Jewish Mourning Traditions

When a loved one dies, Jewish ritual helps those close to the person by providing a series of rituals that guide the survivors through the mourning process and ease them back into everyday life. Today, Jewish mourners continue centuries of tradition, which help them sort out the powerful emotions they feel at the loss of a loved one.













Shiva is the first, intense stage of mourning. Meaning seven in Hebrew, shiva is observed for seven days after the burial. The first day of shiva is the day of the burial. The last day of shiva traditionally ends shortly after morning prayers (shacharit) are recited.

During shiva, members of the immediate family (a parent, sibling, spouse or child) stay inside and are comforted by visitors. Traditionally, these visitors also help form the minyan for morning and afternoon prayers.

Although Shabbat is counted as one of the days of shiva, some rituals of shiva are not observed on Shabbat. For example, the torn garment or ribbon is not typically worn on Shabbat. Those who usually attend synagogue will leave the house to attend prayers on Shabbat during shiva. Formal mourning resumes at nightfall on Saturday, when Shabbat ends.

The timing of shiva when there is a holiday may vary. Traditionally, shiva was ended when a holiday fell within the seven days. For example, if a burial occurred three days before Rosh Hashanah, shiva would end at sunset on the night before Rosh Hashanah as if the full seven days of shiva had been observed. It痴 best to consult a rabbi or funeral director if a burial occurs near a holiday.

Shiva is usually observed in the home of the person who has died or of a close relative. Traditionally, when mourners return to the house after the funeral and burial, they light a candle that burns for the entire seven days. The candle symbolizes the soul of the deceased and the light of God. It is similar to the one that is lit annually at Yahrzeit, the Jewish calendar anniversary of the death.

After returning from the cemetery, mourners traditionally eat a meal of condolence. This includes eggs, symbolizing fertility and life, and bread, symbolizing life and sustenance. Usually, friends and neighbors provide the food for this and other meals during shiva. It痴 a mitzvah � a good deed � to bring food to mourners as it relieves them of some of their everyday duties.

Traditionally, mirrors are covered in a shiva house showing that the mourners have withdrawn from worldly concerns such as their personal appearance. In some homes this tradition is not followed or is symbolically observed by covering only the front entrance mirror.

In one tradition, mourners sit on lower chairs then their visitors. They are not meant to be uncomfortable but simply lower than the others. Of course, mourners are free to walk around the house, stand, lie down or sit as they please. Traditionally, the mourner does not rise to greet a visitor regardless of the importance of the visitor. In some customs, the mourners refrain from wearing leather shoes. Some wear shoes of canvas or cloth. Others wear no shoes at all during shiva. Visitors may wear whatever footwear is appropriate, but should not wear non-leather shoes unless appropriate with the outfit worn.

Mourners should expect many visitors during shiva, as one of the most important mitzvot for others is to pay a condolence call. Visitors are expected to console the mourners and let the mourners lead the conversation. For those conducting morning and evening prayers at the shiva house, visitors were necessary to ensure a minyan at these services. Usually, gifts or flowers are not brought to a mourner but food is almost always welcome. Some people make donations to a favorite charity in the name of the deceased.

During shiva, the mourners traditionally do not leave the house, work or visit others. This is one reason for the need for a minyan in a traditional shiva house; the prayers that normally would be said in synagogue are said at the person's home. When mourners arrive at synagogue on the first Shabbat after the burial, they are welcomed with the traditional greeting, "May God comfort you along with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

At the end of shiva � the mourners may walk once around their block. This symbolizes they are ready to resume daily life. Although they are not yet finished mourning, they have ended the first stage of mourning.














The first 30 days after the burial, including shiva, comprise the stage of Jewish mourning called sh値oshim. Traditionally, the end of the 30 days ended the mourning period for anyone but one's parents. Today, many people mourn a sibling, spouse or child for the 11-month period traditionally reserved for parents.

Sh値oshim is traditionally less restrictive than shiva. During sh値oshim, a mourner does not attend social gatherings or festivities. Those who had daily prayers at their home during shiva may now say Kaddish daily in a synagogue. Some do not shave or cut their hair during this time.

For those who sat shiva in a community other than their own (such as where the deceased lived), some mourners choose to have a service at their own home, where Kaddish is said, to mark the end of the sh値oshim period. This allows them to mourn within their own community.

Like shiva, the duration of the sh値oshim period is affected by the Jewish holidays. A rabbi or funeral director can help determine the actual length of sh値oshim if it falls during a holiday.












A marker may be put on the grave any time from the end of shiva up to 12 months after death. The unveiling ceremony may occur any time between the end of sh値oshim and the first Yahrzeit. Usually, an unveiling is done about 11 months after the death.

Before the ceremony, the installed marker is covered. Psalms may be recited and someone may say a few words about the person who has died. Toward the end of the ceremony, the covering is removed from the marker and Kaddish is recited by the mourners.

Often, the unveiling is the end of the formal mourning period. The ceremony is typically short, involving only close family members and friends. It is not a requirement in Judaism, but is a tradition in this country.












Yahrzeit marks the anniversary of the death according to the Jewish calendar. The word means "year's time" in Yiddish. Use our Yarzheit Date Converter to find a loved one's yahrzeit in the traditional Jewish calendar.

Traditionally, a yahrzeit candle is lit at sunset the night before the yahrzeit date, and kept lit throughout the following day until it burns itself out. Although there are no standard prayers to commemorate a yahrzeit, many people recite some of the psalms that relate to the funeral service or other prayers or readings that seem appropriate.

Some people also visit the cemetery around this time. Some give tzedakah (charitable donations) to commemorate the yahrzeit.

For those who attend synagogue services on Shabbat, Kaddish is recited on the Shabbat before the Yahrzeit at synagogue when mourners rise to say Mourner's Kaddish.












On the major Jewish holidays (Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret and the last day of Pesach and Shavuot) there is a memorial service called Yizkor. In Hebrew, Yizkor means 'may God remember.' Traditionally, a yahrzeit candle is lit at sunset the night before each of these holidays to remember the deceased.

Originally, in the 12th century, the Yizkor service was said only on Yom Kippur to remember and honor those who were killed in pogroms and the Crusades. Over the years, Yizkor became a service to remember our own loved ones as well as the Jewish martyrs. About 400 years ago this service was added to the liturgy of Pesach, Shemini Atzeret and Shavuot.

One usually says Yizkor on the first holiday after the death. In some congregations, those who do not have anyone for whom to say Yizkor leave the sanctuary. In other congregations, everyone stays throughout the service. Sometimes, additional prayers are said for Jewish martyrs and victims of the Holocaust.

The first word of the memorial prayer is Yizkor, and the prayers contain blank spaces where the names of deceased loved ones are recited. Kaddish is also chanted during the service.

Some people give tzedakah (charitable donations) around Yizkor to honor the memory of the deceased by perpetuating their values.











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