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 shiva.

Judaism, unlike many ancient (and some modern) cultures, endows labor with dignity, and considers commerce a proper activity of man. However, never must "work" so dominate a man that he becomes a mere cog in society's wheel. The dimensions of man's personality must include his labor or business or career, but must transcend them as well. He must be able to experience life's great moments as an authentic human being, and not restrict his horizon to that of a laborer or professional. Hence, Judaism demands that at moments of great joy or great grief-both of which require concentration and undisturbed meditation-we refrain from our daily pursuits.

Thus, the prophet Ezekiel records the words of the Lord: "And I will transform your festivals to mourning." And the sages taught, "as on festivals labor is prohibited, so in days of mourning." The work prohibition during mourning is not similar to that of the Sabbath, but to that of chol ha'moed, the intermediary days in the midst of the festivals of Passover and Succot. Of course, the tradition accurately and wisely noted the different motivations for the work prohibition on festivals and during mourning, and these differences are reflected in the laws of avelut.

Following are the basic laws of the work prohibition during shiva. We must realize that because of the many possible situations and the variety of personal and business obligations, the decision of a rabbi may be required in some instances. There are a number of contingencies in this law, and only a competent, learned authority can weigh the human need and the religious requirement in order to make a valid decision.

Generally, the law states that one may not do any manner of skilled or unskilled labor, or manage any business enterprise, or direct any investment of monies, by himself or through agents, for all of the days of shiva. Included in this prohibition are all those who are dependents of the mourner and his immediate domestic help, whether they are Jewish or gentile. A child of a mourner, who is not himself mourning, even if he is past the age of Bar Mitzvah, may work during shiva, but only if the profits go to the child, not to the parent. Those who are economically independent of the father are not affected by the shiva restrictions.

  1. If the mourner is an employee—either a manager, executive, craftsman, or laborer—he may employ another person to work in his behalf. The employer is not expected to suffer because of the bereavement of an employee. Likewise, a mourner, if he is a tenant farmer, may designate a replacement so that the percentage of the owner's profit should not be lost thereby. Under ordinary circumstances, however, those who are self-employed may not similarly engage replacements to function in their behalf.

  2. If the mourner is an employer, the employees should be allowed to work during their owner's observance of shiva. They are considered to be working for their own profit, even though the mourner profits thereby as well.

    Similarly, one who is a tenant farmer in the fields of a mourner, either on a percentage or rental basis, or for a stipulated share of produce, may continue working, as he is doing so for his own benefit, even though profit accrues to the mourner as well.

  3. If the mourner has contracted work to others before the death occurred, the workers may continue to do their labor. However, this work may not be performed on the premises of the mourner. But the mourner may not contract for new work during shiva. This principle holds only for portable items. Contract work on stationary items, such as building construction, may not be done at all by anyone during shiva, under ordinary circumstances.

  4. A day worker, one who gets paid by the hour, rather than by the piece, may, under ordinary circumstances not work for the mourner during shiva.

  5. If the mourner has agreed to do contract work for others, he may arrange to have it completed through others, but not on his own premises.

    The mourner may accept contract work during shiva for the period after shiva, but should not enter into written agreements or contractual arrangements at this time.

  6. Items which the mourner rented to others before shiva may be used by them without restriction. He may not renew the rental during the Shiva, unless it is on a continuous renewal basis, and the matter cannot wait until after shiva.

  7. Retail stores must be closed during shiva, under all ordinary circumstances. This rule applies to stores individually owned or owned in partnership. The details of this law are complex:

    a. The partner of the mourner, in this case, will, unfortunately, be adversely affected. He may do work for the business in private, but not in the place of business, and not publicly. If the mourner is the major partner, and the business is called after his name, even private work done for it by the other partner is not permitted. If the mourner is a silent partner, the opinion of many scholars is that the other partner may continue normal operations.

    b. If the partnership owns more than one store, and each partner manages one, only the store managed by the mourner must be closed.

    c. If one of the partners himself dies, the partnership is considered terminated, and the business may operate normally, unless it was explicitly stipulated, previously, that the children will inherit the deceased's portion of the business. If it was not explicitly so stated, the store need not be closed at all (except in honor of the deceased, if so desired by the surviving partner).

    d. If they are partners merely in the rental of store space, but individually own separate businesses, the partner need not close his part of the store. In fact, in such a case, if the family is in need, the mourner may have others work in his portion of the store, since it is already open, and not specifically open for the mourner.

  8. Housework, such as cooking and cleaning, may be performed during shiva, but only such work as is necessary for that specific household. This applies not only to the one doing chores for the members of the family, but also if the residence is located in a commercial establishment, such as hotel or restaurant, for customers who eat or sleep there. While this is technically not considered labor, it should be avoided in ideal circumstances. Likewise, mourners who work as servants, bakers, or waiters, (live-in help) may, in critical circumstances where the labor is absolutely required, perform their appointed tasks. However, they should not do so until after the third day, and they should not leave the premises of their employment until the conclusion of shiva.

  9. A physician may attend to those of his patients who need his personal service during the shiva, even if other physicians are available. Of course, the doctor should use his discretion as to whether or not it is important enough to make the house call. If there is any doubt in his mind, the physician should definitely attend to his patient.

  10. If the mourner was engaged in his business and, for some reason, did not learn of the death, there is no obligation to inform him of the tragedy. So long as he himself is not aware of the death, the members of his family are not forbidden to work. He and his family may continue business activity until he is made aware of the death. If he is away from home and is notified by his family by letter or telegram, they should estimate the time of his receiving it, at which moment he becomes a mourner and his place of business must be closed by them.

