“Sara died in Kiriat-arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan; And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her.” (Genesis 23:2)
The Jewish custom of burying our loved ones who have died dates back to the very beginning of our tradition. Abraham buried Sarah. Aaron grieved over the loss of his sons Nadav and Avihu. David mourned for Jonathan and Saul, and Job rent his clothes in grieving for his children.
Funerals and burials we know well, but what may be less familiar to us is that in Judaism, mourning is viewed as a process that begins with death and does not really conclude until the following year. Upon learning of the death of a loved one it is customary to say, “Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet, Blessed be the true Judge.” This statement does not prevent us from anger or hurt, but helps the mourning process by acknowledging the death of a loved one.
Those who feel the loss most keenly are in a period of aninut, the stage between death and burial. Traditionally they are not obligated to fulfill a majority of mitzvot as they are to instead focus on all the details involved in burying a loved one.
The transition occurs immediately after the funeral where those most close to the deceased sit shiva. Shiva comes from the Hebrew word sheva, or seven. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the major compilation of halacha, one then sits shiva for seven days (Yoreh Deah 375:1). There are many customs associated with sitting shiva, which includes simple meals, covering the mirrors, sitting on low stools, and lighting a shiva candle, as Proverbs suggests, “The soul of the person is in the lamp of the Lord” (20:27).
Shiva reflects the time when the feelings of loss are the most intense. Therefore it is perfectly appropriate to spend that time in reflection, as one will encounter a variety of emotions. It is also the time when the community comes to those in mourning providing food for them and allowing them to say Mourner’s Kaddish at a shiva minyan.
During this time mourners should not attend go to work or attend to business concerns, or even attend to such tasks as cleaning the house. Instead it is a time to mourn with the hope of going through a healthy grieving process. To this end, shiva is followed by sheloshim where those grieving say kaddish at services for thirty days following the death of their loved one. Then at the end of the year it is customary to consecrate the marker of their loved one around the time of the first yartzeit, Jewish anniversary of their death.
There are many intricate practices associated with Jewish mourning, and each one is done with the utmost sense of respect and compassion both for those who have died as well as for those who are grieving. We encourage all of our members to attend shiva minyans to comfort those who are bereaved, and we encourage those who have lost loved ones to sit shiva for the full seven days. Because ultimately spending time in the presence of blessed memory will allow us to keep those memories alive and strive to be the people our loved ones would have wanted us to be.