On shiva

Dear members of the Congregation Beth Israel family,

By now you know that there will be a shiva minyan tomorrow evening (details redacted on the From the Rabbi blog; you have hopefully received them via email). I’m writing to share with you a few thoughts about shiva: what it means, why we do it, and how to do it well.

There are many traditions around sitting shiva, though each shiva experience is unique because of the unique needs of the mourners and the context of their lives. Shiva can be a deeply meaningful way to walk the mourner’s path — a path which is a natural part of life, and a path which each of us will walk eventually.

What is shiva? After a funeral, mourners stay at home — traditionally, for seven full days (“shiva” means seven) — and are fed, nurtured, and cared-for by friends, neighbors, and members of the community. This custom arose at a moment in time when it was presumed that everyone said the prayers of the evening service each night; to ensure that the mourners didn’t need to leave their homes in order to find a minyan with which to pray, we bring the minyan to them.

The first week of mourning gives the mourners time to come to grips with the reality of their loss, and time to grieve. It can be an emotionally and spiritually intense time. It is our job, as the mourners’ community, to respond with love and compassion, to be helpful and generous. The most important thing we can do is to show up.

In our community today, many people choose to observe formal shiva only for a few days, or for a single night. Regardless, the intention is the same: it is a time when our community can come together to take care of those who have experienced a loss.

A shiva call is not a social visit. The mourners are not “hosts;” they do not need to entertain us. Their job is to be present to their experience and their emotions; our job is to accompany them, to bring them food, to listen when they need to talk, and to lovingly share memories of the person who has died.

Thank you for joining us in shiva — an act which helps to constitute our community, again and again.


Reb Rachel

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