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Shiva Works

Shiva Works

The shiva for my father centered on the joy of his life, not his death.


"Better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting," (Ecclesiastes 7:2), said the wisest of men.

Until my father's recent passing, I had only experienced a house of mourning from the viewpoint of one offering comfort, not that of a mourner. Even then, I was struck by the wisdom of the ancient forms. According to Jewish law, one waits for the mourner to initiate conversation. It is not the job of the one who has come to offer solace to fill up the silence, but rather to follow the lead of the mourner.

Comforters who feel the pressure to say something, whether profound or witty, are almost guaranteed to say something stupid. Jewish law relieves them of that pressure.

The shiva houses I remember from my suburban upbringing were usually filled with food. The mourners acted as if they were responsible for entertaining their guests, and the guests seemed to think their role consisted chiefly of distracting the mourners from their pain by making light talk.

Very different is the traditional house of mourning, where the mourners sit on the floor or low chairs, little, if any, food is served, and ideally the conversation focuses almost entirely on the deceased.

No ideal is ever fully realized. Inevitably there will be those who insist on hearing about the last week or the last five minutes of a long life, in the hopes of finding a distinguishing detail to reassure them that the same fate does not await them. But, in general, the shiva for my father centered on the joy of his life, not his death.

The pain of our loss was directly proportional to the preciousness of our relationship with Dad.

I had no wish to be distracted from talking about my father. True, that talk often triggered new crying, but the tears were not only ones of sadness. The pain of our loss was directly proportional to the preciousness of our relationship with Dad.

Each of the stages of the mourning process -- shiva (the first seven days from burial), shloshim (30 days), the eleven months of reciting Kaddish -- has its own rules and restrictions. Together they impose a structure and discipline on one's life, at least in my case heretofore unknown. I have entered a new world of being among the first ten to arrive at every minyan so I can lead the prayers, and organizing my day around three regular minyanim. Since shiva ended, I have not slept past 5:30 a.m. Mourning reminds us that life is finite, and the discipline it imposes teaches us how to get the most out of our time before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Leading the daily davening has thrust me into my terror zone. I would far sooner have faced Roger Clemens in his prime. While improvement in this unfamiliar role has been steady, I still tremble each time I go to the front. But that fear also reminds me that I'm there only because of my love for my father, and brings me closer to him.

Throughout the year of mourning, we do many things for the benefit of the soul of the departed: learn mishnayos, recite Kaddish, lead the davening, give tzedakah. But for me, the most important is to be a true legacy to my father by attempting to embody at least some of his positive traits. All the talking about Dad throughout shiva allowed me to define what made him so special and to clarify the task ahead of me.

I returned from shiva at my parents' home filled with a desire to hug and kiss my children even more than before, and with the hope that when my time comes, they will remember me with as much love and respect as I will always remember Dad.

June 3, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Anonymous, August 12, 2015 7:44 PM

Even though I am late I was glad to read this article.

I have now sat Shiva for both of my parents. A"H. IMO it is an honor to pay a Shiva call. Of course we know it certainly is a mitzvah. Re: Food at the Shiva house. As far as I am concerned, the food is not meant for me. My job is to prepare food and/or drink for the avelim if that is what they want. I have also learned to allow the avelim to speak about the one who is niftar. Yes, that sounds simplistic but it really isn't.

(7) Miryam, June 21, 2006 12:00 AM

A Beautiful Tribute

What a wonderful way to express ones grief... being new to this I was touched and blessed...


(6) iris, June 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Shiva is not for everyone

In 1990, my friend's husband committed suicide erev Succoth. A comment was made that since it was erev yon tif, my friend would not have to sit shiva for long. I gave that person an icy glare. How clueless that person was! Did he think that Succoth could hold any joy for my friend or her children, then just 13 and younger?

She did not sit the "traditional shiva" in any way, shape or form. But with the constant vigilance of good friends, she and her children have since lived fulfilling lives. Yes, the husband and father is still missed, but life has gone on.

(5) Betti Miner, June 9, 2006 12:00 AM

personal experience

I can identify with Jonathon Rosenbaum. I am presently sitting shiva and attending synogogue for the Kaddish to be recited for my husband who passed away on June 1. I feel his loss profoundly and my neighbors and co-workers are rallying around me. May Jonathan's father's name be for a blessing just as my husband's. Thank you

(4) Cyvia Scharmett, June 4, 2006 12:00 AM

Very moving

I went through Shiva two years ago for my sister who epitomized all that was good. There is not a day that I don't miss her. She was my best friend as well. I try to emulate her,

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