Jewish Mourning Customs

Dec 11, 2009 | 0 comments

How often when we hear the news of a death, the first impulse is to prepare food to take to the mourners’ home. This custom of preparing a meal for others is a very old tradition, for both Jews and Christians, to show concern for their neighbor’s grief. After a funeral, the immediate family returns home to a “Meal of Condolence” prepared by neighbors and friends.

At this stressful time, it’s helpful to have one family member or close friend serve as coordinator for placement and use of food prepared by others. It’s not unusual for a family to order platters for the meal after the funeral and save the donated casseroles for consumption later in the week of mourning.

A week-long period of mourning, known as Shiva, which means seven in Hebrew, begins the day of the funeral. During this first and most intense stage of mourning, the immediate family does not leave the house or go about their usual business. Traditionalists don’t bathe or shave. Prayer services are held in the home every day, traditionally three times a day, but nowadays a non-Orthodox family most likely would have one prayer service a day, or twice at most.

The Shiva period can be shortened to three days if full observance would seriously impact the mourner’s livelihood. The seven-day period was established based on an interpretation of a verse in Amos (8:10) that references festivals and mourning in the same sentence (the festivals Passover and Sukkot last seven days). In addition, Genesis (50:10) indicates that Joseph mourned his father Jacob for seven days.

Traditionally, mourners sit on low stools or boxes, as opposed to ordinary chairs. Some scholars suggest this ancient custom was based on the description of Job, who when suffering his misfortunes, was comforted by friends who sat with him on the ground. Sitting low to the ground symbolizes a mourner’s awareness that life is not the same and demonstrates a desire to stay close to the earth in which his or her loved one is now buried.

Paying a condolence visit during this week is considered a mitzvah and an act of compassion. Refrain from using ordinary cheery greetings and allow the mourner to speak first. Often, the best thing one can do is be a good listener if the mourner wants to talk. Simply being present can be a great support.

Mirrors are often covered in a house of mourning for several reasons. Mirrors are associated with vanity, and during a period of mourning it is not appropriate to be concerned with one’s personal appearance. Mourners in their early grief may have red, puffy eyes, and generally not look their best. I recently had surgery and was shocked to look in a mirror and see how my appearance changed due to the amount of  intravenous fluids that had been pumped into my body. But I started to look normal again in short order. Skipping seeing how I looked in those first few days would have been a blessing.

Also, with prayer services taking place in the home, it is forbidden to pray in front of a mirror, which can pull one’s concentration away from praying. Additionally, Jews believe humans are created in the image of God, and to see oneself as a grieving mourner in a sorry state is not a compliment to God.

A memorial candle that burns for seven days is lit in the house of mourning upon return from the cemetery. It looks similar to the pillar candles in glass tubes that Catholics use, and is usually plain or adorned with a six-pointed Jewish star. In Jewish tradition, the candle is symbolic of the body and soul. The flame is the soul, which reaches ever upward. By lighting a candle and keeping it burning, it is believed that the soul of the departed is aided in its afterlife journey.

After the initial seven-day period, mourners can return to ordinary activities. During the thirty-day period that starts at the funeral, called Sheloshim, mourners are supposed to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish daily for the deceased. Jews who are members of a congregation will hear a list of names that includes the name of their loved one announced prior to the recitation of this prayer during Sabbath services.

After a year, Jews who wish to honor the memory of the deceased mark each anniversary of the death by lighting a Yahrzeit candle and saying the Mourner’s Kaddish at synagogue.  The Yahrzeit candle is lit after sunset the evening before the anniversary date, and then burns for a full 24 hours. While not required, putting a picture of the deceased next to the candle helps kindle memories.

The practice of observing the anniversary of a death is many centuries old, but the word Yahrzeit was not used before the 16th century. The term is derived from the German word Jahrzeit, used in the Christian Church to denote the occasion for honoring the memory of the dead.

If you want to learn further customs and additional reasons for Jewish funeral and mourning traditions, you may wish to refer to The Jewish Book of Why and The Second Jewish Book of Why by Alfred J. Kolatch.

A Good Goodbye