When Is Work Permitted?

There are cases which, by their very nature, must be considered as exceptions to the normal rules of mourning because of the severe hardship that may be entailed.

These exceptions fall into three categories:

The Poor

No one is expected to suffer unduly as a consequence of observing the traditions of Jewish mourning, and relief from the stringencies of the law was thus provided. By the same token, the poor were not simply lumped into an exclusive class, giving them complete exemption from all the laws of mourning. Such economic burdens that develop from strict observance of the laws were relieved in accordance with the clear provisions of the tradition. But the remainder of the mourning obligations not pertinent to the exigency, remained in force.

The following laws apply to the indigent mourners. Poverty is defined, in terms of the laws of mourning, as those unable to earn their daily bread unless they work each day.

  1. The indigent mourner, even if he must borrow money or accept charity, must observe the first three days of mourning: the day of interment, the following day, and until a short time after sunrise on the third day. He may not work during this time.

  2. After the third day he may work, but should do so privately and inconspicuously, if possible. His wife, if she is the mourner, may work in the home. He may work after the third day even if charity or loans are offered him, but he refuses to accept this assistance, because it represents a compromise of his dignity.

  3. If there is no possibility of his receiving charitable assistance, he may work even on the very first day, but he should strive to perform this work inconspicuously.

Severe Loss

Not only poverty, but also incurring a severe business loss is grounds for exemption from the prohibition of work during shiva. Understandably, each person will tend to evaluate the extent of his loss subjectively. The deeply grieved may look lightly upon the possibility of losing employment. Those who are grieving mildly may consider a half week's wages a major setback. The judgment in such a situation should, therefore, be measured by a religious authority.

The following matters will be taken into consideration

  1. Will the mourner lose trade to competitors if the store is closed?

  2. Does the shiva fall during one's busy season?

  3. Are the goods, that will remain unsold because of the observance, perishables? Is it possible they may be rendered non-merchandisable or lose value after the Shiva?

  4. Will the purchase price of materials that may not be acquired during shiva rise if the purchase is delayed?

  5. Is there a possibility of losing a job if the mourner does not work for the entire week?

  6. Will employees have to be paid while they sit idle while the employer is mourning? Will rented items, such as delivery trucks, have to be paid for, although they will not be used?

  7. Will the cessation of business activity cause an irretrievable loss of capital investment?

  8. Will there be a major loss of profit if business is not conducted? The rabbi will decide differently, for example, if one is an investor in his spare time for additional income, and the loss is mild, or if he derives his major income from investments and, thus, faces a serious financial crisis.

  9. Will another person suffer loss as a result of the mourner's observance?

  10. Are the administrative aspects of the business, such as billing, etc., so important that if they are delayed payment may not be received?

  11. Finally, and most important, will an extensive financial loss result in any way, because of the full observance of mourning?

In cases where the hardship is adjudged to be severe, the mourner should abide by the following scale of preferences:

  1. The mourner should attempt to have others do the work in his stead.

  2. He should attempt to delay the work until after the third day.

  3. He should strive to accomplish his work inconspicuously.

  4. If at all possible, it should be done at night, and Shiva should be observed during the day.

Only under exceptional circumstances may the work be done by the mourner himself, or before the third day, or in public. This is true for the employee, the self-employed, the storekeeper, or his partner.

Public Need

Personal mourning should also not intrude on the conduct of public affairs. Thus, the Talmud guards against the cessation of public Torah studies when the teacher is required to observe shiva at home. It insists that another person teach in his stead, and if that is not possible, it requires the mourner to perform his normal duties. Public need, thus, received priority, and any disruption of this need was considered an exceptional contingency. In the category of public need are included the following:

  1. The sexton of the synagogue, if he is personally needed to arrange the sanctuary and prepare for the Sabbath, or care for the burial of the dead in the Burial Society, and there is no other person who can function in his stead, may perform this work during shiva.

  2. The teacher of religious studies, if there is no available substitute, should not dismiss classes during shiva, but should continue teaching himself. If this can be done in his home, it is preferable. This does not apply to the teacher of secular subjects.

  3. The shochet, or ritual slaughterer, of a small community which depends on him for daily meat, may perform his duties after the third day so that the community need not go without meat on the Sabbath. If there is no other shochet he may go back to work even during the first three days. (This is usually of little concern in our day of prepackaged frozen kosher meats.)

  4. The rabbi, in his professional capacity, may decide points of religious law during shiva, if there is no other available rabbi who can decide these matters. If there is a wedding ceremony at which there will be no music played, and he is the only qualified person available, he may perform the ceremony in as inconspicuous and quiet a fashion as possible.

  5. A scribe may write a Jewish bill of divorce, if there is a possibility that one of the couple may otherwise renege on the agreement, or that the proceedings may be disrupted because of his absence.

  6. The mohel for the circumcision, and the Kohen for the ceremony of pidyon ha'ben, should likewise perform their respective duties if there is no substitute, as noted above.

  7. Public officials, who are personally indispensable at the time of shiva, may perform their duties if they can find no adequate replacement. Similarly, military personnel, policemen and firemen, during times of emergency, when their participation is necessary for the public good, may perform their duties during Shiva.

It cannot be reiterated often enough that the decision to curtail the practice of shiva may not be made by laymen or well-wishers or "knowledgeable" relatives or religious functionaries or funeral directors, but by duly ordained rabbis, thoroughly steeped in the law and aware of the problems of the day.