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The Stages of Mourning in Judaism

The Stages of Mourning in Judaism

The shivah and other mourning observances


Jewish tradition exhorts us to properly mourn the passing of a loved one, and sets the practices and rituals that facilitate and give expression to our feelings of loss and grief. At the same time, however, it establishes a sequence of time frames through which the intensity of our mourning is progressively mitigated, from the most intense mourning that is observed in the hours after a death, to the seven-day "shivah" observed following the burial, to the 30-day shloshim period, and so on.

Mourning is a show of respect to the departed and to his or her place in our lives... In other words, we must mourn, but we must also set boundaries to our mourning. To not mourn at all, or to plunge into an abyss of grief and remain trapped on its bottom—both these extremes are detrimental, both to the living and to the soul of the departed. Mourning is a show of respect to the departed and to his or her place in our lives, as well as a crucial stage in the healing of those who experienced the loss. But the soul of the departed does not desire that those remaining in this world remain paralyzed by grief. On the contrary, the soul's greatest benefit comes from its loved ones' return to active, even joyous life, in which their feelings of love and veneration translate into deeds that honor the departed soul and attest to its continuing influence in our world.

Five phases of mourning correspond to five stages of the soul's ascent

These (five) phases of mourning also correspond with the stages of the soul's "ascent," as it gradually disengages from the material world and assumes a less palpable—though no less real—presence in our lives.

The world was created with humanity as its focus. This took a full cycle of time: seven days. When creation is reversed and the human soul returns to its source, that, too, is marked with a week's cycle: the Shivah, seven days which the closest relatives devote exclusively to mourning the soul's departure, and the extended family, friends and community comfort them with their presence, their empathy, and their words of consolation.

we must mourn, but we must also set boundaries to our mourning The traditional words spoken to the mourner during Shivah are: "May G‑d console you, together with all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." In a letter to a father who lost his young child, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes:

"At first glance, the connection between the mourner to whom these words are directed and the mourners of Jerusalem's destruction appears to be quite puzzling. In truth, however, they are connected. For the main consolation embodied by this phrase is in its inner content. Namely, that just as the grief over Zion and Jerusalem is common to all the sons and daughters of our people, Israel, wherever they may be... so is the grief of a single individual Jew or Jewish family shared by the entire nation. For, as the Sages have taught, all of the Jewish people comprise one integral organism...

"A second point: ...just as G‑d will most certainly rebuild the ruins of Zion and Jerusalem and gather the dispersed of Israel from the ends of the earth through our righteous Moshiach, so will He, without a doubt, remove the grief of the individual, fulfilling the promise embodied by the verse, 'Awaken and sing, you who repose in the dust.' Great will be the joy, the true joy, when all will be rejoined at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead...."

I. Phases of Mourning

There are five stages to the mourning process: 1) Aninut, pre-burial mourning. 2-3) Shivah, a seven day period following the burial; within the Shivah, the first three days are characterized by a more intense degree of mourning. 4) Shloshim, the 30-day mourning period. 5) The First Year (observed only by the children of the deceased).

II.Basic Mourning Observances

Note: What follows is only a very basic outline of the laws of mourning. for a more comprehensive summary, see In Detail, or consult a qualified rabbi.

A. Who Mourns:

The laws of mourning described below are incumbent upon seven first-degree relatives of the deceased: son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother, and spouse (husband or wife). The other relatives and friends form the more outer circle of mourning, and offer support and comfort to the primary mourners.

B. Aninut:

The first, most intense period of mourning is the period between the death and the burial. This period, called aninut, is characterized by a numbing, paralyzing grief. During this period, the first degree relatives' all-consuming concern are the funeral and burial arrangements, to the extent that they are absolved by Torah law from the observance of all mitzvot requiring action (praying, laying tefillin, etc.).

It is during this period that the k'riah, or rending of the garments as a sign of grief, is performed. (According to the custom of some communities, k'riah is performed immediately following the death or upon receiving news of the death; the more common custom is that the first degree mourners tear their clothes during the funeral ceremony, before the burial.)

Our sages instruct, "do not comfort the mourner during the time that his deceased lies [still unburied] before him." At this point, the grief is too intense for any effort at consolation. It is a time to simply be with the mourner and offer practical assistance, rather than words of consolation. It is a time of silence, not words.

C. The Shivah

The Shivah begins after the burial, and extends to the morning of the seventh day. The distinguishing feature of the Shivah is that the mourners take an almost complete break from the routines and involvements of everyday life to focus exclusively on the memory of the departed and the manner in which they will honor him or her in their lives, and receive consolation from their extended family, friends, and the community.

