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Why Sit Low During the Seven-Day Mourning Period?

Why Sit Low During the Seven-Day Mourning Period?

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Dear Rabbi,

I am in the seven-day mourning (shiva) period for my sister. I was hoping you could tell me why we sit on low seats during these days.

Answer:

I am sorry to hear of your loss. May G‑d, the true Judge, comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

As is known, Job (from the Bible) had a difficult life and experienced much suffering, including the deaths of family members. From the verses describing how he mourned, our sages deduce many of the laws of mourning.1

One of the verses says (Job 2:13), “They sat to the ground.” The Talmud points out that it says “to the ground” and not “on the ground,” indicating that when one is sitting during the seven-day mourning period, one should sit close to the ground,2 or on the ground.3 Today we specifically do not sit on the ground itself, but on a low chair or bench.4

The verse in Genesis (1:26) says that G‑d made man in His likeness. The Talmud explains that upon death, the body no longer reflects the image of G‑d, in effect “turning over” to a different reality; so too, symbolically, we turn over our chairs5 and sit closer to the ground.6

Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe notes7 that while it is not the custom in our times to turn over chairs and sit on them, we sit on something close to the floor to outwardly express the painful mourning for our loved one.

Please see the Basics of the Shiva Mourning Period.

Footnotes
1.

Others learn it from King David, of whom it is written (II Samuel 13:31), “And the king stood up and tore his clothes, and lay on the ground” (see Talmud, Moed Katan 21a).

2.

Jerusalem Talmud, Moed Katan 3:5. See the commentary of Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen Katz, known as the Shach, to the Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 387:1, and Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch ben Ezriel of Vilna, Beit Lechem Yehudah ibid.

3.

See Shach cited in previous note. In our day and age we would be considered, according to many opinions, to be in the category of the sick when it comes to sitting on the ground for a long period of time, which was at one time more the norm than it is today (see Beit Lechem Yehudah cited in previous note).

4.

Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Margoliot, Shaarei Teshuvah commentary to the Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 552:8.

5.

In former times people would sit on low divans, and would flip them over and not use them during the mourning period. Today, we do not flip over chairs (see Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 387:2).

6.

Talmud, Moed Katan 15a.

7.

In his Levush Ateret Zahav, Yoreh De’ah 387:1.

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Solarchild Norcross, GA November 4, 2011

In the mode of creation In genesis we find that there are the heavens above and the watery abyss below and these were separated one from the other by that firmament from which we come and are bound to return. To be "low to the ground" is nothing more than recognizing your correct place in the
overall scheme of things. In life the umbilical cord which attaches us to the earth is broken and we are temoorarily released only to be reattached at death. We really never get very far from the source and henceforth we shall ever be "low" in relation to the firmaments above and below. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel November 3, 2011

tearing a ribbon Regarding the mention of tearing a ribbon at the funeral-I have never seen this done for Orthodox mourners. What we do is tear the shirt at the collar while we stand by the body at the funeral. This torn shirt is worn throughout the shiva. As we tear the shirt we make the blessing "Baruch Dayan HaEmet" . Reply

Charles Honolulu, HI October 28, 2011

To Susan Levitsky Susan, you are a blessing to everyone. I would like you to imagine, G-d forbid, that your dad died without a loving family member in his life at the time - without a beloved daughter to cry out as you do.
If that were so, then you would see the other side of the "catch phrase" condolences. You would see strangers sitting alone with the body of the deceased. You would see members of the synagogue take care of the burial. And, the rabbi whose words irritated you - he would see to it that your dad was treated properly according to Jewish tradition.
How do I know this? My sister died tragically, alone, alienated and far from her family. Her rabbi heard that she lay dead in a funeral home in another state. By the abundance of G-d's mercy in his heart he went and got her and gave her a kosher burial.
So Susan how are you such a blessing? Well, you have rent your garment so loudly that it's been heard around the world! May the Almighty comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion. Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, AZ October 26, 2011

