The purpose of the mourning customs is to help the mourners find a proper balance between their need to mourn and the necessity that Jewish tradition sees to return to everyday living. Customs of mourning guide the mourners in appropriate behavior at a time of grief and despair and help ease their confusion and doubts. As time passes, the expectation and hope is that people recover from their overwhelming grief, return to their routine, and require less and less external direction.
Jewish tradition divides the time of mourning into four distinct periods, based on how much time has elapsed since the death. Mourning customs are diminished in each successive period:
a. Aninut – between death and burial
b. Shiva – the first week after burial
c. Shloshim – the first month after burial
d. A year – the first year after burial
The anniversary of the death (yahrzeit) is then observed annually, according to the Jewish calendar.
The mourning period varies depending on the nature of the relationship of the mourner to the deceased: one mourns parents for an entire year, and other relatives for thirty days.
Traditional Jewish society did not institute a period of mourning for a baby who died within 30 days of birth due to the high incidence of infant mortality throughout history. Nevertheless, in contemporary society, some undertake mourning practices for infants as well.
The customs of mourning are many and varied, and differ from community to community. In this booklet, we emphasize the more commonly accepted customs.
For consultations regarding mourning practices, call ITIM at 1-700-500-507 or read our detailed information on our website, www.itim.org.il.
Aninut – between Death and Burial
The interval between death and burial is known as the period of “aninut.” This is a period of introspection for the immediate family, as well as a time to prepare for the funeral. Close family (parents, siblings, children, and spouses) are viewed by Jewish tradition as being preoccupied with the loss, and are thus absolved of traditional Jewish responsibilities such as prayers. Some of the mourning customs are adopted from this moment such as the prohibitions against cutting one’s hair, studying Torah, or engaging in sexual relations. Furthermore, mourners at this stage may not eat meat or drink wine. If the period between death and burial extends over the Shabbat, then these customs are not adopted, though they begin again following the Shabbat.
Shiva commences immediately after burial. The mourners return to the house where they will “sit” and do not leave the ‘mourning house’ the entire week. The day of the funeral will count as the first day of shiva even if the burial takes place just before sunset (in Jewish tradition, the day begins and ends at sunset). Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day after burial, after the mourners have sat for a few minutes.
Community Support and Comfort
Mourners need not wallow alone in their grief; on the contrary, it is important to share grief with others and surround oneself with friends, family, and fellow mourners. The mourners customarily do not leave the ‘shiva house’ the entire week, and friends and acquaintances visit there. Mourners may find the constant presence of comforters burdensome, but Jewish tradition claims that it makes the first few days easier.
Immediately upon returning from the cemetery, the mourners partake in a meal called the se’udat havra’ah. At this meal, it is customary to eat round foods, such as eggs, lentils, and bagels symbolizing the life cycle.
Jewish tradition prohibits certain activities for the mourner during shiva. Throughout the week of shiva, mourners do not work. Friends and neighbors will take responsibility for preparing your food, serving it , cleaning up, and doing whatever they can to make this period of time easier for the mourner. During this week, tradition discourages bathing, changing or laundering clothing, cutting hair or shaving, applying makeup or cream, wearing leather shoes, engaging in sexual relations and participating in joyous events. These practices are rooted in minimizing the mourner’s joy.
These practices are not observed on Shabbat, with the exception of refraining from sexual relations. See below for more details about mourning on Shabbat.
Mourners also do not study Torah, except for the portions that deal with mourning, nor do they greet others and inquire about their welfare. Mourners sit only on low benches.
Different people regard these customs with varying levels of strictness.
Some people spend the entire shiva in one house and even in one room, even when the house is small and there are many mourners. Others spend the day together but go home at night.
Customs also vary regarding washing and applying ointments. Washing or applying creams for pleasure and wearing new clothes is generally discouraged. Some people, however, rinse, at least in cold water, parts of their body.
It is customary to light a candle at the time of death, which remains lit for the entire week. This is based on the verse, “For the soul of man is the candle of God” (Prov. 20:27).
Prayer, Blessings, and Study in the Shiva House
In order to enable the mourners to say Kaddish with a minyan, some people organize regular prayer services in the house in which the mourners are sitting shiva. One must arrange for a Torah scroll, prayer books, and kippot, as well as ten men above the age of thirteen who can commit to coming at prayer times. The order of prayer in the mourner’s house is standard, but with some additions and omissions. At the end of the service, an extra Mourner’s Kaddish is added, and Psalm 49 or 16 is recited. If one is unable to conduct prayer services in one’s home, one may go to a synagogue in order to say Kaddish. It is customary in some mourners’ houses to devote the time between the mincha and maariv prayer services to study Torah. Any text can be studied, though traditionally mishnahyot are chosen (because of the similarity between the words “mishnah” and “neshama”). Generally, one selects mishnahyot, whose initial letters spell out the deceased’s first name, ones which deal with life and death, or mishnahyot 4-7 in chapter 7 of tractate Mikva’ot (since its first letters spell out the word neshama – soul).
One needs to equip the selected apartment with chairs, memorial candles that will remain lit for the entire week, and – if prayer services will be conducted there – a Torah scroll, prayer books, and kippot. Some people also set out a charity box, for the deceased’s soul. These items can generally be borrowed from a communal organization.
The door of the house is generally left open during the time when visitors are expected. In order to help visitors locate the correct home, it is customary to hang mourning notices on the front of the building and on the door of the house. You can also specify on these notices the hours during which you prefer to receive visitors and those in which you want some privacy and rest.