The basic practices of the Shivah:

  1. Condolence Meal: When the mourners arrive home from the cemetery following the burial, they are given a special meal of condolence —traditionally, bagels and hard-boiled eggs, whose round shape is symbolic of the cycle of life.

  2. The House of Mourning: For the entire week of the Shivah, the mourners remain in the house of mourning, and their relatives, friends and members of the community come to fulfill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim (consoling the mourner) and participate in prayers, Torah study, the giving of charity and other mitzvot performed in the merit of the departed. During the prayer services, the mourners recite the Kaddish.
    It is best to "sit shivah" in the home of the deceased, so that the prayers and good deeds performed in his or her merit take place in his or her "place" and environment.

  3. Working and Conducting Business: One of the most fundamental laws of Jewish mourning (over three thousand years old, and later recorded by the prophet Ezekiel), is the prohibition of working and doing business during Shivah.

  4. Consoling the Bereaved (making a "Shivah Call"): It is a great mitzvah to console the bereaved. This is done by visiting the mourner in the house of mourning during Shivah, talking about the life and deeds of the person being mourned, participating in the prayers and other activities done in merit of the departed, or simply being there for the mourner.
    Before leaving, the visitors extend the traditional words of consolation to the mourners: Hamakom yenachem etchem b'toch she'ar aveilei tzion v'yerushalayim — "May G‑d comfort you, together with all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." (Click here for text in Hebrew, transliteration and translation)
    We are there to be supportive, to visit, to listen, but not to place a burden by expecting false joviality and plastic smiles from the bereaved. No mourner should, G‑d forbid, feel obliged to put on a "nice face" for others.

  5. Daily Minyan. A minyan (prayer quorum) should gather for the three daily prayers in the house of mourning, so that the mourners can participate in a communal prayer service and recite the Kaddish. A Torah Scroll should be borrowed, for use on days on which the Torah is read. If no minyan can be assembled, the mourners should leave the house of mourning to attend services with the congregation.

  6. Memorial Candles. Candles should be kindled in the house of mourning in memory of the deceased, attesting to the presence of the "candle of G‑d [that is] the soul of man" (Proverbs 20:27). The candles are kindled upon returning from the cemetery and kept burning for the entire seven-day period of Shiva. According to the Kabbalah, five candles should be lit, representing the five levels of the soul. (Special Shivah candles are usually provided by the funeral director.)

  7. Covering the Mirrors. It is a time-honored tradition to cover the mirrors and pictures in the house of mourning from the moment of death to the end of Shivah. While the custom is of uncertain origin, its practice is appropriate to the pattern of mourning (see "Leather Shoes" below).

  8. "Sitting" Shivah: It is an ancient Jewish tradition that mourners, during Shivah, do not sit upon chairs of normal height, but rather on low stools.

  9. Leather Shoes: The mourner forgoes the comfort of leather shoes during Shivah. The stockinged feet or less substantial shoes of bereavement is symbolic of a disregard of vanity and comfort in order better to concentrate on the deeper meaning of life.

  10. Grooming: The mourner does not shave or cut his hair, nor does he bathe or shower for pleasure, during Shivah. Laundering or wearing freshly laundered clothes is also proscribed, as is the acquisition or wearing of new clothes (if the only clothes available are soiled, they may be washed). The mourner wears the torn garment on which he or she performed the k'riah throught the Shivah.

  11. Marital Relations: Mourners refrain from marital relations during Shivah.

  12. Music or Entertainment: Mourners do not enjoy the sound of music, or any other forms of amusement or entertainment.

  13. Torah Study: The study of Torah is not permitted during Shivah, for it is considered a source of profound delight. As the Bible itself expresses it, "The laws of G‑d are righteous and rejoice the heart." However, the mourner is permitted to read the laws of mourning and study books on ethical behavior and other parts of Torah that are of a non-joyous nature.

  14. Shabbat: During Shabbat, all public displays of mourning are suspended. Shortly before the holy day begins, the mourners bathe and put on their Shabbat clothes. On Shabbat, they may also leave the house of mourning to attend services and recite the Kaddish in the synagogue.

  15. "Getting Up" from the Shivah. Shivah ends on the morning of the seventh day after burial (with the day of the burial counting as the first day), immediately following the morning service. Those present extend condolences, and the mourners rise from their week of mourning to resume the normalcy of everyday life.

D. The Sheloshim and the First Year:

Even as the mourner resumes his or her everyday routine after the Shivah, certain mourning practices, such as not purchasing or wearing new clothes, cutting one's hair, enjoying music or other form of entertainment, and participating in joyous events (weddings, etc.), are continued for a period of thirty days (beginning from the day of the burial).