To all those commenting on Susan Levitsky's commen Let's not be so hard on Susan. We all grieve in our own way.within our own space and time. There is no right or wrong way to mourn the loss of a loved one in spite of all the "rules and regulations" that have been set forth. Susan - do whatever works for you and don't concern yourself with what anyone else says or does. Reply

Jack Midland Park October 26, 2011

Shiva & Mourning I would like to see an article on unveiling the tombstone. And how your readers handled this event. Thank You. Reply

Anonymous St. James, NY October 26, 2011

There aren't any rules...only honest emotions B"H
Dear Ms. Livitsky:
I lost my dad almost 20years ago, his brother...my uncle a year later and I have also lost my children while I was pregnant with them. Having said that, I wasn't raised religious but have a great deal of respect for the honest emotions and feelings of those who were. They are our teachers, our guides if you will. They do not 'dream up' "useless rules" but rather show us how to help lift ourselves back up from being brought low by death. No-one expects you to do that which doesn't feel honest and true to you, rather...they only wish to help through a difficult greiving process. I found sitting shiva comforting because I knew that my family and friends were with me. I observed the "rules" because I wished to honor my dad, my uncle and my children whom I loved and still love...with an outpouring of actions and honest emotion to honor them always. Do what you feel is honest to you, remembering that you are only doing what would honor your loved one. Reply

Pasquale Kingman, Arizona October 26, 2011

On Mourning First, let me express my sorrow for your loss, may G_d bring comfort to you and yours.
We are not burdened by our laws anymore than a police officer is burdened by body armor. Sure, we notice it but what it gives us in return is far greater than the effort we put forth to wear it. The manner in which we mourn as Jews gives us something special in which we may enshroud ourselves and our loved one; a way to celebrate their spirit, their memory and the way they helped to shape us and our world together. It's an act of love, respect and kindness that gives us the time and space to truly MOURN so that we carry forward a positive force rather than only the sadness that remains if we don't fully mourn and vent that emotion so that growth and healing can begin. When we lose someone they leave a space in our life. whether it heals or it scars is up to us and Torah gives us a way to HEAL, rather than scar. We're lucky to have the guidance of Torah that we do so that we may heal and not scar.B'H. Reply

Susan Levitsky October 25, 2011

What is sincere about the rules of mourning Many people have criticized my beliefs about the rules of mourning. What is sincere about a rabbi saying May you be comforted....Zion, if that is the same thing he repeats to everyone. That is what he was told to say in Rabbi school.
I am not confusing customs with bible rules. Sages allegedly based customs on what they thought were the biblical laws. More layers were built on those interpretations. The laws of Kashrut were based on a couple of sentences in the bible. The laws now would not be recognized by ancient Jews.
I wasn't deprived of mourning. I was definitely mourning just not according to rules and regulations. My father was not irreligious, but he thought it was stupid to pretend to rend your clothes after the fact. In the bible those who did it, tore them right away. They didn't pin a ribbon on and cut it with a razor blade. I went to his grave every day for a week after his funeral. It made me feel better. If someone want to give condolences let it not be a catch phrase Reply

Mel Snyder Stoneham, MA October 25, 2011

Why rabbis created the laws of mourning Susan, they are not "laws." As a Reform Jew, I've seen the value of these customs first hand.

In 2005, I was stunned by a phone call from a doctor confessing a mistake that put my 85 year old father in an irreversible vegetative state. I had to remove my beloved dad from life support. Thanks to those traditions you condemn, I knew what to do, and was comforted as I held his hand and recited the 23rd Psalm, and the She'ma until he passed away. 3 years later, as my dear mom passed away from Alzheimer's disease, I similarly knew what to do.

