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How to Observe the First Week of Mourning

The first week after a Jewish funeral is an important time for reflection and healing, and it’s traditional for Jews to “sit shiva” during this time.

Shiva literally means “seven,” referring to the week-long lamentation, when, in traditional Jewish households, immediate family members (the parents, children, siblings, and spouse) refrain from working, cutting their hair (or shaving), having sex, listening to music, doing anything joyous, or even doing laundry.

Traditional Jews also refrain from wearing leather shoes (because in ancient times they were considered too comfortable), reading Torah (except for the depressing parts, like the Book of Job), swimming, and taking luxurious baths (though basic bathing is, of course, permitted).

For the first week, most Orthodox mourners don’t leave home, and their synagogue makes sure that a minyan (a quorum of at least ten men) shows up for a daily service at the house. If there is no minyan, the mourners may attend a daily service at the synagogue in order to say Kaddish, the special Jewish memorial prayer.

Other, less traditional Jews, may also have an evening home service that is more creative in nature. A nice tradition is to keep a candle burning for the entire seven days as a constant reminder of the soul who has left (you can buy “seven-day candles,” although they don’t always last a full seven days).

The point of shiva is to stay focused on the death that has just occurred —taking the time to cry, grieve, feel the loss as well as the anger and other emotions — rather than getting distracted by other, less important tasks or diversions. Amazingly, psychologists have found that people who let themselves grieve using these age-old customs tend to heal faster and better.

Almost all the mourning practices are halted for Shabbat, when Jews attend services at the synagogue (though they still don’t have sex or become too joyous). Although you don’t observe the customs of mourning on Shabbat, that day does count as one of the traditional seven.

Finally, on the morning of the last day, the formal shiva ends and the mourners enter back into the world. Often, friends or the rabbi may show up to take the mourners out for a post-shiva walk around the neighborhood.

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