What are we doing when we sit Shiva?

October 7, 2015

Sitting shiva [the Jewish custom of a period of intense mourning during the first seven days following the death and funeral] can be understood from a multiple of vantage points. It can be seen anthropologically as a tradition of how the Jewish people respond to a death. It can be appreciated psychologically for the time and space it allows the mourner in our busy and goal directed society to integrate the impact of the loss of a close relationship. It can also be understood in a spiritual way: as caring for both the soul of the deceased, and the souls of the mourners.

During the first week after death, the soul of the deceased is understood in Jewish tradition to be visiting, back and forth, from its former home, to the graveyard, confused, itself mourning its loss of the world, wondering where it now belongs. When it sees mourners gathering for shiva and grieving, talking about the deceased, it begins to understand that the great transition has really taken place, and that it must continue on its journey: first, to the Garden of Eden, and ultimately, to be joined to God in the great Universal Life Force, or, as we say in Hebrew, the “Tzror ha Hayyim”, the Bundle of Life. It is comforted, hearing mourners talk about it. [Ed. Note: Judaism encompasses multiple ways of thinking about and understanding what happens upon death: this is one of them.]

Meanwhile, the souls of the mourners that are bound up with the deceased are also confused. They do not want to let go. Deceased and mourner are mingled together, and the soul of the mourner does not want to part from the soul of the deceased. If the one must fly away, the other wants to fly away with it. The mourners are in danger of their souls leaving their bodies.

So when we sit shiva, we surround the mourners with the souls of people with whom they are attached here on Earth. We call them back. We are present in the same room, loving them, keeping them woven into the fabric of life.

I was recently conducting a shiva minyan [technically, a prayer quorum, also used to refer to those present for prayers or rituals] for a mourner who had lost her mother. The guests were attentively silent while I spoke a few words.

But the mourner’s one year old grand daughter babbled loudly. “She’s performing a very important function” I mentioned. “She is keeping her grandmother alive, keeping her soul embedded with the living.” Her grandmother smiled and said, “That’s right!” The call of her grandchild held her firmly in life, in the present moment.

Regardless of your belief system, perhaps you can attest to the reality of this experience: that being surrounded during shiva by people you love, and who love you, serves to keep you present in life, even when your heart aches to be with the deceased.

Me’irah Iliinsky is a Reconstructionist rabbi, as well as an artist. She works as a hospice chaplain for Vitas Healthcare in the San Francisco Bay region and teaches Torah at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Her artwork can be viewed at  


[Editor’s Note: The theme of this piece is again connected to the recently released ELI talk (9/9/15) by Dr. Michael Slater. ELI talks present innovative ideas and inspiring concepts exploring Jewish engagement, literacy and identity. All of them, including the one featuring Dr. Slater, can be accessed at  



October 2015:


Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE). Classes weekly Tuesdays from October 13th to December 29th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST (12 sessions), with an online orientation session Monday October 12th (same hours). REGISTER NOW!

The course is an examination of the evolution of the institution of Chevrah Kadisha, starting from Biblical and Talmudic source texts, examining medieval development including the establishment of the “modern” Chevrah in Prague (1626) and on, through history and geography, as the institution was imported to  North America, including a focus on major developments beginning in the latter part of the 20th century. We will look at how the Chevrah has changed over time, with readings that include text study and emphasize history, sociology, politics, government, and many other factors.

Winter 2016:   

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This course will run at two times: from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST, and from January 11th to March 28th, Noon to 1:30 pm EST/9-10:30 PST (12 sessions at each time). There will be an online orientation session Monday January 4th (8-9:30 pm EST) and one on January 4th (12-1:30 pm EST). For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course looks as well at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Includes spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.


NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization receive a 20% discount. There are clergy discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


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