Monday, December 20, 2004

A One Night Sit

It can't have escaped anyone's attention, but the Anglo-Jewish Shiva is dying. The full-week observance has become less common, replaced with a briefer period of one or two days. While not long ago, a shorter 'Shiva' (this is odd – the word means ‘seven’) was frowned upon - perhaps considered disrespectful, those observing a full week are now in the minority and sometimes seen as unduly religious or old-fashioned. A 'one night sit' is common, giving all of those who want to offer their condolences just one evening to do so.

Many of my colleagues are highly critical of this phenomenon. They feel that standards are slipping and that steps should be taken to force people into a full-scale Shiva. Allow me to state that while I consider it a tragedy that many families do not avail themselves of the healing powers of Jewish mourning, I fully understand why few families wish to do so. In reality, the typical Anglo-Jewish Shiva is not beneficial to the mourners, rather an ordeal that any normal person would wish to avoid.

At the typical evening Shiva, the house becomes densely packed with visitors, who have come ‘for prayers’. On arrival, they offer a cursory nod to the mourners and then engage in noisy conversation about any issue that takes their fancy – holidays and television programmes are firm favourites. They will often meet people they haven’t seen since the last Shiva, whom they greet with a kiss, exclaiming loudly, ‘lovely to see you,’ or some similar inanity. When the officiant arrives, all goes quiet until he has conducted the brief evening service. This over, the visitors shuffle past the mourners, nod at them and wish them ‘long life.’ Immediately returning to their noisy conversation, their prodigious efforts are rewarded by the provision of tea and refreshments. Meanwhile, the mourners sit on their low chairs in the corner, bewildered by the noise and party atmosphere that engulfs them; often no-one is talking to them, if indeed, it is possible to speak above the cacophony.

This is no less than an ordeal for the mourners. At a time when people are emotionally confused, shocked and paralysed by their loss, and the slightest noise or sight could cause additional stress or pain, this experience can be unbearable. And I quite understand why many people choose not to put their families through it.
It is sad to see just how often we miss the mark. A guest at a real Jewish wedding knows that it is his privilege and honour to make the groom and bride rejoice, for no matter the quality of the food or the venue, he has come for them. Likewise, as visitors at a Shiva, we have come to share the grief of those who have lost a loved one. We are there for them. Yet for so many in Anglo-Jewry, these concepts have been lost - whether at a wedding, when we think that we are there to be entertained by the hosts, or at a Shiva, when we expect tea and cake, we have become the focus of the occasion. We have gone terribly wrong.

Real Shiva serves a dual purpose. Honour is accorded to the deceased by dedicating an entire week to thinking and talking about him or her; the mourners neglect their regular personal, family and business activities, instead remaining at home to concentrate entirely on the qualities and character of their loved one. By the end of the Shiva, they have crystallised a mature image of the deceased in their minds, which will accompany them for the rest of their lives. As well as this, the Shiva has a positive effect on the bereaved, cocooning them from regular activity when grief is at its strongest, allowing them to gradually emerge into normal life only when the immediate harshness of their loss has passed.

This requires great understanding on the part of the visitors to the Shiva-house. Let us note that Jewish law, the great master of human emotional need, regulates this to perfection. How many of us aware that one may not even speak to the mourner until he indicates that this is his wish? Maybe he does not want to speak. How can we, mere onlookers to a family tragedy, impose on the bereaved in any way at all? We must be exquisitely sensitive to the mourner’s emotional trauma. If he speaks, we will respond; if he cries, we will empathise; if he laughs, we will share the humorous recollection of his loved one. And if he remains silent, unable or unwilling to speak, we too will remain quiet. This is the real Jewish concept of comforting the mourner.

This is far cry from a momentary nod in the direction of the mourner, raucous conversation and gobbling of refreshments that so characterise the modern Shiva. Let us face the truth – these practices must stop, for they are counterproductive and selfish; indeed, far from alleviating the mourner’s distress, they actually add to it. For many, Shiva has become a nightmare after a tragedy – the precise opposite of its true intention and capacity. And unless we are prepared to change the way we do things, Jewish mourning will be completely lost, together with the immense benefit that it brings in the face of tragedy.

As a mourner, recognize that the visitors are present for your benefit. Have no qualms about resting when you feel tired, asking people to be considerate and, as Jewish law allows, asking them to leave when you no longer want to speak to them. Resist the party atmosphere by not offering food or drink. As a visitor, remember that you are present for the benefit of the mourners. Visit during the day, if possible. If food is offered, refuse it. Do nothing whatsoever which imposes on the mourners. When appropriate, enable the mourner to express himself in his own way. Leave when the time is right.

May we be blessed with long and happy lives, filled with sensitivity to each other.

This article originally appeared in the London Jewish News and is reprinted with permission. It was then adapted into a shorter piece for the Holocaust educational book '60 days for 60 years'.