Judaism offers prayers and rituals to bring you comfort and strength upon the death of a loved one. The wisdom of our tradition teaches that this is not a time to be alone; instead, it is a time to be with family, friends, and the community. This is where the custom of sitting shiva plays an important role.
Shiva is the seven-day period of mourning following the burial of a loved one. During this time, it is customary for friends and family to comfort those in mourning by visiting the home for prayer and to recall the memories you shared with your loved one. Shiva is derived from the Hebrew word for seven, ‘sheva,’ שֶׁבַע. It implies that the family sits shiva for seven days following the burial. However, it is becoming more and more common for families and friends to sit shiva for as few as one day following the burial. Ultimately, you should do what is comfortable and makes sense for you and your family. Be sure to take care of yourself during this time of mourning as well; stay hydrated and try to eat. Let your family and friends help. You don’t have to go through this alone. Your Shaare Emeth family is here for you as well. The clergy can help you as you say Kaddish, the memorial prayer, and with some of the other traditions that you can participate in upon the death of a loved one.
A candle is lit when returning from the cemetery. It burns for seven days and has many explanations for its use; “The soul of a man is the lamp of God” Proverbs 20:27. The candle serves as a remembrance of the departed soul. When we lose a loved one, there is a void in our hearts, a dark void. The candle serves to replenish the light (Response Be-Tzel ha-Chochmah 4:29). A candle can also represent a person’s connection to the divine. The lamp, including the wick, represents the body, and the flame represents the divine soul. The candle is lit to remember the soul of our loved one.
During Shiva, prayers are recited to recall our loved ones. Kaddish, the memorial prayer, is read standing, if one is able, and facing east, toward Jerusalem. 10 Jewish adults are required to establish a minyan, or quorum, for prayer. Sometimes, it can be difficult to establish a minyan. To honor those who have passed, other commandments are encouraged. Rather than reciting Kaddish alone and in private, do a mitzvah; say the Shema daily, give charity, do acts of kindness in his or her name. These serve as ways of honoring the dead even without saying Kaddish.
The funeral home or congregation may provide prayer books, low stools, and black ribbons for the immediate family. A rabbi or congregational representative may be requested to lead minyan in the early evening for services at the home, as well.
Mourners may sit on stools or low benches. This is symbolic of the physical adjustment to one’s emotional state, by lowering the body to the level of one’s feelings.
Family and friends often provide a meal of condolence when returning from the cemetery. Flowers and gifts are traditionally not given, but it is suggested that a donation to a charity of the family’s choice-or the synagogue-are made. Family and friends also bring shiva trays for meals, snacks, and desserts for those in mourning and those visiting the home. These are available through local caterers and grocery stores. Please be considerate if the family keeps a kosher home.
The mirrors of the Shiva home may be covered. Mirrors and reflective glass, such as televisions, are often covered to help those in mourning reflect on the relationship between humans and God. Instead of concerning oneself with vanity or self-adoration during this time, covering the mirrors allows us to focus on the one who has passed, our relationship with him or her, and our relationship with God. Again, this should be done if you are comfortable with it, and it is not a requirement of mourning.
Jewish tradition, custom, and law is clear in its insistence that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth in a way that allows for natural decomposition and reintegration with the earth. Torah law forbids embalming, displaying the body, cremation, and-except in cases of extreme circumstances-autopsies. The Chevra Kadisha, or Holy Society, is dedicated to ensuring that every Jew who passes is given a proper Jewish burial. The preparation of the body and interment should be entrusted to the local Chevra Kadisha, found at a Jewish funeral home, to ensure that the burial is conducted in accordance with Jewish tradition.
It is said that a Jew should only be buried among fellow Jews in a Jewish cemetery. This is regarded as a matter of great importance. Congregation Shaare Emeth is affiliated with the New Mount Sinai Cemetery for this purpose, follow this link for additional information. Of course, whichever cemetery your family is most comfortable with-or the one where arrangements have already been made-is the one that you should use.
In our final act of caring, we return the body of the deceased to the earth. It is considered a great mitzvah to physically participate in the burial, which is why family, friends, and other funeral attendees shovel dirt into the grave of the departed. This is a great mitzvah because it is considered the most unselfish act a person can participate in because it cannot be repaid. Laying a loved one to rest can be a painful process, but an important part of life. Congregation Shaare Emeth and our clergy are here for you in your time of need. Please reach out with any questions, concerns, or for support.
Unveiling is the name for the ceremonial dedication of the headstone at the grave of a loved one. The main purpose of dedicating a headstone is to mark the final resting place of a loved one, to honor his or her life, and to serve as a focal point for people’s memories. Remembering and honoring the deceased is the main purpose of the unveiling ceremony.
Before the first yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death, the ceremony is held. This means that, usually, within one year of passing, the unveiling takes place. There is a great deal of flexibility in scheduling because there is no specific date on which the unveiling must take place. It is usually a time when the most family members can attend, but should not take place on Shabbat.
The ceremony usually includes a few readings and is sometimes presided over by a Rabbi, although not required. Whether there were readings particularly meaningful to the deceased, favorite poems, song lyrics, or any other type of passage, these are often included in the ceremony. The Memorial Prayer, or ‘El Malei Rachamim,’ is recited along with the Mourner’s Kaddish. It is an informal service, generally lasting no more than 15-20 minutes.