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Comfort in Loss

All of us experience loss at times in our lives.  Practices around death, funerals, and mourning are among the oldest and most meaningful traditions in Jewish life.  Below is some basic information that may be of assistance.  If you would like to learn more about Jewish beliefs and practices, including for those who are not sure how to comfort someone else who has experienced a loss, check out this website.  


Who is a Mourner? – Jewish law considers the following to be mourners:

One who lost a father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, or husband/wife (YD 374:4). When one of those seven relations die, the surviving relative (if he or she is at least 13 or 12 years old) becomes a mourner.


Conduct by Mourners during Shiva

There are many rules and prohibitions that pertain to mourners during the week of shiva.  Many mourners find the ancient mourning practices to be extremely helpful to help them express their grief and begin the healing process.  The following are the main rules governing the conduct of mourners during shiva:

Washing is seen as a pleasurable activity, thus, it is prohibited during Shiva week.  Specifically, washing the whole body with warm water is seen as a pleasurable activity, but washing parts of the body with cold water is not. Thus, if one needs to clean oneself, s/he should apply this method. (YD 381:1)

Cosmetics are also prohibited during Shiva week, as applying and wearing them is seen as a pleasurable activity.

Deodorants/perfumes can be used to remove or prevent a foul body odor, but not for pleasure.

Haircuts, shaving, and trimming nails are prohibited during Shiva week.

Laundering – The mourner may not launder or wear laundered clothes during Shiva.  In honor of the Sabbath, however, a laundered shirt may be worn.  Separately, if the mourner soiled his clothes, he can wash that particular spot.  If this is not possible, he can use a different garment.

Leather shoes may not be worn during Shiva week, as they are a sign of comfort and physicality.  However, shoes made of materials other than leather are permissible and may be worn. (382:1).

Marital Relations are forbidden during Shiva. (383:1) This applies even to the Sabbath and Holidays that occur during Shiva week. (399:1.400:1)

Learning Torah is prohibited during Shiva week because it brings simcha (joy) to a person. Learning the relevant laws regarding mourning and all melancholy sources is permitted (YD 384:4) as well as learning books of Mussar — ethical conduct, reproof etc (Pnei Baruch 16:3). 

Shivah on Shabbat - We have a commandment to be joyous on Shabbat. On Shabbat, the general rule is that public displays of mourning are forbidden, while private displays of mourning are observed.  Private displays of mourning, which include marital relations, washing and learning Torah are forbidden (i.e are observed).  Public displays of mourning include wearing ones head garment (e.g., tallit or hat lower than usual, not wearing leather shoes, wearing a shirt that was ripped in the front (kriyah,at the time of hearing that the deceased died) are not observed on the Sabbath (YD 400:1) i.e one must wear leather shoes etc. Some miscellaneous laws regarding mourning on the Shabbat are that the mourner does not say “Shalom Aleichem”, nor are the children blessed before Kiddush.  It should be noted that although only some of the laws of mourning are kept on Shabbat, Shabbat counts as one of the seven days of Shiva.


Preparing the Home for Shiva

Ideally, mourners should observe shiva together in the home of the deceased, if possible.  When this is not possible, mourners should observe shiva in their own homes.  Relatives of the mourners who are not themselves mourners or friends/community members can help prepare the home.  The following are ways in which a home should be prepared for Shiva:

Candles should be lit as soon as the mourners return from the cemetery.  These candles should be lit wherever people are observing shiva and should last for a full seven days.  One candle is sufficient for the entire household.  Candles are present at meaningful events in Judaism, including holidays and Shabbat. So too during Shiva we light a candle signifying the death of the human being.  While the body has passed over, our candle reminds us that soul lives on and continues its journey, as well as providing comfort to the deceased.  The funeral home should provide mourners with candles.  Otherwise, the synagogue may have some avaialable.

Mirrors are covered throughout the shiva week.   Mirrors are the symbol of vanity in our modern culture. We spend hundreds of hours each year in front of the mirror, focusing on our image and beauty. This is obviously inappropriate during Shiva week, in which a death has just occurred, and we are removed from social pressures. By covering the mirrors, this shifts the mourners focus from himself to the deceased. Another reason is that one's reflection causes simcha (joy).

Benches or chairs should be gathered for visitors during Shiva week, and for the services.

Prayer Books should be brought from the synagogue to the shiva house.

A Torah scroll, which will be read as part of the service on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat, should be brought from the synagogue to the shiva house if morning services are being held.

Stool – The mourner sits on a stool during the Shiva week, in order to stay low to the ground.


The Meal of Condolence - Seudat Ha-Havra'ah

The Seudat Havra'ah is a formal meal that mourners eat upon returning home from the funeral.  It is supposed to be prepared and served by friends and relatives who are not among the immediate mourners or their spouses.  The meal should include bread, peeled hardboiled eggs and a drink of some sort.  Some also include lentils (378:9), based upon the midrash in which Jacob cooked lentils for his father Isaac on the day of his grandfather Abraham's death.  Non-mourners should not partake of the meal.


Comforting Mourners

Halakhah (Jewish law) has developed a rich set of practices that prescribe what a visitor should do in a house of mourning.  Having specific rituals and behaviors to follow can be extremely helpful to visitors who are otherwise uncomfortable visiting a shiva house, especially for mourners whom they do not know.  A dominant theme tying all of these laws together is the importance of letting the mourner determine the nature of social interactions.  Every mourner responds to loss differently and has different needs for support from the community.  One mourner may feel like talking and sharing stories about the deceased, while another mourner may prefer silence.  The visitor should never presume to know what the mourner is feeling, or what he or she needs.  The best thing we can offer is ourselves.  Mourners usually experience great comfort from the outpouring of love and support by members of the community.

The following are some of the Jewish laws and customs for how to conduct oneself in a shiva house:

It is appropriate to visit a mourner at any time during the shiva week.  Visits do not need to take place only at service times.  If you have any doubts about whether mourners want visitors at a particular time, feel free to call first.  

The door should be unlocked; you should enter softly without knocking or ringing the doorbell and sit down without greeting anyone.

Do not speak to the mourners unless they speak to you first.  Do not be dismayed if the mourners choose not to speak.  Even if the whole visit is silent, your presence matters much more than your words.  Feel free to sit down near the mourner.  While the mourner is supposed to sit on a stool, visitors may sit on regular chairs or sofas.

Let the mourners guide the conversation.  Do not attempt to distract the mourners by talking about school or TV, unless they bring it up first.  The conversation should be about the person who has passed away.

Do not make any kind of statement that minimizes the grief; for example, do not say, 'At least he lived a very long life,' because those who loved him wish it was longer.  Do not say, 'Let's talk about happy things' because the mourners cannot think of happiness at this time.  Do not say, 'I know how you feel,' because you don't.

The best kind of statements are those that express sympathy; for example, 'I am so sorry for your loss' or 'My heart is with you.'  This is also a good time to share a special memory about the person who has died if you have one.

A mourner is required to say Kaddish with a minyan, a group of ten adults, every day. For this reason, people traditionally make efforts to time their shiva visits around the morning and evening prayer times to help comprise the minyan.  Be aware that these times will very likely be the most crowded times at the shiva house.

When you are ready to leave, stand up and say a traditional statement of comfort in Hebrew or English:

Hamakom y'nahem etkhem b'tokh shar avalei Tzion ViYerushalayim.

May God comfort amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

You should leave quietly. The mourner probably will not walk you to the door.



For More Information


Mourning & Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner's Path Through Grief to Healing, Anne Brener

Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew, Anita Diamant

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm

Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Guide, Rabbi Abner Weiss

A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement, Dr. Ron Wolfson