The Obligation to Mourn
There is a Biblical obligation for a bereaved person to mourn for his deceased relative. This is easily inferred from Leviticus 21:2-3, which describes the seven relatives for whom a kohein (priest) may render himself ritually impure:
“…except for his close relative, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother; and for his unmarried sister…”
This is actually seven relatives: mother, father, son, daughter, brother and sister are six but the words “his close relative” include his wife. (See Rashi on Leviticus 21:2, citing the Sifra.)
It’s not just that a kohein may render himself impure for a close family member, he actually should do so. The Talmud in Zevachim (100a) relates that a certain kohein lost his wife on the day before Passover, which is by far the busiest day in the Temple! This kohein didn’t want shirk his responsibilities by becoming impure for her but the other kohanim compelled him to do so.
The reason a kohein actively should become impure for his close relatives is because everyone – kohein and non-kohein alike – has an obligation to mourn the passing of their seven closest relatives: mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter and spouse.
According to the Sefer HaChinuch, the reason for the mitzvah to mourn is because a person’s heart and mind are drawn after his actions. After the death of a close relative, the Torah requires us to mourn in a certain fashion so that we will deal with our grief and focus on what’s truly important. Without a proper mourning mechanism, people can act out in any number of ways. We have therefore been given a constructive manner of dealing with such painful situations.
Where Does Shiva Come From?
We only see from this verse that there is an obligation to mourn, not how long one must do so. So where does the practice to “sit shiva” come from?
“Sitting shiva” – that is, mourning for seven days – is not a Biblically-mandated practice per se but it does have a precedent in the Torah: Joseph mourned his father Jacob for seven days (see Genesis 50:10 – “…he mourned his father seven days” – and Talmud Yerushalmi Moed Katan 3:5). One might fulfill the Biblical obligation to mourn by doing so for a single day but according to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kesubos 1:1), it was Moshe who instituted that we should mourn for seven days as Joseph did. (Moshe also institutionalized the week of wedding celebration – “sheva brachos” – which likewise has precedent, in Genesis 29:27.)
Another Biblical allusion to shiva is found in the Book of Amos (8:10). There, the prophet warns the people that if they do not change their ways, God will “turn your festivals into mourning.” The Talmud in Moed Katan (20a) points out that the festivals of Pesach and Succos are each seven days. Similarly, the mourning period is seven days. (The Talmud asks: what about the festival of Shavuos, which is just one day? It answers that sometimes there is a one-day mourning period. Specifically, this is the case when one learns of a close relative’s passing long after the fact.)
The deceased’s relatives are not the only ones to observe shiva. According to the Talmud in tractate Shabbos (152a), the deceased’s own soul also mourns for the loss of its body. This is derived by juxtaposing the verses “his soul mourns for him” (Job 14:22) and “he mourned his father seven days” (Genesis 50:10).
The mourning period does not begin until after the burial. After shiva concludes, a lesser degree of mourning is observed until the end of thirty days; this period is called “shloshim.” For a parent, a still less-intense form of mourning is observed until the conclusion of 12 months, though Kaddish is only recited for 11 months.
We have seen the origins of both the obligation to mourn in general and the practice to do so specifically for seven days. But where does the practice come from to visit the mourners? Once again, this is based on Biblical precedent. In this instance, however, we are emulating God Himself. The Torah tells us that after the death of Avraham, God blessed his son Yitzchak (Genesis 25:11). Rashi cites the Talmud (Sotah 14a) that God “paid a shiva call” to Yitzchak to console him for the loss of his father. The gemara continues that comforting mourners in this manner is one of God’s behaviors that we are meant to emulate.
Comforting mourners is a unique act of kindness in that it benefits both the living (i.e., the mourner) and the deceased (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Aveil 14:7). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, OC IV, 40:11) explains the Rambam’s statement that shiva benefits the deceased by referring us to an incident in Talmud Shabbos 152a-b. There, the Talmud describes how a man in Rav Yehuda’s neighborhood died without any surviving relatives to mourn him. Lacking a shiva house to visit, Rav Yehuda brought a minyan to the place where the man had died, every day for a week. After the week of shiva had concluded, the deceased appeared to Rav Yehuda in a dream and informed him that the act had served to bring him peace.
The halacha is that the visitor to a shiva house should not initiate conversation. Rather, he should wait for the mourner to address him first (Yoreh Deah 376:1). The Talmud (Moed Katan 28b) learns this behavior from Iyov (Job). Job 2:13 describes how Iyov’s friends visited him when he was in mourning. They sat there silently for a very long time, none of them speaking “because they saw that his grief was very intense.” None of Iyov’s friends addressed him until after verse 3:1, “After this, Iyov opened his mouth.” One must wait for the mourner to demonstrate that he is ready to talk. (One may be lenient in the case of a mourner who is not aware that he is supposed to initiate conversation.) It is generally accepted that if the mourner never acknowledges the visitor, the visitor may nevertheless bless the mourner with the traditional text upon departure (Iggros Moshe OC V, 20:21, et al.).
A shiva call is not the place for frivolity or to discuss business or politics. The purpose of a shiva visit is to console the mourners for their loss. Accordingly, the deceased should be the focus of the conversation. The bare minimum to fulfill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim (consoling mourners) is the standard blessing of “HaMakom y’nacheim eschem…,” that God should comfort the mourners for their loss, but it is preferable that the visitor engage the mourners in actual words of comfort (Ahavas Chesed 3:5; see also Moed Katan 28b, Kesubos 8b, et al.). For more on this topic, see our final installment in this series, A Practical Guide to Paying a Shiva Visit.
When the visitor gets up to leave, he recites the text “HaMakom y’nacheim eschem b’soch shar aveilei Tziyon Virushalayim,” “May the Omnipresent One comfort you along with the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” In Sephardic communities, the practice is to say “min haShamayim tenuchamu” or “tenuchamu min haShamayim” – “May you be comforted by Heaven.” In all of these cases, the generally-accepted practice is to always recite the text in the plural form (eschem, tenuchamu) even if only one mourner is present, similar to the way “shalom aleichem” (also plural) is the appropriate greeting even for a single person. One explanation for the plural text, at least in the case of shiva, is what we said earlier about the shiva visit serving as a comfort for both the mourner and the deceased.