My grandfather, Israel Neiman, died (at the age of 100!) the week the Ten Commandments were read in synagogue. Upon reflection and discussion as my sister Cheri Levitan and I found ourselves amidst the family’s observance of shiva, we realized that these mitzvot can offer important insights into the Jewish customs and traditions of aveilut (mourning) and nichum aveilim (comforting the mourners). As regular bloggers, and as brother and sister, we united our thoughts to co-author this piece.
In the wake of loss, despite best intentions, many say and do the wrong things. This is true for those who want to comfort the mourners, as well as for mourners who receive the community that comes to pay its respects. Left to our own devices, we flounder in uncertainty and faux pas, the results of which cause anxiety and discomfort for all parties. During times of loss and grief, levels of anxiety and emotion are elevated; not a good time to “wing it” or propose constructive suggestions in the moment.
Time-tested traditions and mourning rituals are well-established to offer comfort and assurances to those who have suffered loss and are observing shiva. They also prescribe ways to receive expressions of sympathy and communal support without being overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful or burdened by the need to serve as host. These rules also benefit the community by enabling visitors to feel they truly bring comfort to the bereaved, even as they receive an opportunity for reflection and inspiration in turn.
In the spirit of the Ten Commandments, we offer these interpretations in the context of mourning:
1. “I am the Lord your God.” There is a God that created us with a breath. The death of our Zaydie is the return of that breath to God. We stand in awe of the notion that our grandfather’s soul has been returned to its source.
2. “You shall not create false images to bow down to them.” In the shiva home, mirrors are covered so we are not distracted from the deeper significance of the life that was lived. We are not meant to live in the physical world during the week ofshiva. We tear our clothing to strip away the external; to live in limbo between the torn and the whole. Physical trappings—clothing, makeup and displays of materialism—are false images of existence that further separate us from the life of the soul we remember.
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In remembering loved ones, the stories we share should not demean the memory of the person or disrespect the mourner. At times we feel the need to bring levity, but humorous stories at the expense of the deceased may be degrading and hurtful to a mourner.
4. “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” The public observance of shiva is suspended on Shabbat, though private mourning continues. Even mourners need to breathe in the sanctity of the day. Shiva is exhausting; physically and emotionally draining. Mourners need to “re-soul” themselves just like everyone else.
5. “Honor your father and mother.” Parents anticipate the needs of their children. It is a rare opportunity to show honor by anticipating the physical and emotional needs of one’s parent during in mourning period.
6. “Don’t murder.” Families have complex dynamics. The intensity of emotions at a time of loss can give way to conflict. The week of shiva is not the time to act on impulses or unpack baggage.
7. “Don’t commit adultery.” Mourn the relationship you had with the person you lost. Do not “reinvent” it. Treat the relationship with honesty and integrity, even if it was not ideal. If the relationship was lacking, honor that story too; recognize the pain that accompanies lost time and lost opportunity.
8. “Don’t steal.” Grief in a shiva house belongs to the mourner. A visit is not the time to share your own stories or express your personal sense of loss; unless you are invited to do so.
9. “Don’t bear false witness.” Offering that you feel very blessed to have known the deceased is very different than telling the mourners how blessed or lucky they were. Don’t offer that you know how a mourner feels because of your own experiences. This is plain false.
10. “Don’t covet.” Saying Kaddish , as an example, belongs to the mourners. The loss is theirs, as is their obligation to mourn. While the community may stand with mourners as a sign of support, Kaddish is not to be recited with them. Only “Amen” is said to answer and affirm their prayers. Sadly and inevitably, we all will have our own times to mourn.
All this being said, it is clear that the modern sensibilities that most of our communities reflect—sadly, often characterized by a sense of entitlement and a lack of empathy—necessitate a very different approach to the ways in which we observe (or fail to observe) these rules. There is nothing wrong, however, with a rabbi or family member gently communicating these ideals at a funeral or even in a shiva home. Hopefully we’ll hear the message; hopefully we’ll all come to understand the ideals before it is our turn to mourn.
We love you, Mom. Thanks for allowing us to take this opportunity to teach from your experience. And we pray that you find comfort in celebrating Zaydie’s 100 years of life, 79 years of marriage, 9 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great-grandchildren.
Rabbi Craig Scheff