Jewish Mourning Laws and Customs
Beginning of the Shiva and the Meal of Condolence
Beginning of the Shiva
The mourners travel from the cemetery to the deceased's home, where they begin counting the seven days of the shiva. The laws of mourning for the shiva then begin to apply. It is best for all of the mourners to spend the shiva together at the home in which the deceased lived. The laws for shiva apply as soon as the mourners arrives at the house in which they will reside during the shiva.
Asceticism and Excessive Mourning is Forbidden
The Torah commands people to engrave an image of the living in their hearts, but forbids them to harm their own bodies as a memorial symbol after death. Sorrow must not affect the desire to continue living. Beyond the Torah's instructions about mental torment and avoidance of pleasure (bathing, anointing, wearing shoes, sitting comfortably, intimate relations), the mourner is forbidden to add extra stringencies and self-afflictions. During the shiva, the mourners are surrounded with warmth, love, and care. They find relief from their grief by sharing it with the visitors. The visitors should talk about the deceased and show appreciation for his memory, but should also encourage the mourners to recover from their sorrow, and should emphasize the mourners' obligation to continue their lives as before.
It is customary to light a candle in the mourner's home for the ascent of the deceased's soul. The candle should remain lit throughout the shiva, including on the Sabbath and holidays.
Behavior in the Mourners' Home
The first day of the shiva is a day of mourning devoted to self-seclusion within the family. The mourners returning from the cemetery take off their shoes and put on footwear made of rubber, cloth, or plastic. It is also permitted to remain without footwear and cover the feet with socks.
The mourners sit on stools or low benches as a symbol of their mourning (Sephardim sit on the floor, or on cushions and duvets put on the floor).
The Condolence Meal
It is customary for the neighbors to prepare the mourners' first meal upon returning home after the burial. The mourners are served a meal, called the condolence meal, immediately after they return. This meal should be served by one of those present who is not among the mourners and is not a relative. The mourners are forbidden to prepare or serve the meal. If the burial was on Friday afternoon or on the afternoon before a holiday, a condolence meal is not eaten. A condolence meal consists of bagels, lentils, and hardboiled eggs – food with a round shape symbolizing the cycle of death and life in the world – a revolving carousel going up and down – to emphasize that the current grief and sorrow will pass and be replaced by joy and happiness.
One of the special signs of a mourner's home is the open door. The door is left open for the entire shiva – a sign to those coming to comfort the mourners that entering the house and comforting the mourners is permitted. The open door is an integral part of the laws for the shiva. The mourner must sit in his place; he is not allowed to circulate unnecessarily. Another reason for leaving the door open is to avoid distracting the mourner by making him rise to open the doors for visitors to enable them to enter the house.
Why Mirrors are Covered
In a house where a shiva is taking place, all mirrors, pictures with portraits, and television screens that reflect people standing in front of them are covered. The reason is that man was created in the image of God, and for his sin – the sin of the first man, the punishment of "dust you are, and to dust you shall return" was imposed on him. Because of man's sins, the image of the Creator in whose image man was created was turned over. In order to avoid this idea being materialized in the mourner's home, it is customary to cover the mirrors and screens from which images are reflected. Another reason is that if the mourners look in a mirror, it appears as if they want to adorn themselves, which is certainly not in the spirit of the shiva.
The people coming to comfort the mourners do not greet them by saying "Shalom" upon either entering or leaving the house. Hands are shaken in only a few communities. Instead of saying "Shalom," the comforters say, "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." This make the mourners' personal bereavement part of the Jewish people's general mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem. On the Sabbath during the shiva, it is permissible to say "Shalom" and "Shabbat Shalom" to mourners, and the mourners must respond to the greeting.
Standing out of Respect for a Person
The mourner is not required to stand, even in the presence of an important person, but he must stand in the presence of a Torah scroll. When the mourner is standing, he must not be told to sit down.
