The lessons my mother and grandmother (of blessing memory) taught me are too numerous to count, yet the one that makes me laugh the most often, the one that constantly comes back to haunt me all too often, is the following: “Don’t eat at a Shiva Minyan.” As a child whenever someone in the community died, my mother or grandmother would always bake something to bring to the mourner’s home, it was always something that would smell delicious. We would walk in for services, we would put the delicious baked goods on the table and then it would happen, they would look at me, salivating while looking at the cookies and cakes, and say “Steven, you don’t eat at Shiva minyan”. These are the life lessons that stick with you…why don’t you eat at a Shiva minyan, because your mother and grandmother told you. There is no greater source of authority! While that may not have been your experience, I have come to learn that my grandmother practically slapping my hand away from those cookies does have a basis in Jewish ritual.
Judaism is full of rituals from cradle to grave. At 8 days old a Jewish boy is circumcised; every Shabbat we make Kiddush and say HaMotzi; at 12 and 13 our children have a b’nai mitzvah; we are married under a chuppah, a canopy – closed on top and open on all four sides. Jewish ritual is how we mark time, both in happiness and in sorrow. And when those closest to us die, Judaism has a set of rituals, not to take away the pain, not to bring back our loved ones, but to help us grieve, to help us mourn, to help us remember.
The blessing of Jewish ritual, and most importantly those surrounding death, are that they require a community. At my parent’s synagogue growing up they had a hard time getting a minyan on weekday nights so that congregants could say Kaddish. To ensure attendance they had minyan captains, and once a year every person was assigned a week to ensure a minyan. I would go with my parents and while I would typically run around the shul while they were at minyan, I would always make it back for mourners kaddish. I wasn’t b’nai mitzvah, they didn’t need me for a minyan but I could see in the faces of those who were in mourning how thankful they were to those who attended. I remember my Cantor growing up, Gershon Levin z”l, had an insert in his siddur of all the names of those people who had died and whose families asked him to say Kaddish on their behalf. It was his honor he once told me; I imagine him never telling the family that in truth, while it was his great privilege, it was their greatest loss.
Rituals are placeholders in time, helping us remember our past and add holiness to events once thought mundane. Rituals are supposed to evolve and be reinvented. We make ritual personal; we make it our own, it is supposed to be reimagined. Why do you think we had balloons during Rosh Hashanah services? We took the theme of it being the Birthday of the World, and reinvented our ritual. Yet, In order to reinvent, you have to know the source. I will never be upset with a family choosing to observe a ritual that works best for them, as long as that decision is made from a place of knowledge and intention.
As a rabbi I see part of my job as the protector of a 5000 year old tradition and yet at times, I know more than anyone, that it needs an update. Yet if there is one ritual that I hear from families over and over again how well our tradition gets it – it would be Shiva. I would contend that our rituals of mourning are some of our greatest treasures. The great Rav Kook once said that “the old will be made new, and the new made holy.”
That is my hope today, to explain the beauty of shiva, so that when the time comes, whether in our own lives or for our friends, we can be there as a source of comfort, calm and thoughtfulness. If a family chooses to reinvent this ritual I am open to that, however we must know what our tradition asks of us, before we make it work for us.
Shiva comes from the world shiv’ah which means seven. At the end of Genesis we read that Joseph mourns the loss of his father Jacob for seven days. In that same vain we sit Shiva for seven people (mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter and spouse), our first degree relatives.
Shiva begins immediately after burial, which is why it was typical for families to have the funeral, whether beginning at the synagogue or taking place at the cemetery and then return home for a meal of consolation prepared by family and friends. Customarily a few close friends or family who are not mourners would accompany the family home to see to it that the family was taken care of. The custom of being at the synagogue for a meal following the service has its place, and when it allows the mourners to see family and friends, to reminisce and be in good spirits…this is fine. Yet, it must be made abundantly clear that while this is an option for families, it is not an obligation or our custom. We as a community are supposed to be there for you the mourner, not you picking up the tab for us.
