First, let me say that I am not anti-shiva.
Shiva, a Hebrew word meaning seven, that refers to the seven days of mourning by a Jewish family following the burial of a loved one. It is supposed to be an introspective time when friends and relatives offer support to the mourners by visiting their home, bringing food, making a minyan (so Kaddish may be recited) and generally not speaking to the mourners unless they speak first.
Until this past week, the last time I was present at a family shiva was as a 10-year-old boy when my grandfather in Clairton passed away. But after sitting for my father-in-law this past week, it seems to be this tradition is evolving — like it or not.
While many Jews continue to observe shiva in the traditional sense, many more are either modifying those traditions or abandoning them altogether. Many families sit for three days instead of seven, maybe even one. Some eschew shiva for more modern practices such as celebrations of life. (If ever two words directly contradicted one another, “celebration” and “shiva” are it.)
But even for families that choose to observe a full shiva, the practice is almost as draining as the loved one’s death.
That’s probably because the times are foisting changes upon shiva. The seven-day Jewish mourning period is taking on some characteristics of an Irish wake. There is still the Kaddish, and food for the family so it need not worry about cooking while preoccupied with mourning.
Overall, though, in many households, the shiva has assumed a more festive affair than it once was. The covering of mirrors and sitting upon boxes by the mourners are practices that are slowly vanishing in less observant homes.
So, what is the right way to sit shiva, traditional or conventional? I won’t go there, but I will say this: Shiva, it seems, was meant to be a time when mourners are allowed time and space to embrace their grief. These days, the 21st century, and all the stress that comes with it, seem to intervene.
Some families are inundated with visitors at all hours, and there is the pressure to be a host — something the family is not suppose to be — more than a mourner.
Then there are the affairs of the deceased, which the family must put in order. In 19th century Eastern Europe, Jews had no credit cards, safety deposit boxes, cell phone accounts and insurance policies. These days, not only do these things exist, they often present pressing issues for the family that can’t wait for the end of shiva.
To make matters worse, relatives are scattered from coast to coast and can’t always come home for the funeral, let alone shiva.
With all these questions, when does a family get to grieve? How does it grieve? How long?
Clearly, the institution of shiva is challenged like no other time in its history. Though the custom has survived intact for centuries, perhaps it is too much to suggest, even in our most observant neighborhoods, that it will remain unchanged for centuries to come.
(Lee Chottiner, the executive editor of The Jewish Chronicle, can be reached at email@example.com.)