Candles in the House of Mourning

The house of mourning must be prepared with candles for the return of the mourners from the cemetery. Candles, in memory of the deceased, should be kindled and kept burning for the entire seven-day period of shiva. They are kindled upon returning from the cemetery. (The shiva candles are usually provided by the funeral director.)

To the Jew, the candle signifies a special event, some notable occasion in life. There is candlelight on Sabbath, on major holidays, customarily at the Brit, the pidyon ha'ben, under the wedding canopy, and often at occasions of simcha shel mitzvah-meals celebrating the successful conclusion of a commandment.

During shiva, candlelight is the symbol of the human being. The wick and the flame symbolize body and soul, and the bond between them. The flame is the soul that strives ever upward, and brings light into darkness. Jewish mysticism has suggested profound and insightful analogies of the flame and the soul of the deceased in its comments on the shiva candle, yahrzeit lamp and yizkor candle.

  1. Because of this deep significance of the flame, the shiva candle, ideally, should not be an electric fixture, but one of wick and flame, either of olive oil or paraffin. If these are unavailable, an electric light should be used. Also, if there is any danger of fire, the electric light, of course, should be used.

  2. Where the candle should be kindled is a matter of opinion in the sources. It is most proper that it be lit in the home of the deceased, where he lived and died. This should obtain regardless of where the death occurred. If it is not feasible to observe the shiva at the residence of the deceased, it should be kindled wherever the mourners are sitting shiva.

  3. The candle should be kindled immediately upon returning from the cemetery, or upon hearing of the death within the seven days. The candle is left burning for the duration of the shiva, even throughout the Sabbath at which time demonstrative mourning is not observed. Also, on chol ha'moed of Succot and Passover the candle is lit immediately, even though shiva begins after the holiday is over. In such a case, the candles should remain burning through the holiday and until the end of the shiva. It is preferable on those days, however, to place the candles in a room other than the dining room so as to make the symbol of grief less prominent on the holiday which is a joyous occasion for the entire Jewish people.

  4. One candle is sufficient for the household. There should be one lit also wherever the mourners observe the shiva.

Covering the Mirrors

It has been a time-honored tradition to cover the mirrors in the shiva home from the moment of death to the end of shiva. While the custom is of uncertain origin, its practice is appropriate to the pattern of avelut.

A variety of reasons have been advanced for the custom of covering the mirrors:

  • Judaism has always taught that man was created in the image of God and that he derives, from that resemblance, his dignity and his value. It has supplemented this concept with the idea that the death of one of God's creatures diminishes the very image of the Creator Himself. Man's demise represents a disruption of the relationship between the living man and the living God. The dignity of man is the reflection of his Creator and, therefore, the image of the Creator Himself shrinks with the death of His creatures. At the time of the destruction of the image of God, represented by man, the mirror-which serves to reflect man's "image"--ought not be used.

  • When death strikes, the mourner should contemplate the relationship between God and man, Creator and creature. When, instead, the bereaved dwells vainly on self-adoration (through the use of his mirror) and continues to be concerned with his own image and his own creatureliness, he thereby brings to almost comic proportions the austere moment of tragedy.

  • It should be recognized that the mirror occupies an unusual place in the household. It is the object which, more than any other, serves to enhance the attractiveness of man and wife for each other. The silvered glass reflects the external appeal of each of the mates.

    Judaism has taken great care to promote a relationship of kindness, concern, courtesy, and even physical desire between a man and his wife. Nevertheless, with the death of a child or parent or sibling, this intimate relationship must be suspended. One commentator thus states that the ancient custom observed during shiva, of kfi'at hamitah, the overturning of the bed or couch, served as a means of discouraging marital relations. When the cloud of death settles on a household, the mirror-happy symbol of secure and intimate family living-must be covered, and the mourner must concentrate on the painful loss.

  • It is obvious that the individual, if he were isolated from society, would have little need of the precious reflecting glass. The mirror is the means of achieving social acceptance by enhancing the appearance. The spirit of Jewish mourning, however, is the spirit of loneliness, the mourner dwelling silently, and in solitude, on his personal loss. Social etiquette and appearance become terribly insignificant. The covering of the mirror symbolizes the sense of withdrawal in avelut.

  • The fifth reason is a very practical one: Worship services are customarily held in the home of the bereaved, as will be noted below. Jewish law clearly states that one may not worship an image or stand directly in front of one, whether it be a picture, or a reflected image in a mirror. Thus, mirrors must be covered in this temporary House of Worship.

Additional House of Mourning Preparations

Several other matters regarding the house of mourning should be noted. These will be recorded here and discussed in further detail in the appropriate chapters below.

  1. Arrange with the funeral director for shiva benches or stools for all the mourners, even for those who are too ill to sit on them constantly throughout the shiva. The mourners will also require slippers that are not made of leather.

  2. Ask the rabbi or sexton or lay official of the synagogue for a sufficient number of men to constitute a minyan, and for prayer-books for all present, men and women, and skullcaps for the men.

  3. Also arrange for chairs for those who will visit during shiva.