Shiva Shifts Toward Shorter and Livelier Jewish Mourning for Dead

Catered 3-Day Events Common Among Less Observant

Some Truth in Jest: Though mourning ceremonies are becoming less rigid in their ritual, few would go so far as including a mariachi band such as the one featured in the 2007 comedy ‘My Mexican Shivah.’
courtesy of springall pictures/emerging pictures
Some Truth in Jest: Though mourning ceremonies are becoming less rigid in their ritual, few would go so far as including a mariachi band such as the one featured in the 2007 comedy ‘My Mexican Shivah.’

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published March 18, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

As many an American rabbi will tell you, even Jews who rarely go to Sabbath or holiday services will often contact a local synagogue after losing a loved one, requesting help to arrange the shiva, the week-long mourning period, so that he or she can say kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.

Rabbis often lend mourners Maurice Lamm’s well-known guidebook, “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,” and traditional Jews still adhere to most of the laws and customs Lamm describes. Mourners sit on low stools for seven days; fellow congregants, neighbors and friends bring them home-baked or store-bought meals; the mourners speak about their lost loved one and the family history, express their sorrow and occasionally break into tears.

Visitors sit for 20 to 30 minutes, and then bid farewell to the mourners, using the Hebrew phrase, Ha’makom yenachem b’toch she’ar avelai tziyon vi’yerushalayim” [May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem] or the Yiddish expression, Ir zolt mer nit visn fun ken tsar [May you not know any more sorrow].

But among secular and religiously liberal Jews round the country, the shiva is shorter; the food is not just for mourners, and the mood in the shiva house can become much less solemn. At the Reform congregation Keneseth Israel, in Elkins Park, Pa., shiva usually lasts three days and the food is catered, Rabbi Lance Sussman told the Forward. “At the average shiva I’m involved in, visitors are greeted by generous platters of corn beef, bagels, lox and cream cheese. In fact, shiva is pretty much the last hurrah of deli food.”

The phenomenon of a three-day shiva, where the mood is livelier, is not new, notes Vanessa Ochs, professor of Religious Studies and Jewish Studies Program at the University of Virginia and the author of the 2007 book “Inventing Jewish Ritual.”

“For the past several decades we’ve seen people sitting only one or three days shiva, and often the atmosphere takes on more of a cocktail reception, with catered food and even alcohol,” Ochs explained. “As I see it, it’s simply an appropriation of certain aspects of American Christian social behaviors following funerals, including an overall mood of ‘celebrating the life’ of the deceased.”

Of course, much depends on the age of the deceased and the predictability of his or her death. When a Jewish man loses his teenage daughter to cancer or a car accident, for example, the mood as he sits shiva would understandably be much more tearful than if he had just buried his 85-year old mother.

“For sure that would be different,” Sussman said. “Not all shivas have a touch of levity.”

Similarly, the shortened shiva doesn’t necessarily mean that visitors are insensitive to the needs of the mourners. At Congregation Beth Israel, in Charlottesville, Va., shiva lasts only one day, but the Caring Committee makes sure to provide the mourners with the meal of consolation. The committee also leads the minyan and invites the mourner to talk about the deceased.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.