It is customary in many communities that friends and relatives bring food during shiva. In some communities (particularly Sephardic communities), full meals are served to the comforters, in others, only light refreshments are served. If this is your custom, make sure that you have disposable dishes and appropriate tables and chairs. Visitors are asked to recite blessings aloud over their food, as it is considered a benefit to the soul of the deceased.
Visiting the Grave
After sitting for a short time on the seventh day, all those who are present in your home at the time will say to you “Arise from your mourning” (“kumu me-evleikhem”) or other comforting verses. You will then stand up, put on your regular shoes, and drive to the cemetery, to the grave of the deceased. You may postpone the visit to the cemetery to later in the day, if it is more convenient for family and friends. The customs of refraining from bathing are no longer practiced following the cessation of shiva. At the cemetery, you should have a short ceremony during which certain Psalms (usually Psalms 33, 16, 72, 91, 104, and 130), and verses (from Psalm 119) whose initial letters spell the first name of the deceased and the word neshama (soul) are recited. This ceremony is concluded with the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish (provided there is a minyan) and the prayer El Malei Rachamim. After the ceremony, it is appropriate to share personal thoughts and memories, if the family wishes.
Mourning on Shabbat and Festivals
Shabbat does not terminate the shiva period, but mourning is not observed on Shabbat. At the onset of Shabbat, mourners bathe, don clean clothes, and leave the house. They express no outward signs of mourning, but private observances, such as the avoidance of sexual relations, stay in effect over Shabbat.
Mourners customarily come to the synagogue on Friday evening after the congregation has sung “Lecha Dodi”. Before they enter the synagogue, one of the congregants announces their arrival. The congregation rises and makes room for the mourners, who then join the service. On their way to their seats, the congregants comfort the mourners as they would in the shiva house.
Unlike Shabbat, some festivals terminate or postpone the shiva. If burial takes place before a major festival (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashana, or Yom Kippur), the festival terminates the shiva period completely. If burial, however, takes place during the intermediate days (hol ha-mo’ed) of a festival, shiva is postponed until the conclusion of the festival, at which time shiva is observed for the regular seven days. Purim does not cut short the shiva period, though a mourner does change his clothes and leave his house in honor of the holiday.
The period of Shloshim (the thirty days of mourning) begins at the time of burial, and not after shiva ends, so all mourning practices that relate specifically to the shloshim period, practically speaking, apply for only three weeks (after shiva) and not four.
Some mourning practices continue into shloshim and some cease with the end of shiva. The stricter prohibitions no longer apply, but it is customary to avoid cutting one’s hair, shaving, wearing new clothing, attending festive meals or weddings (some people attend the chuppa and the brit or pidyon haben ceremony, but not the party), or going to places of entertainment for the entire thirty-day period. Some people also don’t wear freshly ironed or festive clothing, bathe in hot water, or listen to any music, even on the radio or television. Mourners recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for this entire period so even people who don’t regularly pray in a synagogue do so during shloshim. Some people take it upon themselves to wear a kippa (or hat) while others light memorial candles during this whole period. If a festival (on which there is a prohibition against work) occurs during shloshim, the customs of mourning are cut short, just as they are for shiva.
At the end of shloshim, the deceased’s family visits his grave. Some people erect a tombstone at this point, while others wait until the first anniversary of death. At the grave, it is customary to recite verses from Psalms, the Mourner’s Kaddish (assuming there is a minyan), and El Malei Rachamim, and to have family or friends share personal thoughts.
The year (12 months) of Mourning
When one is in mourning for one’s parents, most of the laws of shloshim apply for an entire year (in other words, for an additional eleven months, after shloshim). The mourner customarily does not attend festive celebrations or social gatherings, or wear new clothing. The precise practice regarding the shaving or cutting of one’s hair can vary: some people extend the prohibition the entire year, while others shave immediately after shloshim. Jewish law requires that a man grow his beard wild (in mourning) until “his friends reprimand him.” Therefore, if one’s profession or status requires it, one can shave immediately when shloshim ends. One recites the Mourner’s Kaddish (and goes to synagogue for this purpose) for 11 months from burial (for 10 months post shloshim). At the end of the year of mourning, family and friends visit the grave to conduct a short ceremony and share personal thoughts.
In a Jewish leap year, the mourning customs cease after twelve months. Generally the family visits the grave on the anniversary of the death, even though it is thirteen months after the burial.
Anniversary (yahrzeit) and Yizkor Days
Every year, on the date of death (according to the Jewish calendar), the deceased’s family customarily marks the day and remembers the deceased. It is customary to light a memorial candle that will burn for the entire 24-hour period, to visit the deceased’s grave, and to conduct a short ceremony there. After visiting the cemetery, the deceased’s family usually gets together to share memories, and to learn Mishnah (or other texts) for the soul of the deceased. Some people have the custom to be called up to the Torah on the Shabbat or Monday or Thursday before the yahrzeit. If you don’t know where your loved one is buried, contact the local Chevra Kadisha. If you are unable either to locate the grave or to travel to it, you can conduct the memorial service in your house or synagogue.
It is customary to recite the Yizkor (remembrance) prayers four times each year: on Yom Kippur, the last day of Pesach, Shavuot, and Simchat Torah, after the Torah reading and before the Mussaf service. In these prayers, we remember both those for whom the entire congregation mourns – martyrs of the Holocaust and casualties of Israel’s battles – as well as personal relatives who have died. One whose relative has passed away traditionally lights a memorial candle on these days. Some have the custom of waiting a year before reciting Yizkor on behalf of the deceased.
In calculating the Hebrew date of death, note that a Jewish day begins at sunset and ends at nightfall the following day (and not at midnight). If the deceased died, therefore, in the evening or night, his date of death will correspond to the Hebrew date of the following day.