1. Religion & Spirituality
The Comforts of Mourning in Judaism
by Caryn Meltz

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Death to Burial
• Part 2: Mourning

Five Stages of Mourning

There are five stages of mourning in Judaism.

1) Between death and burial

2) First three days following burial -- visitors are sometimes discouraged to visit during this time since the loss is still too fresh.

3) Shiva -- seven-day mourning period following burial -- this includes the first three days.

4) Shloshim -- 30 days following burial -- this includes shiva. The mourner slowly emerges back into society.

5) Twelve-month period -- includes shloshim -- life becomes more routine.

Note: The mourning period for all relatives other than the mother and father end with shloshim. The laws from day 31 through the end of the twelfth month are only exercised for parents.

Shiva

Shiva begins immediately when the casket is covered with earth. Mourners who are unable to go to the cemetery begin shiva at the approximate time of burial. Shiva ends seven days later after the morning prayer service. The day of burial is counted as the first day even though it is not a full day.

If shiva has begun and there’s a major holiday (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) then shiva is considered as complete and the rest of the days are nullified. The reason is that it is mandatory to be joyful on a holiday. If the death occurred on the holiday itself, then the burial and shiva begin afterward.

The ideal place to sit shiva is at the home of the deceased since his spirit continues to dwell there. The mourner washes his hands before entering the house (as discussed above), eats a condolence meal and sets up the house for mourning status.

Shiva Restrictions and Prohibitions

- Leaving the house of mourning is limited.

- Mirrors are covered. There are various reasons, one being that a mourner should not enhance his appearance during this time.

- The mourner sits on a low stool.

- Leather shoes are prohibited (in ancient times, leather shoes were a symbol of wealth and comfort).

- Greetings are prohibited from both the mourner and those coming to extend their condolences. The exception is the Sabbath.

- Bathing is prohibited. Dirt may be removed locally with soap and water.

- Haircuts are prohibited.

- Shaving is prohibited for men.

- Cutting nails is prohibited.

- Washing clothes is prohibited with the exception of clothes to be worn on the Sabbath.

- Wearing new clothes is prohibited. (After the shiva period until the end of the twelfth month, if it necessary to buy new clothes, the mourner should have someone wear it for him first so that it is not considered to be “new” anymore.)

- Marital relations are forbidden.

- Studying Bible is prohibited since it is a source of great delight.

- Conducting business is prohibited. There are some exceptions (i.e. severe loss).

- Attending parties are prohibited.

On the Sabbath, the mourner is allowed to leave the house of mourning to go to synagogue and doesn’t wear his torn clothes. Immediately following the evening service Saturday night, the mourner resumes his full status of mourning.

Condolence Calls During Shiva

It’s a mitzvah, great deed, to make a condolence call. Genesis 25:11: “And it was after the death of Abraham that G-d blessed Isaac his son.” The implication from the text is that the blessing of Isaac and the death were related, therefore, the rabbis interpreted this to mean that G-d blessed Isaac by comforting him in his mourning. The purpose of the condolence call is to help relieve the mourner of his feeling of loneliness. Yet, at the same time, the visitor waits for the mourner to initiate the conversation. It is up to the mourner to dictate what he wants to talk about and express. 

The last thing the visitor says to the mourner before leaving is: May G-d comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Shloshim

The prohibitions which continue to be in effect from shiva are: haircuts, shaving, nail cutting, wearing of new clothes, and attending parties.

Twelve Months

Unlike the counting of shiva and shloshim, the counting of the 12 months begins with the day of death. It is important to stress that it is 12 months and not a year because in the event of a leap year, the mourner still only counts 12 months and does not count the entire year.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is recited throughout the year at the end of every prayer service. It helps console the mourner and is only said in the presence of at least 10 men and not in private.

Yizkor -- Recalling the Dead

The yizkor prayer is said at specific times of the year in order to pay respect to the deceased. Some have a custom of saying it for the first time the first holiday after the death while others wait until the end of the first 12 months.

Yizkor is said on Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and the memorial anniversary (the date of death) and in the presence of a quorum. A 25-hour yizkor candle is lit on all of these days.

From the moment of death until the end of shloshim or 12 months, there are -- at the surface -- strict laws to follow. But, it is these laws that provide us with the needed comfort to alleviate the pain and loss.

* This article was written by Caryn Meltz, a freelance writer and editor.

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