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In the past, guests could be counted on to bring mourners food, but today people are much less likely to do so. Allison Moldo, the other co-founder of Shiva Sisters who has since left the business, notes, “it’s not like people are saying, ‘Can I make a kugel?’” (referring to the traditional Jewish noodle casserole). “Those days are over.”
But Lori Palatnik, a Jewish educator with a video blog at Aish.com, believes that the changes in shiva practices actually do a disservice to the mourners. “The word shiva is related to the word meaning seven,” she writes in one of her blog posts. “The number seven in Judaism is very significant, because it symbolizes completion in this world, as in the seven days of creation.”
“The current trend to sit for only three days comes from the belief that it will somehow make the mourning easier because it won’t ‘drag it out’, but that’s a mistake,” Palatnik explains. She tells the story of an adult student of hers who decided to sit shiva for her mother for three days. Although Palatnik didn’t approve, she didn’t say anything. But when she paid the mourner a shiva call, she was troubled by what she saw. “If I hadn’t known that someone had died, I would have thought I had walked into a cocktail party, full of food, laughter and drinks,” she said.
Palatnik looked around for her student, and finally found her in the kitchen, directing the hired waitresses. “I took her by the hand, sat her down and talked to her about her mother. I then told her that she didn’t have to do this — all the food, drinks and entertaining, and she answered: ‘I know, but everyone expects me to.’”
Several weeks later, the woman called Palatnik and admitted that sitting for three days had indeed been a mistake. At the end of the three days, her husband went back to work and everyone expected her to resume her life. “But I never had a chance to mourn my mother,” the woman said, choking back tears.
“Sadly, many mourners don’t really have time to mourn at these ‘shiva’ receptions,” Sarna said. “Psychologically, the traditional shiva — where the mourner grieves, is comforted by friends and recites kaddish — has much to commend it.”
Sometimes, mourners request no visitors to the shiva precisely because they worry that it would not allow them to grieve according to Janet Leuchter, a cantor at the Greenburgh Hebrew Center, a Conservative congregation in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. In December 2013, a congregant who resides in an assisted living facility and who lost her adult daughter due to a rare degenerative illness, told Leuchter expressly that she didn’t want a public shiva. “I don’t want loud talking and a party atmosphere,” the woman said. “I just want to go into my bedroom, close the door and sit by myself.”
The woman’s son, also a mourner, and his wife, refused to abide by her request, however, and permitted the synagogue and assisted living facility to announce the details of the shiva. As a result, many people from the residence visited her, and surprisingly, the woman seemed grateful. “When she saw people around her, she found that it was not a party atmosphere or a burden at all, but rather very comforting,” Leuchter explained.
Sussman believes that shiva plays an important role for mourners, even if they don’t do it in the traditional fashion. “More than half of them end up coming to shul on the Friday night following the shiva, in order to say kaddish,” he said. And despite Sussman’s instructions to remove the kriah — the torn ribbon worn during the shiva as a sign of mourning — for the Sabbath, many of the mourners decide to keep it on.
“It’s clear that they feel a need to be recognized by the community as a mourner, and want people to see them engaging in an important Jewish ritual,” Sussman added. “The symbol just has great meaning for them.”
Contact Rukhl Schaechter at firstname.lastname@example.org