Shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period for close relatives, is normally seven days long.
It makes sense that shiva should be seven days. Seven (shiva in Hebrew) is a number with special significance in Judaism. The seven-branched menorah, a symbol of Judaism since ancient times. The seven times a bride circles the groom at the wedding, and the seven days of celebrations afterward. We count seven weeks from the holiday of Passover to Shavuot, just as we count seven days each week until Shabbat.
When a Jewish holiday occurs during the mourning period, the seven day shiva period is shortened. Amazingly, the shiva is just deemed complete as soon as the holiday begins.
And that can be disconcerting. I know, since this happened to me when my mom passed away and was buried two days before the holiday of Shavuot began. This left us with only a little more than a day to sit shiva — and then it was time to… celebrate?
Sure, I enjoy Shavuot; usually I spend the holiday staying up late, eating cheesecake and seeing friends. But this year I was deep in shock and grief over my mom’s death. Yes, she was 87 years old. Yes, she had been very sick for a very long time. But I cried the minute I heard of her death as if it had been a complete surprise.
My mother envied my Jewish learning and she always wished she knew more than she did. But, even with all my years of yeshiva study, I sometimes struggle, as she did, to make sense of the laws. I remember learning how the shiva demonstrates the wisdom and compassion of our laws as it institutionalizes support for the mourners in their time of deepest need. Jews — of all denominations — feel a strong obligation to visit someone sitting shiva. At every synagogue, members band together to make meals for the mourners and ensure that their practical, religious and emotional needs are met.
The only exceptions to the shiva are Shabbat and Yom Tov (Jewish holidays). Shabbat is counted as one of the seven days (although the outward demonstrations of mourning are forbidden). Then, after sunset, shiva resumes if the seven days have not been completed. But Yom Tov completely interrupts — and abruptly ends — the mourning period.
Can anyone have honestly tried to tell me that I will be so happy on Shavuot, that all thoughts of my recently deceased mother will be forgotten? Or, even, that they should be forgotten, since it is supposed to be a joyous time? Yes, we received the Torah — but I just lost my mom!
What were the rabbis thinking?
I began to wonder about what my mom would say. Everyone knew her to be a very practical woman. Growing up during the depression era, she pretty much had to be that way to survive. Maybe the reasons were practical. It isn’t feasible to require one to sit shiva for a day or two or longer, then celebrate a holiday, and then sit again. Imagine if this happened during the eight-day holiday of Passover?
But there has to be more to it than that, just as there was more to my mother than met the eye. She was also a painter, an artist, someone who was emotional — intuitive and spiritual in her own way.
Shiva is a time apart from everyday life, and sacred precisely because of that. After the shock of a loss, we need to retreat from the world for a while. Sometimes we get the whole seven days; sometimes we are thrown back in the mix of things sooner with the advent of a holiday. Either way, it is never enough time. We never want to go back to our lives and leave our loved one behind. It’s not as if we had exactly seven days, we would feel differently about the loss.
So, while it is a set time, the essence of shiva is not the number of its days; it is the experience of setting aside time to grieve. The world will impinge on our grief; there will be reasons to smile, and laugh, and even celebrate the holidays. That is just how it is; and how it should be.