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Friday, July 25, 2014

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Avoiding shivah-lite

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Rabbi Philip Scheim

Two months ago, I used this space to comment on the recent trend of family speeches at funerals. Another development in the past few years has been the posting of visiting hours in shivah listings.

Having been there myself, I know that full days of observing shivah can be extremely taxing. One would hope that people would not choose to visit during meal times, late at night or early in the morning (unless a morning service is taking place), but that’s not always the case. Thus, I understand when mourners feel the need to limit visits so that they’ll have the breaks necessary to rest and tend to personal needs, without feeling obligated to “host” visitors at all hours of the day and night while coping with the loss they have experienced.

In designating hours for visitation, I would encourage families not to be too restrictive in the parameters they set. More often than not, a total of four hours a day is designated for visits, two hours in the afternoon and two at night. Those able to time their visits to those very limited hours usually confront extremely crowded houses or apartments, with little opportunity to speak to the mourners, because so many are trying to approach them at the same time. More relaxed hours allow for more intimacy, more quiet moments together, more time to offer real consolation and quality visits.

I totally understand the need for breaks during the day while observing shivah. I wish that all visitors had the sensitivity to know when not to visit, so as to prevent the need to list hours. Since, unfortunately, that’s not always the case, I suggest that families, when choosing to designate hours, allow closer to eight hours, rather than four or five hours, for visits, in order for the mitzvah to be less rushed and more meaningful at all levels, without over-taxing the mourners. 

Of course, there’s the larger issue of shortened shivahs, which seem to becoming more frequent in recent years. A full shivah (meaning “seven”) in practical terms, is rarely more than 4-1/2 days of actually “sitting,” when one factors in the first day only beginning after the funeral and burial service, Shabbat, and the seventh day ending in the early morning. Thus, observing the entire shivah is less onerous than it may appear to be on the surface.

In all my years in the rabbinate, I’ve never experienced a family that observed the full shivah and expressed regret over not having curtailed their observance to a three-day or even shorter period. Rather, they have found comfort in those who unexpectedly turned out to visit them, sometimes rekindling long-lost relationships, a true comfort during a time of loss. When shivah is curtailed by hours or days, those opportunities are limited, or lost altogether.

Of course, restoring shivah to its rightful place as a meaningful component in the bereavement process isn’t the responsibility of the mourners alone. Those who visit have a responsibility to ensure that their visits are timed appropriately, not overly lengthy, without expectation of social niceties, but solely for the purpose of assisting in the minyan, offering words of comfort and a listening ear to those coping with the pain of loss.

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