In the case of a person mourning the passing of a parent, these mourning practices extend for a full year. (Regarding the cutting of the hair, the law provides for the principle of "social reproach." This means that those in mourning for a parent may cut their hair after 30 days at the first instance of even mild reproach or criticism by friends or neighbors. Immediately after this social reproach, the mourner is permitted to take a haircut.)

In Summation:

Jewish tradition provides a framework to channel and express our grief over the loss of a loved one, from the stupefying grief of Aninut, to the seclusion, break from routine, and receiving of condolence of the Shivah, to the subsequent resumption of everyday life whilst continuing certain mourning rituals during the Sheloshim and the First Year.

It is important to meticulously observe these guidelines and rituals; it is equally important that they not be exceeded. At times, the mourner may not consciously feel the degree or type of grief and mourning these rituals convey; other times, he or she may not feel prepared to "move on" to the next, lesser phase of mourning. Yet the wisdom of adhering to the observances and timetables established by the Torah has been attested to time and again by anyone who, G‑d forbid, undergoes this process. The Torah's mourning laws provide the outlet and validation for our grief so crucial to the healing process, as well as the framework to graduate from one level of mourning to another, until our loss is integrated as a constructive, and not, G‑d forbid, destructive, force in our lives.

But the traditional mourning practices are not only about us and how we deal with our grief. They are, first and foremost, about the person whom we mourn. The mourning and memorializing rituals mandated by the Torah empower us with the spiritual tools with which to honor the departed soul and assist its elevation to its new, higher state of life.

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Rochel Chein for March 2, 2017

Wedding ring I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. You can choose whether or not to continue wearing the ring, based on your personal preference. Reply

Anonymous North Carolina March 1, 2017

Do I continue to wear a wedding ring after my husband passes away? Reply Staff via September 9, 2016

Why pebbles? Good question, please see this link for a response Reply

Mary Ellen (Hammer ) Sees nanty glo September 9, 2016

Hello I have a question .Why do you put a rock or stone on the headstone when you visit the grave. Reply

Shmuel May 4, 2016

did anyone hear that if you go twice to a shivah house you have to go a third time? Reply

Lisa Providence, RI February 4, 2016

My mother died in 2005. I attended Saturday morning Shabbat Services the day before her funeral and burial, and everyone was surprised that I didn't stay home. I simply answered that I didn't want to be alone. Everyone supported me, and helped me get through that difficult time.

I even learned that Orthodox Jews aren't allowed to grieve on the Sabbath. I don't think that makes any sense, because grief doesn't take vacations. Reply

Anne Leibowitz New York December 31, 2015

I lost my mother last year at this time. We went to the cemetery this Sunday to see the burial stones for the first time. My father also passed away this year, in the summer. Now I have to wait another year for my father. This all seems so unreal to me! Reply

J.H. Reynolds UK July 3, 2014

To Moshe, You ask what you can do. That is what I asked and CHABAD helped me when no one else could. I, too, had a "siamese twin" (my beloved husband) that I lost after 40 years. Shattered is not a strong enough word. Your words were my words all those years ago and I wept for you. I will tell you what got me through - the words of Job "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord" - and - in the memory of he whom I loved, bestowing the traditional blessing upon all (including those I considered my enemies) - "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and grant you grace." Miraculously, the pain began to ease and with the help of CHABAD, I began to recover. (You might be interested to know that I am not of the Jewish faith.) Reply

Anonymous Bethesda, MD via July 3, 2014

Daily Visitations except for Shabbat Moshe, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. May your wife's memory be for a blessing. And I mean that literally. When my daughter passed and the initial stages of grieving were behind us, we began to honor her memory by helping those who are here and in need. Perhaps, dedicating your energies to performing mitzvahs in your wife's name will help to fill some of your time and also to offer you some comfort. In any event, I can tell you that while grief subsides, it never goes away. It is part of me. I would also offer that grief does not progress in a purely linear fashion. Today will not necessarily be better than yesterday just because it is a day later. But eventually, I hope you too will find more comfort than pain through a combination of memories and mitzvahs. I would also advise you to talk about her when she is on your mind, and to write down your memories when they come to you. Best wishes. Reply

Moshe June 29, 2014

Daily Visitations except for Shabbat My wife my soulmate of over 40 years passed away 3 weeks ago and I am inconsolable every day. The only consolation I have is the time I spend at her gravesite. I know that traditionally the soul needs time to be elevated to the almighty without having the additional burden of a grieving spouse visiting every day. But I can not help myself. Relatives and friends who have been in similar positions tell me it's very hard to continue but life goes on and it will get easier but the pain is not gone. There is tradition and there is reality and right now I am in neither world. I feel like an empty vessel that the insides have been torn out. I do not want to hinder the love of my life's soul. She became sick suddenly and departed within weeks in palliative care. I miss her every second we were almost like Siamese twins. What can I do to help her soul and myself (selfishly) I guess. Unveiling is in 2 weeks after the 30 days. Toda Rabba Reply

