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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 the director of Lubavitch Archives, a freelance journalist and public speaker. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Discussion (21)
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.
Solarchild
Norcross, GA
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" .
Anonymous
Jerusalem, Israel
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.
Charles
Honolulu, HI
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.
Barbara Niles
Phoenix, AZ
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.
Jack
Midland Park
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.
Anonymous
St. James, NY
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.
Pasquale
Kingman, Arizona
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
Susan Levitsky
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.
Mel Snyder
Stoneham, MA
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.
Anonymous
beitar, Israel
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