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 veerushalayim — "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 throughout 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.