Menachem Posner Montreal, QC via February 16, 2014

To Anonymous There are indeed divergent customs regarding when to observe yartzeit in a case such as yours. Some only observe Adar I, and others just observe Adar II. The custom of Chabad and others is to observe both Adars. You can read more about that here: Reply

Anonymous Bethesda, MD via February 13, 2014

Proper Leap Year Yahrzeit My daughter passed away during Adar on a non-leap year. I've seen conflicting information about whether her yahrzeit should be observed in Adar I or Adar II during a leap year. Some have said that we must not delay the opportunity to perform the mitzvah. But it always seemed significant to me that she passed on eruv Purim. And so, it bothers me to have her yarzheit separated from Purim in leap years. Reply

Tzvi Freeman September 23, 2013

Re: Postponing Shiva until after end of Sukkot & Simchat Torah Yes, this is correct—the shiva begins after Simchat Torah, yet the days of the festival are still considered part of the shloshim, since you cannot cut hair at that time.

Concerning leading the services: This differs from one community to the next, and also depends on circumstance. Best to have the rabbi of your community determine this. Reply

Robert Semel New York September 22, 2013

Postponing Shiva until after end of Sukkot & Simchat Torah My mother passed away first day of Sukkot. I am told that Shiva is done only after Simchat Torah. Is that correct? Secondly, in this particular type of case, if one is not yet sitting Shivah, but is already in Shloshim, can such person lead holiday or Sabbath prayers? Reply

Allan Kelly central coast Australia May 13, 2013

comforting but not the complete answer Reply

Yesha Marie Ohashi Murfreesboro March 20, 2013

My Precious Mom, In process I got a call that my Mom was dying, I live in Seattle, she in Tennessee. I flew out, and stayed and she lived. Flew back, got another call, finally drove from Seattle to Tennessee. Put her in a wonderful home, got a job, and found out they were neglecting and abusing her. I brought her back to her home, am now 24/7 caring for her. She has good days and bad! I am glad I am here to help but it is hard. After not sleeping tonight, and asking God to help me I came upon this site. What a beautiful way of sharing about the end of life. I have been crying happy tears for the answers that were given to me. Thank you! Reply

Stephen Kozer Riviera Beach, Florida December 22, 2012

My mother past away on Thursday 12/20/2012 A wonderful woman who always put her husband Joe and her children first in her life. I will miss her. Funny how things happen. I moved to Florida October first on a fluke. Turns out she got sick right after I came down which gave me the opportunity to spend time with her daily throughout her short illness. G-D works his magic in so many ways, this is just one way he helped her and I to be together during this time. Now my job is to keep my Father going through this time. They were together for 65 Years.
I am thankful that her Reply

Anonymous Vancouver via August 5, 2012

Dear Double Loss I will venture to say that those who say to you "say move on. The past is the past" have not lost someone close to them. Unfortunately, anyone who suffers a significant tragedy, also gets to suffer painful and thoughtless comments by other people This is their a futile and inconsiderate attempt to end their discomfort with your suffering.

There are stages in grieving, and the annual yartzeit reflects that even after the year of mourning is long past (in time) we never are completely the same. The memory of our loved one and the fact that we miss them is a positive IF it drives us to live a better and holier life. The fact that it places in sharp focus for us who are living, how precious life is, and what is missing when a life ends, and therefore we live better and holier, is in actual fact how the departed continue to affect the world of the living, and in that spiritual sense are in fact living on through us, and their soul gets credit for that accomplishment. Reply

Chaya Sarah Silberberg December 3, 2011

Moving on does not mean forgetting or "letting go" of the deceased. Moving on means going on with out lives and not allowing grief or mourning to interfere with our work and our relationships. Of course we remember our loved ones, and they are in our hearts forever!

Hopefully you have many strong, good memories of those whom you loved, and they encourage you and inspire you to be a better person and live a better life, a life which will give honor and respect to these memories... Reply

Anonymous Montreal, Canada December 3, 2011

Double Loss Hello,

Ten years ago I lost my mother and my beshert within 4 months of each other.

I have not healed. It doesn't HURT as much, but there is a hole in me that will not close.

People say move on. The past is the past. I can't see how to let go. They are still in my dreams and my regular life... How do you get past that and why would you want to? Reply

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