These aren't merely laws. They are traditions. They are anchors in life's storms. Compass and star when we are in storms. Ways of expressing the inexpressible, of sharing grief across the generations. You and your father surrendered some great comforts of our faith. Your residual anger shows you found no calming replacement. How sad. Reply

Anonymous beitar, Israel October 25, 2011

Guidelines help to express grief Sadly I recently sat shiva for my brother.I found the "rules and regulations" truly a way to express my grief, and the laws for those who visit the mourner help others know the appropriate way to handle treating their grief -stricken friend. The rules helped to contain my grief in a way, and I found it comforting as well as truly meaningfull. Reply

Lev Anenberg Vaughan, Canada October 25, 2011

To Susan Levitsky The rabbis not only dream up the laws of mourning. Most of the 613 laws are created in this particular 'dreamy way'. So if you accept the so called 'Yoke of Torah' you should accept the laws of mourning no matter how dubious, non consequential and irrelevant they may seem. Reply

Phil Simkin Baltimore, MD October 25, 2011

Yet another... Perhaps if you had a better understanding of hte origin of all of the laws and traditions of Judaism you would realize that they are based on a thorough understanding of the Torah. It is not possible to be an observant Jew without accepting the divinity of the Bible and its interpretation by our Rabbis over the millenia. I am sorry for your loss. I am also sorry that you were so hurt that you could not accept a sincere expression of sympathy from one who reached out to you. Hopefully G-d will help your wound to heal and you will not have to be so vituperative. Reply

Israel LeviHaCohen Jerusalem, Israel October 25, 2011

Susan Levitsky Susan Levitsky, may you have a speedy recovery. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY/USA October 25, 2011

disputing prior comment Read The Jewish Way in Death & Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. That will educate you as to the beauty & meaningfulness of all the relevant traditions.

It is incredibly comforting to observe the authentic prescribed ways Jews mourn a death. G-d has prescribed these ways, brought down by sages empowered to explicate them for us. If you see the totality, and all in proper context, you may come to respect & appreciate & be absolutely awed by how magnificent is Hashem's plans for every single second of our existence, in both life and death. Reply

pogomcl prague, cz October 25, 2011

not senseless dont think that shiva is meant to be burdensome. certainly not senseless. Shiva allows expression of profound grief. It makes time for separation from world and privacy.gives a framework, a way of getting through a difficult time.

when you grow up without any framework or structure, you are at loss to express the terrible agony inside you. It's not like having your sister or brother die suddenly and next day be forced to attend school, put smile on face and pretend they never lived.

do you know what it can be like to have a brother and never hear his name mentioned for year after year? it must have been more than 14yrs before I heard my brother's name... and he had no memorial, no funeral, no place for memory, no tree planted, no candle, no flowers, no kind words.. I had to pretend day after day, he never existed. my brother was my only friend in life. I lived my life i n his honor because his name was erased.
shiva would have been a blessing
he was my brother friend Reply

Gavriel Eliezer ben Ze'ev Gershon Largo, FL October 25, 2011

To Susan Levitsky I feel sorry to you that your Judaism is a burden to you. My mother is in terminal care as I write, and my Rabbi is just out of his shiva, and we are both comforted by the rituals of mourning, not burdened. The rules are there to protect the living from the abrasions of daily life for a week, giving us time to recover slightly. The "outward signs" could be considered as a caution to those in attendance to be careful in how they treat the aveilim (mourners) when they are most tender.
One of the saddest aspects of your comments is that because your father was alienated while alive, his neshama was deprived of your respect after passing by your not showing any grief and rending your garment.
May Moshiach come quickly and relieve us of the burden of death and mourning. Reply

Tanya Brito Sto Dgo October 25, 2011

Sometimes.... I just don´t know why people bother so much about tradition. Then again, it is heavy burden to the people who are not used to it. Mostly for people who´s been doing it as tradition is just what it is suppose to do, not a burden. Job was not just a simple guy, he was called by the Lord as My Servant Job, it means that he surely was a man who knew and lived Tora. Saludos! Reply

Lawrence FRriedman crossville, tn. October 25, 2011

rules of mourning I believe Ms. Levitsky is confusing biblical rules with custom and tradition Reply

Anonymous Sharon, Massachusetts October 25, 2011

thanks My grandmother recently died and my father's sitting with my aunt and grandfather. I've wondered about this. Reply

Yosef Fort Collins, CO October 25, 2011

The laws and customs of death and mourning may not be for everyone, but they do provide a framework for expressing both grief and consolation. It is a time when most people, whether mourners or the community, may not know the appropriate things to say or do. Reply

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