RESPONSA – Sitting Shiva

Return to Tradition – Summer 1992

Question: Should Humanistic Jewish mourners sit shiva?

Responsum: The mourning practices of rabbinic Judaism were built around a belief system that no longer generally prevails in the Jewish community. This system began with an all-powerful judgmental God who was the master of life and death. Death was ambiguous. It might be a sign of divine anger and divine punishment. God’s dis­pleasure was not trivial. It needed to be countered. The deity needed to be ap­peased. And the spirit world of the dead, including evil and malevolent spirits, needed to be avoided and even driven away.

This ideology explains the traditional practice. Only the appearance of abject suffering and misery could persuade both God and the spirit world not to strike again. The mourners — the sons, daugh­ters, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the deceased — must be as pitiable as possible. They must tear their garments. They must sit on the ground or on harsh surfaces. They must not wash or dress in fine clothing. They must abstain from good food. They must not laugh or joke or participate in happy events. They must be confined to their homes during the first seven days (shiva) of mourning. If com­forters arrive, they must sit in silence until the mourners initiate conversation.

Of course, the ideological basis of tradi­tional mourning practices is unacceptable to us as Humanistic Jews. So is the notion of enforced suffering to ensure protection. Unwashed, uncomfortable, and underfed mourners are inconsistent with our view of dignified grief.

But the traditional mourning procedure had an unintended consequence. The prac­tice of staying home after the burial of loved ones to receive family and friends turned out to be therapeutic for mourners. In liberal circles, where most of the hard­ship routines were removed, being sur­rounded by caring friends became a won­derful source of human support.

Humanistic Judaism is very comfortable with a humanistic “shiva.” It does not have to last for seven days. It should last as long as the mourners want it. For some, one day may be enough; for others, eight days. Most Humanistic mourners choose three. A small minority find no need for any “shiva.”

Humanistic “shiva” is built around the notion that life and death are natural phe­nomena, with no intrusion by gods or spirits. It is based on the conviction that vulnerable mourners need as much human support as they can find. Mourners should be comfortable. Conversation should be free.

Many Humanistic Jews hold a brief commemorative celebration of the life of the deceased every evening, or one of the evenings, of the “shiva.” Family and friends sit in a circle and share stories about the life of the person who died. Prose readings and poetry selections about a humanistic response to death may be read. Inspirational songs may be sung. (Examples of these home commemoratives are avail­able from the Society for Humanistic Juda­ism.)

History is filled with ironies. What started out to serve one purpose later serves an­other.

“Shiva” has been transformed and is now ours.

Remembering the Dead

Death and Dying: Summer 1989

Remembering the dead is the way we, the living, give them a “temporary immortal­ity.” Family and friends who have died sur­vive in our memories and in the rituals and ceremonies we create to stimulate our memory.

The rabbinic tradition provided many op­portunities for remembering.

There was the shiva, a seven-day period of intense mourning immediately following the death of a family member. While its main purpose was not remembrance, remi­niscence was unavoidable. After all, the regular routine of work and leisure stopped in order to pay tribute to the dead.

There was the sh’loshim, a twenty-three- day period of less intense mourning follow­ing the shiva — and an eleven-month sequel for the loss of parents, with daily recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish. Certainly all this formal grieving focused the minds of the survivors on the life of the deceased.

There was the annual yahrzeit, the anni­versary of the death. (Traditional Jewish cul­ture ignored birthdays but found meaning in deathdays.) A flame of remembrance was kindled. The mourner’s Kaddish was recited. Thoughts of remembrance were inevitable.

There was the Yizkor service four times a year, on Pesakh, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atseret, when the souls of the dead were remembered and prayed for.

There was the matseva, a memorial stone placed on the grave of the deceased, often inscribed with tributes of love and respect in the form of Biblical quotations. Visiting the stone and reciting prayers before it were acts of remembering.

There were the many gifts to the syna­gogue and Jewish educational institutions — from Torah covers to buildings — which were dedicated to the memory of loved ones and which were on continuous public display.

Most of these remembrance rituals are still with us and permeate much of Jewish life. Although their theological significance has become less important for most Jews, their memory function has become more significant. We use these rituals as a way of connecting with people who were impor­tant to us.

