obliged to thank Him and to bless Him. He who repairs the breaches of Israel, may He repair this breach from us and from this mourner for life, for peace, and for all good; and of all good things may He never deprive us.
In most mourners' homes in which the three daily prayers are recited, the time between the Mincha prayer service and the Maariv prayer service is dedicated to study for the elevation of the soul of the deceased. It is common to study Mishnah (because of the similarity between the word Mishnah and neshama), and there is a tradition to learn chapters whose initial letters spell the first name of the deceased as well as the last four Mishnahs of the seventh chapter of Tractate Mikvaot, whose initial letters spell neshama.
You may have begun to set up the shiva house before shiva started. Do not hesitate, though, to ask friends and relatives who are not in mourning for help with whatever arrangements remain to be made. Your friends will be more than glad for this opportunity.
Choosing a Place
It is worthwhile to consider carefully the best place to sit. Sometimes it is clearly the house of the departed. Sometimes there are different alternatives and then it is best to see which is best for the mourners: take into account the distance for mourners and those who will want to pay respect, how much space there is for the necessary equipment and for davening and resting purposes. If there’s not enough room some people erect mourner’s tents adjacent to their homes.
One needs to equip the selected apartment with chairs, memorial candles that will remain lit for the entire week, and – if prayer services will be conducted there – a Sefer Torah, siddurim, and kippot. One can borrow these articles from the chevra kadisha or from a gemach (a charitable organization which lends these articles out for free). For the society closest to you click here.. It is customary, particularly in Sephardic and Middle Eastern communities, to serve full meals to the guests who come to comfort the mourners. The blessings that these visitors recite aloud before eating are considered to be a blessing for the soul of the deceased. If this is your custom, make sure that you have disposable dishes and appropriate tables and chairs, and neighbors will generally bring the food. In other communities (especially Ashkenazic) it is customary to set out only drinks and cookies or fruit, and you will may need to arrange and buy the necessary provisions.
Arranging the Place
The mourners customarily sit on low seats: either on mattresses laid out on the ground, on couches and chairs with their cushions removed, or on stools which can be borrowed. It is also customary to cover all the mirrors in the mourners' house with sheets or handkerchiefs. The door of the house is generally left open during the time when visitors are expected. In order to help visitors locate the correct apartment, it is customary to hang mourning notices on the front of the building and on the door of the house. You can also specify on these notices the hours during which you prefer to receive visitors and those in which you want some privacy and rest. Visitors and family members will appreciate looking through any family albums that you bring to the shiva house.
Visiting the Grave
After sitting for a short time on the seventh day, the shiva customs are completed. It is customary for the mourner and family to visit the deceased's grave at this time. At the cemetery, one customarily conducts a short ceremony during which certain Psalms (usually Psalms 33, 16, 72, 91, 104, and 130), and verses (from Psalm 119) whose initial letters spell the first name of the deceased and the word neshama (soul) are recited. One concludes this ceremony with the recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish (provided there is a minyan) and the prayer El Malei Rachamim. After the religious ceremony, it is appropriate to share personal thoughts and memories, if the family wishes.
Proper Conduct when Visiting Mourners
If you aren't a close relative or friend of the mourners or deceased, avoid visiting the mourner's home on the first or second day of shiva. Allow the mourners time to be with their family and by themselves.
Though you may have a very busy schedule, you need be considerate of the mourners – realize that they receive visitors all day long, and they are physically and emotionally worn out. Don't begin your visit after 10 PM. If you are in the mourners' house late at night, consider shortening your visit. Many families rest between 2 and 4 PM so try not to visit then. If you see that you are the only visitor, consider returning at a different time so that the mourners can take the opportunity to rest a little. If you see that the mourner is eating, encourage him to continue – you can wait a few minutes for him or return later. Always remember that your objective is to comfort the mourner and not to inconvenience him in any way.
What to Bring?
In most places, particularly in Sephardic and Middle Eastern communities, it is customary to bring the mourners food. The mourners' families shoulder a heavy burden preparing the food, cleaning the house, taking care of the children, and hosting the visitors, particularly in communities in which all the visitors are served meals. Any food that you cook for them will be greatly appreciated. Try to bring the food in disposable dishes, so that no one will have to bother storing and returning your dishes. If you don't keep kosher, buy and bring ready-made food. Some mourners have the custom not to eat meat during shiva so check before bringing any meat dishes. Bringing flowers to the mourners' house is not customary in most Jewish communities, and may even be viewed as insensitive since flowers are associated with happiness and not with mourning.
What to Say?