It is a commandment to pray in a minyan (prayer quorum) in the home where the deceased died. When it is not possible to pray there, for example if he died in a hospital, it is customary to pray where the shiva is being held. The mourner does not put on tefillin on the first day of mourning. It is customary for the mourner to lead the prayers and say Kaddish for 11 months. Neither the Tahanum prayer nor the "For the choirmaster" prayer is recited in the mourner's home, and the "As for Me, this is My covenant with them" prayer is also omitted in some communities. Cohens do not perform the priestly blessing, and the Hallel prayer is not recited on Rosh Chodesh. After the morning and evening prayer (also after the afternoon prayer, according to some), it is customary to recite Psalm 49. On days when Tahanun is not recited, Psalm 16 is recited instead.
Study of Mishnah
It is customary to study Mishnah during the shiva in the mourner's home for the ascent of the deceased's soul. Some study sections of the Mishnah beginning with the deceased's name, and afterwards study four sections of the Mishnah in Chapter 7 of the Mikvaot tractate with the letters nun, shin, mem, and hey, corresponding to the Hebrew word "neshama" (soul), and the "Please" prayer is recited. The mourner himself, however, is forbidden to study Torah, and is permitted only to listen to others and recite the "Kaddish D'Rabbanan" prayer.
Taking Things out of the Mourner's House
Some have the custom of not taking anything out the mourner's home during the entire shiva because of the bad spirit there.
It is permissible to bring a Torah scroll to the mourner's home in order to hear the Torah reading at least twice. In some communities, the Torah reading is conducted at least three times. The mourner is not called up to the Torah, even if he is a cohen or levi, but is allowed to take the Torah scroll out of the ark and put it back in after the reading, and can also perform the raising of the Torah, and rolling up and dressing the scroll in its mantle (the parochet). "May it be so" is recited after the Torah reading.
In Judaism, comforting mourners is a very important commandment that takes precedence over visiting sick people, because comforting mourners shows loving kindness towards both the living and the dead. People comforting a mourner are not permitted to begin saying words of comfort unless the mourner starts the conversation. It is not enough to comfort the mourner; it is necessary to say good things to him until he is gladdened. "Shalom" is not said when the visitors enter or leave. When arising to go, the visitor says, "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem," and the mourner responds, "Amen." Some communities do not make comfort visits in the first three days; others do not observe this custom.
The Seventh (Last) Day of the Shiva
On the morning of the seventh day after the burial, after reciting the morning prayer, the mourners sit and the worshippers command them, "Rise, dear friends." Sephardim say, "Your sun shall no longer set, neither shall your moon be gathered, for the Lord will be an everlasting light for you, and the days of your mourning shall be completed. Like a man whose mother consoles him, so will I console you, and in Jerusalem, you shall be consoled."
The mourners take off the clothes with the kriah that they have worn during the shiva and put on ordinary clothes (not new clothes). For mourners who have no visitors to comfort them, and also on the Sabbath when visitors do not come to comfort the mourners, the shiva ends on the way to synagogue following the morning prayer.
There is a custom, which is not binding under Jewish law, for the deceased's close family to visit the grave on the seventh day. The following psalms are recited beside the grave: Psalms 33, 16, 17, 72, 91, 104, and 130. Verses from Psalm 119 corresponding to the letters of the deceased's name are then recited. On days on which the Tahanun prayer is recited, the Ana B'koach prayer is recited, and if there is a minyan, Kaddish and Kel Malei Rachamim are also recited. In some Sephardic communities, it is customary to study sections of the Mishnah beginning with the letters of the deceased's name and the letters nun, shin, mem, and hey (neshama) next to the grave, followed by Kaddish and the Ashkavah prayer, which is said only on days on which the Tahanun prayer is recited.
If the seventh day of the shiva falls on the intermediate days of Sukkot or Passover, the visit to the grave is postponed to a later date. On other days on which Tahanun is not recited, such as Rosh Chodesh, Lag B'Omer, Tu B'Shvat, and the entire month of Nisan, the grave is visited. According to the Jerusalem custom, the grave is also visited if the seventh day of the shiva falls on Hanukah or Purim. Elsewhere, the custom of each community determines whether the grave is visited on the seventh day of the shiva.
After visiting the grave, the mourners are free to engage in their regular business. The shloshim (30-day mourning period) then begins (including the seven days since the burial).