David Lawrence-Young – The Significance of Sitting Shiva
I hadn’t thought too much about the Shiva – the seven day period of ritual mourning – until last month when my son, Nadav, died as a result of a tragic accident. He was 37 years old and was killed when he slipped and fell off the second-third floor balcony of his flat in Tel Aviv. He was trying to get into his flat this way late one night as he had misplaced his front door key. It was his sudden, unexpected and pointless death that helped me to understand the shiva and what it stood for.
Apart from sitting shiva for my parents and my older sister, Frances, I have generally been very fortunate and not had to attend too many shivot. However, it was this shiva, the one for my older son, that really made me think about the essence of this process of Jewish ritual mourning. And process it is, with its stages of funeral, shiva, shloshim and yahrzeit. It was this shiva for Nadav that made me think how we Jews mourn and how other religions cope with this same situation. Buddhists and Hindus believe in different variations of embalming and cremating while in contrast, Quakers have very few strict rules about memorial rites. They believe that the dear departed should be the subject of a thoughtful ‘meeting for worship.’ This, of course, is diametrically opposed to the noisy Irish Wakes or the old fiery Viking funeral pyres of the past.
The source of our Jewish tradition of the shiva is based upon the Book of Genesis (50: 1 -14). Here we read how Joseph buried his father, Jacob, “and mourned with a great and very sore lamentation: and he made a mourning for his father for seven days.”
All of this deep mourning above was in complete contrast to the very first shiva that I ever attended. This happened over fifty years ago in north-west London when I was asked to attend the shiva for my friend, Stuart C’s father. This happened a few months after my barmitzvah, and I remember having mixed feelings about having to attend. On the one hand, I was told, “Now that you’re a man, you will be counted in for the minyan. Especially as you’ll be the tenth male present.” This I felt was a great honor and this was the first time that this aspect of my Jewish life had been put into practice. On the other hand, as I approached my friend’s house I felt very apprehensive. I was expecting to be drawn into a very sad household where everyone would be sad and weeping and that the atmosphere would be unbearably heavy.
On entering the house I was shocked to see that everyone present was sitting around normally: eating, drinking and talking. In addition to talking about Stuart’s father and how he had suffered at the end, people were also talking about the events of the day: politics, local gossip and football. “Why isn’t everyone sad and crying?” I asked myself. “Why is there all this food and drink here? It’s just like a party!” But then I joined in like everyone else present and didn’t give the idea and practice of the shiva too much thought afterwards as I was too busy growing up.
Today I understand the importance of this tradition. By wearing a ritually torn shirt and by not going to work during this seven-day period of mourning you are deliberately abandoning your normal daily routine. In this way you are able to concentrate your thoughts on the deceased (in my case, on Nadav) while at the same time you allow your family and friends to come and visit you and pay their respects and do their best to comfort and console you.
It is this latter part, the aspect of family and friends’ consolation visits, that is also a very basic and essential part of the whole Jewish ritual of mourning. The shiva is a two-way process. It enables you to take time off to express your grief and it also allows the members of your family and friends to both identify with you and express their own sorrow at the same time. In my case I found this act of being visited during the shiva to be mutually therapeutic and supportive. It enabled those came to commiserate with me on my loss to do so in a quiet and calm atmosphere – an atmosphere that helped to give strength and support to everyone involved. To quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth when Malcolm comes to console Macduff over the murder of his family, “Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart.” This Shakespearean quotation reflects much of what the whole process of the shiva is all about.
And as for Nadav Avraham Young – יחי זכרו ברוך