Certain mourning practices exacerbate the unease that generally characterizes any visit to a mourner’s house. Upon entering the mourner's home, the visitor generally does not extend greetings. Jewish tradition suggests that the mourner initiate any conversation. There may be an uncomfortable silence until the mourner begins talking – at that point, however, help him out by raising your own topics of discussion: inquire as to the circumstances of death; if you didn't know the deceased, ask about him and his life. In general, the mourners are eager to talk about their departed relative. Ask to see pictures and family albums – looking through pictures together will often lead to conversation. If you are offered something to eat, don't refuse since the blessings you recite over food before eating in the mourner's house are viewed by many as a way to give respect to the deceased. Upon leaving the mourner's house, it is customary to say:
How to Dress?
Though one doesn't need to adhere to a specific dress code when going to visit a mourner, one avoids dressing in festive, showy, or revealing clothing simply out of common decency. Some men put on a kippa or other head covering.
Realize that shloshim – the thirty days of mourning – begins at the time of burial and not after shiva ends, so all mourning practices that relate specifically to the shloshim period, practically speaking, apply for only three weeks (after shiva) and not four.
Some of the mourning practices continue into shloshim and some cease with the end of shiva. The stricter prohibitions regarding dress, washing, wearing shoes, leaving the house, and refraining from work no longer apply. For the entire thirty-day period, however, tradition discourages cutting one's hair, shaving, wearing new clothing, attending festive meals or weddings, or going to places of entertainment. Some people also don't wear freshly ironed or festive clothing, bathe in hot water, or listen to any music. Mourners recite the Mourner's Kaddish for this entire period so even people who don't regularly pray in a synagogue make sure to do so during shloshim. Some people take it upon themselves to wear a kippa (or hat) while others light memorial candles during this whole period.
At the end of shloshim, the deceased's family visits his grave. Some people erect a tombstone at this point, while others wait until the first anniversary of death. At the grave, it is customary to recite verses from Psalms, the Mourner's Kaddish, and El Malei Rachamim, and to have family or friends share personal thoughts. You can either run this ceremony by yourself or hire a rabbi to officiate it for you for a token fee..
The period of mourning for all relatives except parents concludes with the end of shloshim.
Year (12 Months)
When one is in mourning for one's parents, certain of the laws of shloshim apply for an entire year. The mourner is discouraged from attending festive celebrations or social gatherings, and wearing new clothing. The mourner doesn’t shave or cut his hair even after shloshim, but the precise practice can vary: some people extend the prohibition the entire year, while others shave immediately after shloshim. Jewish law requires that a man grow his beard wild (in mourning) until ‘his friends reprimand him’. Therefore, if one's profession or status requires it, one can already shave when shloshim ends. One recites the Mourner's Kaddish (and goes to synagogue for this purpose) for 11 months from burial. At the end of the year of mourning, family and friends visit the grave and conduct a short religious ceremony and share personal thoughts. It is customary to visit the grave each year on the 'anniversary' of the death to remember the deceased?
Anniversary (Yahrzeit) and Yizkor Days
Every year, on the Hebrew date of death (not burial), the deceased's family customarily marks the day and remembers the deceased. It is customary to light a memorial candle that will burn for the entire 24-hour period, to visit the deceased's grave, and to conduct a short ceremony there. After going to the cemetery, the deceased's family usually gets together to share memories, and to learn Mishnah (or other texts) for the elevation of the soul of the deceased.
It is customary to recite the yizkor (remembrance) prayers four times each year: on Yom Kippur, the seventh day of Pesach, Shavuot, and Simchat Torah (in Israel, the same day as Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot) after the Torah reading and before the Mussaf prayer. In these prayers, we remember both those for whom the entire congregation mourns – martyrs of the Holocaust and casualties of Israel's battles – as well as personal relatives who have died. One whose relative has passed away traditionally lights a memorial candle on these days.
Mourning on Shabbat and Festivals
Though Shabbat does not terminate either the seven days of shiva or the thirty days of shloshim, there is no public mourning on Shabbat. Therefore, mourners leave the house on Shabbat, put on clean clothes, and bathe for Shabbat (though some have the custom not to bathe, at least in hot water, even for Shabbat). The mourners enter the synagogue on Friday night only after Lecha Dodi is sung. Before they enter, one of the worshipers announces: 'Go out to greet the mourners', at which point the congregation stands up and greets the mourners on their way to their seats, saying:the traditional mourners greeting
In contrast to Shabbat, certain festivals do in fact terminate or postpone shiva: if burial took place before Pesach, Sukkot or Shavuot or before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, these holidays terminate shiva or cancel it completely. On the other hand, if burial took place during the Intermediate days, then the start of shiva is postponed until after the festival. Shiva is not postponed because of Purim, though we do change clothes and leave the house in its honor.
If you have questions regarding shiva practices, call the ITIM hotline 1700-500-507