The week of Shiva is about providing comfort to the mourners. We recite the words: “HaMakom YinAchem Etchem BeToch Shaar Avalay Zion V’Yirushalyim – May God Comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The community comes to serve the mourners, and to help them fulfill their obligation of reciting Kaddish. People arrive for services in both evening and morning. Some say an imposition; I say a mitzvah. Some might say that having people coming in and out of the house for a week is a bit much, But I see its beauty. Our tradition asks us to recite Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that can only be said in a minyan… it is built in community to support us at our time of need. I believe that the love and compassion in the home far outweighs the hassle. You will meet friends, hear stories, perhaps even see pictures of your loved ones that you never encountered before. Some will say, but Rabbi, my loved one lived out of town, no one knew them…I understand, but your friends, colleagues and fellow congregants will want to show up and pay their respects to you; Our obligation as a community is to you the mourner, not just to the person who has passed away. It’s not trivial or trite…it is what we do as Jews.
I imagine almost everyone in this room has visited a shiva house before, yes its awkward, what are you supposed to say? and now you have this new rule that you can’t eat. (If it looks delicious, I give you permission.) There are a lot of traditions surrounding our mourning practices, all with their own beauty, yet if we never talk about them, how are you supposed to know? Here is another one more for you; when you enter a Shiva house you are not supposed to speak unless spoken to by one of the mourners, giving the mourner the option of whether they want to speak or to remain silent. The rabbis of old knew that there were no words that could console, to ask “how are you” is futile at best, inconsiderate at worst. Some families need idle chatter, some require silence…regardless of which, the tone is set by the family and not the visitor.
You will also notice in many cases that mirrors and perhaps even windows are covered, both shielding us from the outside world as well as the vanity of worrying about our own appearances. Tasks, I might add, that friends and fellow congregants can provide for the family. You may see mourners sitting on chairs that are low to the ground, we read in the book of Job that when his family died “he sat close to the floor”, this tradition stems from our ancestor’s observance.
I was once told, when asked, why Shiva lasts seven days, that this is the time it took for the world to be created and that is how long it takes for the reality of the new world without your loved one to sink in. One final tradition of Shiva, is that on the morning of the seventh day, the mourners often take a walk around the block to mark their reentry into the community. The mourning process takes much longer than seven days, but in that time the community comes to us, we begin to re-enter the community.
After the holidays, you will hear more from me about building a group of lay leaders, so that when a family in our community has a loss they receive a call not just from the clergy, but from a team, many of whom they will not know, to ask how they can help. Do they need someone to help clean up the house for shiva, how about someone to wait at the home while the funeral is taking place, or someone else to arrange meals if the family wishes.
Never will anything be pushed on a family, but we are a community, and while we are your clergy visiting people when they are ill, caring for families when someone dies…the obligation is on all of us.
Here is one last opportunity and possible the greatest mitzvah of all, and that is taking part in the chevra kadisha. When someone dies in our community, the body is prepared for burial, not by paid employees, but by volunteers. All of the rites of burial are performed by members of our community, a silent group that goes about their business without any fanfare of acclaim, but to whom we owe a great deal of thanks. In addition, there are those known as shomrim, guards, individuals who stay at the funeral home with the deceased so that the body is never alone, a final measure of respect before burial. Thankfully we have these groups set up, but are always looking for people to help out. Never worry about your level of knowledge or experience, the most important part is stepping forward. These are some of our most sacred Mitzvot, as they cannot be repaid by the person for whom you are caring.
Last night I spoke about the obligation we owe to the world, this morning I want to challenge us to step up in how we care for our friends and family, who are in this room today, during difficult times. Not only must we me care about the stranger, we must also care for our neighbor. As we enter into the Yizkor service, I ask you just to take a moment to think about your own experience of mourning a loved one. What do you still hold onto from that experience? What experiences helped in the process of healing? What experiences set you back? What additional help or support would you have wanted from your friends, family and community? What can you do to provide meaningful experiences for those struggling with their own loss.
I pray this year we can work together to make this a reality for our Beth El Family
May all those who we remember today, may their memories always be for a blessing.