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.
At Keneseth Israel, the Shiva Committee not only runs the shiva minyan, but is even given special training to do so. “Often congregants who are marginal to the shul actually want to join this committee, so it usually ranges between 12 and 20 people,” Sussman said. This year, his wife, Liz, has also joined.
In general, the practice of sitting shiva is markedly more relaxed today than it was in previous generations. Mourners rarely sit on austere wooden boxes anymore and are often provided with low folding chairs that provide cushioned back support. And unlike the past, when people paid a shiva call wearing suits, visitors’ clothing today is much less formal, says Lucy Bregman, professor of religion at Temple University. “I recall seeing people showing up in track suits,” she remarked.
“Usually, when people return from the cemetery, the mood is lighter than it was at the funeral, and interestingly, it’s the teens who seem most bothered by this,” Sussman said. “They see their parents joking with their friends and back-slapping, but they themselves are still in mourning mode.” Knowing this, Sussman often counsels teenage children of the mourners before the funeral, by letting them know that even though their parents may not look sad throughout the shiva, that is natural. “I tell them that it’s just a way of finding relief from mourning,” he added.
“Americans have relegated death to the funeral parlor and the cemetery,” Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University, explained. “Having removed death from the home, the home becomes the locus for a ‘reception.’”
Although on the surface, the difference in shiva practice appears to be dictated by whether the mourner belongs to a traditional community or not, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization that reaches out to unaffiliated and intermarried families, believes otherwise. “The big divide today is not between different denominations, but between those Jews who are engaged and affiliated, and those that are not,” he said.
Religiously liberal Jews, he adds, may take the shiva just as seriously, if they feel connected to other Jews in their community. For example, according to Jewish law, if shiva has begun and a Jewish holiday intervenes, the rest of the days of shiva are nullified. “Yet, those who are accustomed to reaching out will do so anyway, even during and after the holiday,” Olitzky said. “They may not be doing it out of obligation to custom, but simply because they feel it’s the right thing to do.”
Today there are even companies that help the bereaved through the mourning process. In Los Angeles, for example, mourners can contact the Shiva Sisters, to help people carry out the appropriate Jewish rituals: providing water for washing hands after returning from the cemetery, covering the mirrors, burning memorial candles and providing low seats or cushions.
Co-founder and owner Danna Black believes they provide an important service for Jews unaffiliated with any synagogue or Jewish community. “Usually, the younger generation wants a more creative shiva that’s not so solemn,” Black remarked. “You see the mourner interacting more with the guests, rather than waiting for the guests to come over.”
But Shiva Sisters also arranges catering, provide photographers, videographers, babysitting and even valet parking.
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