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Why We Observe Shiva, Shloshim, and More #734

07/08/2022 06:09:52 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Chukat: “Aaron was mourned by the entire House of Israel for 30 days.” Numbers 20:29

Why We Observe Shiva, Shloshim, and More


Often, when someone in our congregation suffers the loss of a loved one, they turn to Judaism for comfort and support, and I am asked four questions.

Why do we attempt to bury a loved within one day?

Why do we sit shiva for seven days?

Why do we perform certain rituals for 30 says?

Why does the period of mourning last one year?  

These significant questions reveal a great deal about the Jewish approach to death and dying, as they link us to words of the Torah itself.

It is interesting that the Torah does not provide direct instructions regarding death and mourning. But since Judaism is more of a rabbinical religion than a biblical one, as the Torah describes, so we do.

Indeed, the tradition of same-day burial dates back to a biblical story of the execution of a person guilty of a capital offense.

As the deceased is left in public, exposed to the elements, our Torah reminds us that his body is part of God’s miraculous work.

Notes the Torah, “You must not let the corpse remain on the stake overnight but must bury it the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God.” (Deuteronomy 21:23)

Therefore, as our rabbis posited, if we provide this kind of respect to a capital offender, there is even more reason to do the same for a person who has lived a good life.

As the Torah describes, so we do.

And the same goes for periods of mourning.

There is no instruction in the Torah to sit shiva for seven days. Nor is it directly forbidden to wear new clothes, shave, cut hair, or attend social events during the first month after the loss of a loved one.

But there are many examples in the Torah of how our ancestors conducted themselves during times of loss.

Why do we sit shiva for seven days? The reason is based upon the biblical account of how Joseph mourned his father, Jacob.

Says the Torah: “They held there a very great and solemn lamentation; and he (Joseph) observed a mourning period of seven days for his father.” (Genesis 50:10).

As the Torah describes, so we do.

In this week’s Torah portion – Chukat (the ritual law), - we observe how the Israelites maintain a focused 30-day period to remember a parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

The Torah tells us that Moses’ sister, Miriam, dies, and that her burial was immediate. “Miriam died there, and she was buried there.” (Numbers 20:1)

Soon after, Aaron passes, and the Torah informs us, “He was mourned by the entire House of Israel for 30 days.”

Later in the Torah, we are told that after Moses dies: “He was mourned by the people for 30 days.”

As the Torah describes, so we do.

In many ways, the issue of death takes center stage in this week’s Torah portion, as it describes not only the passing of Miriam and Aaron – but how Moses deals with loss.

Specifically, after Miriam’s death, Moses seems adrift.

When he is unable to find water - one of Miriam’s greatest skills – the Israelites complain and Moses becomes enraged. He strikes a rock twice in anger, causing God to issue those ill-fated words: “You shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)

In this week’s parashah, we learn a lot about the intersection of life and death.

Each of us has endured the loss of loved ones. How is it possible that this person who was so integral to who we are, no longer walks among us?

We feel lost. We miss our loved one. We realize the inevitability of our own demise. And there is a part of us – sometimes - that wants to strike out for things said and unsaid.

It is why Judaism looks at dying within the passage of time. And, it is not always easy.

On the first day, we are reminded that it is time for our loved one to return to the earth.

Our mystics teach that between death and burial, the soul of the departed remains in limbo, neither fully on earth nor ready to be admitted into heaven.

Even more reason not to delay.

A one-day burial also helps launch our own process of mourning and eventual recovery.

The seven-day shiva period, inspired by Joseph, surrounds us with comfort, memories, and community support.

And during the 30-day period called shloshim, we begin to alter our habits to reflect a new reality. 

Our mystic tradition teaches that God sits with our loved one for a year, and goes through all their actions, both successful and incomplete – and perhaps even develops a plan for “next time.”

And yes, this tradition contends that each of us will pass through the doors of earthy life again. 

And we are so sure that our parent or sibling does not require a full year of instruction, that we stop official mourning at 11 months. 

And all the rest is commentary.

Cutting ribbons, sitting low to the ground, bringing food to mourners, being buried with some earth from Israel or with holy books are additional rituals to help ourselves and those in mourning endure these profound losses.

This week’s Torah portion speaks openly about death. 

In a world where we are tending to drift away from rituals and fixed practices, this week’s parashah provides us with living examples of how community, tradition and rituals can anchor us during times of grief, pain, and loneliness.

The Torah does not directly command us to perform any of these rituals, but over time - as we embrace the Torah and its stories - we are reminded that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.

For despite the pain, and so many questions we ask during times of loss, the Torah and our tradition remind us that we are not alone.

Indeed, these rituals of comfort and community have sustained us for generations.

For as Torah inspires, so we do.

And that has provided us with eternal life, and the strength to carry on.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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