Last week, a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I visited an acquaintance I had not seen for a few years whose father had passed away. He was what we call in the Jewish world, “sitting shiva.” Shiva is a Hebrew word meaning seven, and traditionally, when someone loses a close relative, after the burial he or she stays home for seven days (except for the Sabbath), not even going to work. Daily prayers are held in the home with the requisite synagogue quorum, and people visit to help comfort the mourner(s). Biblical holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Pesach (Passover), terminate the shiva, so it’s possible this initial mourning period may not last the full seven days.
The custom came about in response to how Joseph mourned for his late father Jacob, as it says in Genesis 50:10, “…and he made a mourning for his father seven days.” Another source as to why shiva lasts seven days is from the book of Amos, 8:10, where it is written, “I will turn your feasts into mourning…” Rabbis in the Talmud (volumes of legal discussions and commentary dating back over 1500 years), tell us in the book of Moed Katan, page 20:a, “Just as the festival (the holidays of Pesach and Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles)) lasts for seven days, so the period of mourning is also for seven days.” A bit unusual that mourning the death of a loved one would in any way be compared to a joyous festival, but perhaps there is more to it than just the number of days counted.
While chatting with the visitors, my friend said he had a question. If the shiva is supposed to be for comforting those who suffered a terrible loss in their family, why would a Jewish holiday cancel it before it is complete? Does a person deserve less consolation because a holiday has arrived? A shiva of less than seven days may not be enough to get over the death of a loved one. My friend said that people need a shiva, a full shiva. They need the time to sit and reflect, to have friends come by, to be comforted, to not just go through the motions but to use the time, the complete period, to get past the initial shock of loss as much as emotionally possible. His father had lived a long and full life, but my friend still desired the complete seven days, and now because of Rosh Hashanah, his shiva would be cut short. He did ask a Rabbi about this, but felt the answer was inadequate because it addressed the obligation to fulfill the requirements of the holidays more than the need to feel the solace a shiva can give.
My friend had a good point. It doesn’t seem fair. Truncating a shiva by a few days or even only one day, does not just interrupt the shiva, it ostensibly interrupts the healing process. Shiva gives one a chance to decompress from what has just happened; it is a mechanism that allows the gradual reentry into the continuation of life, back to normalcy, if you will. A new normalcy that now includes a tear in one’s heart that will never be repaired, but normalcy nonetheless.
I think the answer may be that the Shiva does not completely end when the holiday begins. Yes, officially, it does, but unofficially perhaps not. Just as staying in the home gives the mourner a chance to remember and reflect, so do the biblical holidays, the major milestones of each Jewish year, those significant and purposeful days whose origins, laws and customs are an integral part of what defines the Jewish people. When the holiday occurs, it may cause the interruption of the “sitting in the house” part of the shiva, but rather than stop the process, it may actually enhance the effect of remembrance and reflection.
For example, regarding a parent who passed away, rather than only remembering a late father or mother in a general sense, you remember how he or she carried out the laws and customs of the holiday, inside and outside the home. And you remember how their actions translated into values, values you taught your own children, making it appropriate that this past Sabbath’s Torah reading on the day after Rosh Hashanah, Ha’azinu, in Deuteronomy 32:7, included the words, “Remember the days of old, reflect upon previous generations; ask your father and he will tell you.”
You may remember walking to the synagogue as a child, holding your father’s or your mother’s hand as he or she explained some of the rituals and prayers of the coming synagogue service. And you may remember proudly wearing the brand new suit or dress your parents bought for you every Rosh Hashanah. You may remember the first time your father felt it was safe enough for you to climb the stepladder to put the roof on the Sukkah, the hut constructed for the holiday of Sukkot, to commemorate the temporary dwellings the Children of Israel built as they traveled through the desert after leaving Egypt. And you may remember the years when your mother helped you create colorful decorations to be hung from the walls and ceiling of the Sukkah.
You may remember how your mother would became part culinary master, part industrial cleaning machine and part drill sergeant as she prepared for the holiday of Pesach, when anything made from leavening is forbidden to be consumed, even owned. That, to commemorate the hurried manner in which the Jews left Egypt, not even having enough time to allow bread to rise. “Don’t you dare take that cookie into the living room! It’s already been cleaned for Pesach!” And you used the exact same words to admonish your own children. You may remember how your father held court like a king to lead the Pesach Seder, the ritual feast that includes the narrative of the Israelites slavery in Egypt and the miracles leading to and through the Exodus. How and why your father broke that matzoh, led that prayer, started that song, pointed to that symbolic food, and how he always hid the traditional Afikoman, the matzoh “dessert,” in the same place year after year, so that it could easily be found and held for ransom, for a new toy or even a new bicycle. And oh, how the Pesach dinner table sparkled and the food tasted extra special.
So aside from the seven-day term, we can see another connection, a deeper understanding, between shiva and a festival. One may indeed “get up” from the shiva a bit early but the remembrance and the healing continues, and in the most beautiful and meaningful way. And this may assist in elevating the soul of the departed family member to a higher level of Heaven.
I need to add that we are only experts of our own personal grief and no one else’s, and I ask for forgiveness from anyone who feels I am being presumptuous. But it may be propitious rather than inopportune for a holiday to stop a shiva. Of course, when a loved one is lost well before a natural life comes to fruition, such as a child’s passing, heaven forbid, thorough comfort may not come for months or even years, if ever.
Excessive, exhaustive mourning however, is forbidden. We may never ‘get over it,’ but we must ‘get on with it.’ Following Rosh Hashanah is the solemn Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when according to the renowned Unetaneh Tokef prayer, our fates for the new year are sealed. “Who will live, and who will die? Who will reach the end of his or her days, and who will not?” Only a few days after those powerful and fearful words are read, the festival of Sukkot arrives, when, like Pesach and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), we are actually commanded to be happy. And so, the year continues, and the years continue, hopefully containing much more joy than sadness, along with good health, good fortune and peace.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we be positively sealed in the Book of Life.