The Mourning Period

Mourning customs in Judaism are comprehensive and serve two purposes: to demonstrate respect for the deceased and to provide solace for the mourners. There are four distinct stages of mourning:

  • Aninut, the time period between death and interment

  • Shiva, a seven-day mourning period that begins immediately after burial (note that for the first three days of shiva, guests are generally discouraged from visiting the bereaved family.)

  • Shloshim, a thirty-day period following burial (including shiva)

  • Avelut, a twelve-month period after interment (including shloshim)

Aninut

From the moment of death until the deceased is buried, known as the aninut period, the mourner's chief responsibility is to attend to the deceased and make the necessary funeral and burial preparations. Because these tasks take priority, mourners are exempt from all positive, time-honored mitzvot. Since Judaism requires a prompt interment, aninut lasts a day or two. During this time, it is inappropriate to make condolence calls.

Shiva

The next stage of mourning is shiva, a period that lasts for seven days (shiva is Hebrew for “seven”). The day of burial is included in the shiva period and counts as the first day. In some less traditional communities, shiva is observed for three days.

“Sitting shiva” is the expression commonly used to refer to what mourners do during the period of shiva. The term is derived from the practice of not sitting in a comfortable chair but instead sitting on a low bench, stool, or even on the floor.

Parents, siblings, spouse, and children of the deceased sit shiva at the home of the deceased or at one of the mourner's homes. They go directly to the shiva house from the cemetery, wash their hands before entering (as does everyone who leaves a funeral), light a candle that will remain burning throughout the shiva period, and begin to sit shiva.

The meal of consolation, Seudat Havra'a, is the first meal served to mourners. It is often provided by friends. Traditionally, this meal consists of hard-boiled eggs, bagels, and dairy products. The circular shape of some of these foods is symbolic of the eternal nature of life.

There are a number of observances and prohibitions that should be followed during shiva. The following is a list of some of these interdictions and observances:

  • Mourners should cover all the mirrors in the house.

  • Mourners may not bathe, shave, or cut their hair or nails.

  • Mourners may not wear leather shoes.

  • Mourners may not wash their clothes or wear new clothes (except clothes to be worn on Shabbat).

  • Sexual relations are forbidden.

  • Conducting business is prohibited, except under extraordinary circumstances.

  • Limitations are set on leaving the shiva house.

  • Mourners must sit on a low stool, bench, or on the floor.

It is a mitzvah to comfort a mourner, so making a shiva call is encouraged. The first three days are generally reserved for visits from family and close friends. If you did not know the deceased well, try to hold off your visit until the first three days have passed. However, if you know that you won't be able to visit later, it is better to visit during the first three days than not at all. Naturally, if shiva is observed for only three days, any time during that period is appropriate.

Because the mourners say their prayers and the Kaddish at the shiva house, they must rely upon guests to make up the minyan. As for decorum, the basic guideline is just to be present, which, in and of itself, brings comfort to the mourner. It is more important to listen than to speak, and it is even customary not to say hello or good-bye, since the mourner is forbidden to extend greetings and salutations. However, upon leaving, it is traditional to say to the mourner, “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Shiva ends on the afternoon of the seventh day after the burial. At that time, it is customary for the mourners to leave the shiva house and take a walk, accompanied by friends and family. This excursion indicates that the mourners are ready to return to the external world from which they had withdrawn. At this time, the remaining stages of mourning begin.

Note that the Shabbat that falls within the shiva period is counted as a day even though it is not observed as a day of mourning. If a major festival (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot) falls during shiva, then shiva comes to an abrupt end. Should death occur on a major holiday, everything is delayed, including the burial, until the holiday is over.

Shloshim, Avelut, and Beyond

The third period of mourning is called shloshim. This period extends to the thirtieth day after burial (shloshim is Hebrew for “thirty”). During shloshim, some prohibitions that apply to shiva also remain valid, including the following:

  • Cutting nails or hair

  • Shaving

  • Wearing new clothes

  • Attending parties or listening to music

The final period of mourning, which only applies to those who have lost a parent, is avelut, a mourning period of twelve months. During this time, mourners abstain from parties, celebrations, and other venues of entertainment. However, the mourners should otherwise make it a point to begin their return to a normal life.

Other practices are observed in memory of the departed. Throughout the year of mourning, at the end of every prayer service, each mourner should recite the Kaddish. While commonly known as the mourner's prayer, Kaddish is really a prayer of praise to God and has nothing to do with death or mourning. The importance of reciting the Kaddish lies in the fact that it is performed standing up at public prayer. Through this public exaltation of God, the mourner demonstrates a reaffirmation of faith even after the death of a loved one.

Keep in mind that the final period of mourning, avelut, lasts for twelve months and is based upon the Hebrew calendar, which sometimes has a “leap” month, the second month of Adar. During a leap year, when a thirteenth month is added, you observe avelut for only twelve months and not the entire year.

At specific times of the year (Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot), the mourners also need to recite the Yizkor prayer. Yizkor (Hebrew for “may [God] remember”) is the abridged popular name for the memorial service, Ha-Zkarat Neshamot (Remembrance of the Souls). At this service, congregants remember their loved ones who have passed on but also commemorate all those who died sanctifying God's name — for instance, the fighters of Israel's War of Independence. Some congregations make this an occasion to remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. It is suitable to begin saying Yizkor either at the first holiday after the death of a loved one or at the first opportunity that takes place at the end of the twelve-month mourning period.

The Yahrzeit memorial lamp

Another practice that continues to be observed past mourning is the lighting of a Yahrzeit candle. Yahrzeit occurs on the annual anniversary of the date of death, as set by the Hebrew calendar. At this time, in addition to reciting the Kaddish, a twenty-four-hour candle is lit in the home and, often, in the synagogue in memory of the departed person. This burning light of the Yahrzeit candle is symbolic of the immortal soul.

Yahrzeit is actually a German word that means “year's time” or “anniversary.” Sometimes, the Yiddish word, Yortzeit, is used in its place. In any event, this ritual to honor the dead may be the only Jewish ceremony that does not have a Hebrew name!

The Unveiling

Jewish law requires a tombstone to mark the grave of the deceased so that the departed one will not be forgotten and the grave will not be desecrated. While the tombstone can be erected anytime after shloshim (the thirty-day period of mourning), in many communities it is customary either to refrain from setting up the tombstone or to keep it veiled until the end of the twelve-month mourning period.

However, some time before the end of the year of mourning (usually around eleven months), the mourners hold a ceremony to dedicate the grave marker. This ceremony is generally referred to as an “unveiling” (Ha-Kamat Matzeyvah).

There are no specific requirements concerning how the tombstone must be inscribed. In some communities, it is customary to place small stones on the grave site when visiting. The origin of this practice is uncertain. A popular explanation states that in the desert environment of ancient Israel, mourners piled stones and rocks to prevent the sandy soil from blowing away and exposing the corpse.

In any event, for some Jews, the placement of a small stone at a grave marker is something that absolutely must be done. Why? Not for religious reasons but for cultural reasons. As you shall see in the following chapter, Jewish culture has always had a major impact on the way Jewish people think and behave.

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