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Ask A Jew: What is shiva?

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Ask A Jew: What is shiva?


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By Neal Schindler

Can you explain the concept of shiva?

Sometimes, your faithful “Ask a Jew” writer gets weary. And when he does, he’s always thrilled to find that a star-studded cast — in this case, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”), Adam Driver (“Girls”), and the legendary Jane Fonda — is willing to do at least some of his work for him.

And so, I give you a shiva-related scene from the delightful dramedy “This is Where I Leave You.” It got mixed reviews, but I rather enjoyed it — gotta love that cast! — and it’s one of a few places in pop culture where shivas have popped up in the last few years. Another, Amazon’s great (dramedy) series “Transparent,” I once deemed possibly the best Jewish TV show ever made.

I’d link to a shiva scene from “Transparent,” but it seems Amazon does a pretty thorough job of keeping clips off YouTube. That said, the website My Jewish Learning’s YouTube channel includes a nifty video about Jewish mourning and shivas that actually does include some brief scenes from “Transparent,” albeit behind explanatory captions and plaintive piano music.

Anyway, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin observes in an essay on shivas for My Jewish Learning:

After the burial, mourners return home (or, ideally, to the home of the deceased) to sit shiva for seven days. Shiva is simply the Hebrew word for seven. During the shiva week, mourners are expected to remain at home and sit on low stools. This last requirement is intended to reinforce the mourners’ inner emotions.

Numbers are a big deal in Judaism, so if you thought seven referred only to the number of days families sit shiva, you’d be mistaken. “There are seven relatives for whom a Jew is required to observe shiva,” Telushkin notes: “father or mother, sister or brother, son or daughter, and spouse.” Traditionally, during shiva there will be three prayer services every day in the home, and the family’s synagogue will do what they can to ensure that there’s a minyan (10 Jewish adults, or 10 men in Orthodox Judaism) so that all of the necessary prayers can be said. (With fewer than 10, some must be omitted.)

Also traditionally, some aspects of self-care go by the wayside during shiva: “Mourners must not shave, take a luxurious bath, wear leather shoes (which Jewish tradition regards as particularly comfortable), have sex, or launder their clothes during the week of shiva.” As is pretty much always the case in Judaism, less traditional Jews may engage in only some of these practices.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services and also works as a copy editor at the Spokesman-Review. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, baby son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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