Since religion began as a way of coping with death, especially the death of family members and loved ones, it is no mere coin­cidence that so much time is devoted to ceremonies of remembrance. And since so much of Jewish loyalty is built around tribal and ethnic roots, nostalgia is a primary emotion in our psychic makeup.

Although we as humanistic Jews con­tinue to practice many of the same rituals as do our traditional brothers and sisters, we do them differently and act out of a different set of ideological principles.

We do not believe in life after death. We do not believe that the souls of the dead presently exist and that we can help them in their spiritual journey through our prayers. We do not believe that it is possible to feel their presence and to benefit from their in­tervention. For us, death is final.

We do not believe that the dead pose dangers to us and that we must appease them through supernatural assistance. The mourning period does not need to be filled with fasting and anxiety. It is not only a time to express our sadness and grief but also a time to celebrate the life of the person we loved. We are more open to messages of inspiration than to prescriptions for ritual.

We do believe in the significance of human life here on earth. We do believe in the value of human love and human cour­age and in the importance of remembering their expression in the lives of the people we know and loved. Our own ethical com­mitments come from the role models who touched our experience in a powerful way.

We do believe in the autonomy of the in­dividual and in the right of every Jew to mold the culture of the past to his or her need. There can be no fixed, compulsory way to remember. People do not exist to serve the survival of ritual. Ritual exists to serve the needs of people. We are open to new and creative ways to remember the loved ones of our past.

Given these ideological premises, we have many humanistic opportunities, both traditional and new, to pay our tribute to the dead.


Staying at home for several days after the death of a family member gives us the op­portunity to be consoled by friends and to talk about the loved one we lost. It is very important to set aside some time during each day of the mourning when everyone gathers around to share stories and remi­niscences. The social encounters of the shiva often lead to trivial and awkward con­versation, which offers us no consolation and leaves us empty. Informal remembering in the informal setting of the shiva is far more powerful and therapeutic than any well-crafted eulogy.


Recalling our loved one on the anniver­sary of the death is a significant way to acknowledge the continuing influence of that person through whatever legacy of love and learning was bestowed. We may choose to light a flame of remembrance in our home. We may choose to attend a Shabbat celebration and listen to the recitation of remembered names in a service of memo­rial. We may choose to spend quiet time with ourselves and with our memories. We may even prefer the Roman calendar date to that of the Hebrew calendar, since the former is what we tend to remember.


If we are part of a humanistic Jewish community, we may help to create an an­nual service of commemoration on Yom Kippur. At this service the continuing generational cycle of receiving and giving can be acknowledged and celebrated.


People are often defined by the causes they support. If there was some cause, political or charitable, which the deceased was identified with, an appropriate tribute is to support it on a continuing basis. A woman at whose funeral I officiated ten years ago loved animals and worked for the Humane Society. Her husband, out of a sense of commitment to her memory and to her values, has made the Humane Society a major focus of his charitable giving since her death.


Concrete, visible memorials help us remember because they are there to be seen and visited. However, they should be neither costly nor garish. Our remembrance will not be enhanced by ostentation. Nor will the dead be served by what they cannot experience.

If our loved ones are buried in a ceme­tery, memorial stones are appropriate. In­scriptions should be simple. Names and dates are often enough. Attempts to charac­terize the life of the person on a small stone are usually futile. Visitors will bring their own memories.

If a humanistic Jewish community owns its own land, a memorial wall is appro­priate. Such a wall would contain the names of community members who have died and would allow for the commemoration of both the buried and the cremated.

If a humanistic Jewish community creates a library, a personal memorial book may be very meaningful. When I visited Kibbutz Kfar Hamakkabi eight years ago, I discovered in the library an entire section devoted to memorial books. Each book was dedicated to an individual member of the kibbutz who had died. It contained a biog­raphy, photographs, personal statements and letters of the deceased, and, most im­portant of all, reminiscences and tributes from other members of the kibbutz. Each collection was unique and interesting, worthy of the great effort and devotion ob­viously required to create it. The book made the person real and significant in a way that more conventional memorials could not provide. For the young people of the kib­butz, these books were available to read or leaf through at leisure. They were wonder­ful vehicles for producing a sense of com­munity and solidarity with the past.

We do not have the power to abolish death. We do have the power to value life. The character of human life is ultimately in­dividual. Our refusal to forget, our insis­tence on remembering persons as persons, is our defiance of death and our tribute to life.