The Process of Mourning in Judaism

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When a death is announced in the Jewish world, the following is recited:

Hebrew: ברוך דיין האמת.

Transliteration: Baruch dayan ha-emet.

English: "Blessed is the Judge of Truth."

At the funeral, family members usually say a similar blessing:

Hebrew: ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, דיין האמת.

Transliteration: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu melech ha'olam, dayan ha-emet.

English: "Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, the Judge of Truth."

Then, a lengthy period of mourning begins with a series of laws, prohibitions, and actions. 

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 (שבעה‎, literally "seven"): the seven-day mourning period following burial, which includes the first three days.
  4. Shloshim (שלושים, literally "thirty"): the 30 days following burial, which includes shiva. The mourner slowly emerges back into society.
  5. Twelve-month period, which includes shloshim, in which life becomes more routine.

Although the mourning period for all relatives ends after the shloshim, it continues for twelve months for those who are bereaved of their mother or father. 

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

During the period of shiva, there are a number of traditional 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 (Shabbat).
  • 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 12th 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 Torah is prohibited since it is a source of great delight.
  • Conducting business is prohibited. There are some exceptions (e.g., severe loss).
  • Attending parties are prohibited.

On Shabbat, 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 to make a shiva call, which means to visit the shiva home.

“And it was after the death of Abraham that G-d blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11). 

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 shiva 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:

Hebrew: המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך אבלי ציון וירושלים

Transliteration: HaMakom yenacheim etchem betoch sha'ar aveiliei Tzion v'Yerushalayim

EnglishMay God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Shloshim

The prohibitions that continue to be in effect from shiva are: no 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 for 11 months at the end of every prayer service. It helps console the mourner and is only said in the presence of at least 10 men (a minyan) 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 minyan.

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.

Portions of this post were original contributions of Caryn Meltz.

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Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "The Process of Mourning in Judaism." ThoughtCo, Jan. 11, 2016, thoughtco.com/the-process-of-mourning-in-judaism-2076015. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2016, January 11). The Process of Mourning in Judaism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-process-of-mourning-in-judaism-2076015 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "The Process of Mourning in Judaism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-process-of-mourning-in-judaism-2076015 (accessed December 13, 2017).