New Traditions: A Secular Shiva

Jan 16, 2012 | 1 comment

Jewish starYesterday’s New York Times had a “This Life” column in the Sunday Styles section by Bruce Feiler titled Mourning in a Digital Age. It explored how old traditions for mourning and grieving are impacted by our busy modern age, Facebook and email and how new traditions could be formed.

Of special interest is how he suggests a secular use of the shiva period of mourning, a Jewish tradition where the family retreats to the home for a week and receives the support of their community. Many contemporary Jews are shortening the number of days they retreat for this mourning period, if they are observing it at all.

Shiva (or shivah, depending on who’s doing the translation) is the Hebrew word for seven. The traditional seven-day shiva mourning period is rife with rules – no shaving or bathing for pleasure, no sex, no leaving the house (except for Shabbat services), no wearing of leather shoes, no expressions of joy, and no greeting of visitors. Mirrors and photos are covered, prayer services are held in the home, and mourners sit on low chairs or cushions.

Feiler’s article talks about bringing community together in support of the mourners, without all these rules. Notable differences of the secular shiva from the Jewish traditions that were crucial for their success include:

  • Create the event for both Jews and non-Jews
  • Avoid holding prayer services or any other religious rituals
  • Hold the event away from the home of the griever to reduce the burden of “hosting”
  • Offer the mourner the opportunity to speak about the deceased, something not customarily done at a Jewish funeral.

A few pointers on pulling such events together:

  • Don’t wait for the griever to plan
  • Make the event by invitation only
  • Ask the mourner if he or she would like to share any stories about the deceased
  • Unite a circle of friends to find comfort in a crowd

Feiler ended the piece saying:

“Six months after my string of losses began, it hardly feels over. What I’ve taken away from the experience is a reminder of what I’ve seen often in looking at contemporary religion. Rather than chuck aside time-tested customs in favor of whiz-bang digital solutions, a freshening of those rituals is often more effective. Our “secular shivas” took some advantages of the Internet (e-mail organizing, ordering food online); coupled them with some oft-forgotten benefits of slowing down and reuniting; and created a nondenominational, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all tradition that can be tinkered to fit countless situations.

Like all such traditions, they may not soften the blow of a loss, but they had the unmistakable boon of reaffirming the community itself.”

A Good Goodbye