Author Series: The Shiva
In The Resurrector, the shiva takes a front and center role in the movement of the story. From the first paragraph of chapter one, we are introduced to the grieving family, as they sit shiva. But what is a shiva, and why does it take such a center role in the Jewish lifecycle?
The literal meaning of the word shiva is seven. And the verb “to sit shiva” literally means to sit seven days.
Jewish religious law is a continuation of thousand years of traditions given from father to son, from rabbi to his community, stemming from the laws written in the Torah, the first five books of Moses (English for Moshe), and the oral laws interpreting the Torah’s word for the generations. These laws encompass every facet of life, through lifecycle events, from birth to death. The laws around the shiva—sitting for seven days, grieving the death of a loved one—create structure in this life event we all have to face at some stage of our lives.
The last time had been five years ago when his mother had passed away, and now they were sitting shiva again. All around him, the apartment was transformed once more, mourning with them the loss of yet another family member—his brother Nir.
The laws of the shiva includes rules on who needs to observe them (immediate family members – children, siblings, spouses and parents), how long the observation takes place (7 days from the burial day, while the burial is considered the first day. In some rare cases they are observed for a shorter time, when a high holiday occurs in the middle), and what one can and cannot do while observing the shiva (sit on a low chair or the floor; can’t change clothes, wash them, wear new ones or leather shoes; no haircut or shaving; can’t work or leave the house unnecessarily; no greeting of people, or doing work for oneself like preparing food; no learning for pleasure; no sexual relationship; no celebrities or music playing, and more). Some of these also continue for the thirty days and a year after the death, but most are only during the shiva time.
Orphan nails and hooks dotted the walls; the pictures had been removed and stacked along with the sofa cushions. The same hands rolled up the large area rugs and stored them away. The bare polished stone floor felt cold under Ram’s feet; his socks were too thin. A white bed sheet covered up the large mirror on the wall across from the main door, as well as the breakfront cabinet since its rear wall was a reflective mirror.
There are also some rules for the community around the grieving person. It is a mitzvah – a good deed – to attend the shiva house and console the bereaved. When one attends the shiva house, it is a good etiquette to come and sit with the grieving person without greeting them, waiting for them to approach you, and once they do, encourage them to talk about the person they lost. Then, when leaving the house, depart with the traditional wording, that God may console them with the rest of all grieving Jewish people.
One by one, each of the consoling men stood in front of Chaim and Ram, saying, “Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shea’r aveley tzion ve’Yerushalaim”; May He comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Chaim and Ram just nodded their heads, saying nothing, shaking no hands.
So what is the purpose of so many restrictions? To grieve properly, to grieve fully.
These days, it is known that grief has five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This is a common theme in pop culture, appearing in many books and movies – the protagonist has not gone through the full process of grieving, and they bear within them lingering issues for years. These eventually explode and put them in a high-stake situation in their life. As observers, we sense, and many times we know, that this is not a healthy way to move on with life. But for those who experience such loss, it hits in the place where it most hurts. It is also known that different people grieve in different ways, and move through these stages at their own pace.
This is where the shiva, with all its rules and restrictions, plays a role in moving one through the grief process in a structured way, with the support of the community. The grieving person does not stay alone. The community helps them pass this difficult time, while at the same time encourage them to talk and remember the person who passed away. During this process, the idea would be for the person to move from denial to acceptance, through the entire process.
As much as the idea behind the shiva is to provide this structured grief period, each individual still goes through the process within their own life circumstances, their psychological capacity, their family and community situation, and so many other aspects. In addition, different streams of Judaism developed over the generations slightly different practices around the shiva time, from the ultra-orthodox in it’s zealotry practices to the secular new age traditions, and everyone else in between.
It is my blessing that I have not yet had to grieve over a loved one, and I hope this will be the situation for many more years. I have witnessed the passing of loved grandparents, and my mother-in-law, as well as parents of my friends, and a couple of childhood friends. These observations helped me bring to life the shiva house of the Levi family in The Resurrector. I hope it is a representation that feels true and doesn’t deviate too far from the painful experience so many have already experienced in their lives.