By Carl Astor
Excerpted from The Observant Life
The word shivah means “seven” in Hebrew and refers, at least in the context of the laws of mourning, to the seven days of mourning that follow the burial of a parent, child, sibling, or spouse. (The observance of this week of formal mourning is known colloquially as “sitting shivah.”) Only the so-called seven relations listed above (mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, and spouse) are required to observe the laws of shivah, but, at least within the Conservative movement, it is generally accepted that adopted children too should sit shivah for their adoptive parents. The same would apply to stepparents, half-siblings and step-siblings.
The general principle in counting the days of shivah is that a part of a day counts as the whole day. Thus, one counts the remainder of the day of burial as the first day and it is normal only to observe the laws of shivah briefly on the seventh day.
The shivah period begins immediately after the interment. If a festival falls during the shivah period, shivah is terminated before the holiday and not resumed afterward (SA Yoreh Dei·ah 399:1).
Shivah should be observed in the home of the deceased or the home of the mourner. Although there is value to sitting together as a family, shivah may also be observed in separate homes. During the shivah week, mourners remain at home and should not leave the house except for emergencies or to attend religious services. In many communities, daily services are held in the house of mourning precisely so that the mourners do not have to leave. If a minyan cannot be arranged for the house of mourning, the mourner may then go to the synagogue to say Kaddish, but must then immediately return to the house of mourning. The week of mourning is a time for quiet reflection, for remembering, and for beginning to work through grief. None of this can take place if the mourner is preoccupied with worldly affairs. Mourners should not go to work during shivah unless severe economic loss will result. If one must go to work, one should resume sitting shivah upon returning home.
Although the custom lacks a real halakhic basis, there is a widespread practice to cover up the mirrors in a house of mourning. The reasons given for this are basically threefold: to free the mourner from inappropriate fretting about his or her own appearance, to encourage the mourner to focus on the deceased, and, as one is not supposed to pray in front of a mirror, to aid those who come to participate in services in the house of mourning.
It is customary to light a seven-day candle in the house of mourning. This candle should be allowed to burn itself out, even if that means that it continues to burn after the formal observance of shivah concludes. If there is more than one house of mourning, a candle should be lit in each house. If one does not have a seven-day candle, individual yahrtzeit candles may be lit daily during the mourning week. No blessing is recited when the shivah candle is lit.
Upon return from the cemetery, a meal called a se’udat havra·ah (“a meal of healing”) should be served in the house of mourning by friends and relatives who are not mourners themselves. It is customary to serve hardboiled eggs as part of the menu since the eggs are deemed symbolic of the cycle of life. (Another reason often given is that since eggs are the only food that becomes harder, not softer, when cooked, they are deemed symbolic of the way in which human beings can become stronger, not weaker, by encountering adversity, sadness, and loss.) Other traditional foods served in some houses of mourning are lentils and wine. The drinking of wine at the house of mourning is probably based on Proverbs 31:6, “Give strong drink to the hapless, and wine to the embittered.” In the Talmud at BT Eiruvin 65a, Rabbi Óanin goes even further and says that “wine was created only for the purpose of comforting mourners.”
The mourners should sit on low benches or boxes during the shivah period as a sign of mourning. Also, they should not wear leather shoes during the shivah period, nor are married couples permitted to engage in intimate relations during the week of bereavement (SA Yoreh Dei·ah 383:1). Mourners should not cut their hair during shivah, nor may male mourners shave (SA Yoreh Dei·ah 390:1). A somber atmosphere should prevail in the house of mourning. Mourners should not watch television or listen to music. In times of national or public emergency, however, one may watch or listen to news broadcasts. All public displays of mourning other than the public recitation of Kaddish are suspended on Shabbat, and this includes wearing the torn garment or the mourner’s ribbon. However, the rules that govern private mourning, such as the prohibition of intimacy between husband and wife, remain in effect (SA Yoreh Dei·ah 400:1). Traditionally, mourners do not enter the Friday evening service until just after L’khah Dodi, at which time they are welcomed into the synagogue with the traditional words of comfort.