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.