Shiv’ah: Psychology in Disguise

Different religions address death in a variety of ways, often with an array of practices. Judaism, in particular, has a very detailed system that normally consists of three stages: aninut, shiv’ah, and sheloshim. (Additionally, following the death of a parent, an eleven-month mourning period is instituted subsequent to the sheloshim.) These phases allow a person to process death in a structured and constructive manner. Psychiatrist Dr. Irwin Kidorf hypothesizes that the reason “that the custom of observing the shiv’ah lasted from its beginnings until the present” is that “aside from purely religious factors, it appears that this ceremony satisfies the needs of people in mourning.”[i] This article will consider the different halakhic stages of mourning, and will try to uncover the psychological underpinnings of each stage.

The first stage that a mourner undergoes is aninut: the time period immediately following the loss, but before the dead has been buried.  Halakhah rules that an onen is exempt from observing the positive commandments even if he himself is not personally involved in burying the dead. Interestingly, the Mehaber explicitly says that even in a case where an onen wants to be stringent and do certain mitsvot, such as making berakhot, he is not permitted. [ii] Seemingly, a person is supposed to be so tarud (caught up) with the mitsvah of mourning for his loved one that he is prohibited from doing other things that might distract him from mourning. R. Chaim Navon of Modi’in explains that this altering of the mourner’s lifestyle mirrors the confused state in which the mourner finds himself after experiencing his loss. The prohibition against doing positive mitsvot

that serves as a purposeful increase in the mourner’s confusion signifies that not only is it normal to respond to a loss in a disoriented fashion, but that it is appropriate as well.[iii]

While abstaining from doing positive commandments, the relative of the deceased performs the act of keri’ah, ripping one’s clothing.[iv] This act reflects the emotional needs of the mourner during this time. Based on a study by British psychologist and grief expert Colin Parkes that showed that “anger was at its peak during the first month of mourning,”[v]  Dr. Ruben Schindler, Senior Lecturer at Bar Ilan University’s School of Social Work, explains that keri’ah “is not mere ceremony.  It allows the mourner to give expression to his deep anger by means of a controlled, religiously sanctioned, act of destruction.”[vi] Dr. Joel Wolowelsky, Dean of the Faculty at the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, reiterates this by saying that “keri-a allows emotions that may border on frightening rage to be expressed as controlled, salutary anger.”[vii] This explanation demonstrates the way in which Halakhah addresses an inevitable emotion that people experience after learning of a death, allowing for the expression of the emotion, but in a constructive manner. I would like to propose that this action may also do something else for the bereaved: Perhaps keri’ah is an acknowledgment for the mourner to himself that he is now in a new state. One could even say that the words that the mourner says immediately after hearing about death, “Barukh Dayan ha-Emet,” accomplish the same thing – they provide the mourner with a means of verbally expressing that something momentous ordained by God has just occurred, without the actual acceptance that something tragic has happened as well.

The transition from the stage of aninut to shiv’ah is marked by the levayah (funeral) and the kevurah (burial). There is also a mitsvah to give hespedim (eulogies) about the dead person.[viii] On the one hand, many of these laws are specifically meant to honor the dead. Three of the acts associated with this process – giving eulogies, watching the funeral, and guarding the body – are ways to pay tribute to the dead. However, I think that these actions also contribute to helping the mourner deal with what he is facing, and to begin the process of recognizing what he has lost. As in the stage of aninut, here, too, the mourner customarily performs a combination of dibbur (speech) and ma’aseh (action). The eulogies not only shower praise upon the dead, but also serve as a way for the mourner to acknowledge aloud what has just occurred. After encountering death, many people remain in denial until they acknowledge the loss out loud. By eulogizing, the mourner is forced to acknowledge the fact that someone close to him has just been lost.

The physical customs, such as accompanying and burying the dead, also play a large role in the stage of mourning between aninut and shiv’ah. A mourner may often wish that he had done more to help the dead in his lifetime.  This process of burying the dead, therefore, allows the mourner to perform a hesed shel emet as he performs one last sincere action to help his loved one, thereby alleviating some of the guilt that the mourner feels toward the dead.  It is also possible that the action of burying the dead is one of realization as well. Sefer ha-Hinnukh notes that one’s mind is influenced by one’s actions,[ix] and the physical action of burying and eulogizing the dead may be that which causes the mourner to begin to comprehend that someone close to him has just passed away.

After the funeral, the mourner transitions into the second phase, known as shiv’ah. This phase consists of seven days during which the mourner is required to focus on the met (the deceased)During this time, one is not allowed to do work, shower, wear leather, have marital relations, learn Torah that is unrelated to mourning, sleep on an upright bed, and greet people.[x] There is also a custom to spend all of shiv’ah focused on discussing the life of the deceased.[xi] Many of these restrictions seem to remove normalcy from a person’s everyday life, perhaps in an effort to force the mourner to concentrate on what has just happened to himself. This focus on the dead serves the mourner not only in his process of reflection, but also in his process of inspiration. By analyzing and talking about the deceased’s life, one marvels at the wonders that the dead person accomplished in his lifetime, even with the ups and downs that life threw his way. By realizing this fact through speech, the mourner also begins to slowly regain the strength to push on with his life, and, inspired by the met, starts to realize more of the opportunities that life presents.

Another aspect of the shiv’ah period concerns the relationship that a mourner has with his community. Dr. Wolowelsky explains based on the thought of R. Soloveitchik that the relationship is two-fold and reflects the psychological needs of a mourner. In some regards, the mourner is not to be left alone. While at this time one might experience “a sense of intense loneliness and abandonment… Halakha insists that they continue to see themselves as part of a community.”[xii] This is seen in many different aspects of the shiv’ah house, such as the obligation for the community to pay its respects to the mourner, and for a minyan to be present in order that the mourner can say kaddish.[xiii] Dr. Kidorf explains the communal aspect of shiv’ah to be a form of psychotherapy for the mourner: “The presence of visitors, the overt signs of mourning, and in fact the entire atmosphere encourage catharsis of feeling on the part of the participants. It… [brings] about the amelioration of the surface level aspects of the problem which is quite often… one of the early goals of most types of psychotherapy.”[xiv] However, despite this, Dr. Wolowelsky writes:

Halakha insists that the loneliness experienced by the abandoned mourner be acknowledged and expressed. Mourners must also maintain a private mourning known only to them and those who know them most intimately. They are constrained from bathing, having marital relations, studying Torah – prohibitions whose observance is hidden from public view.[xv]

The mourner is also not allowed to greet people, “and as long as they refrain from acknowledging the community’s presence, [they] in a sense, remain isolated.”[xvi] Thus, while shiv’ah does serve as a beginning to the mourner’s reintegration into society, certain aspects of the halakhot of shiv’ah serve as yet another reminder to the mourner of the loss that he has just experienced.

At the completion of the seven days, the shiv’ah process culminates with a walk around the block. As the mourner does not typically leave his house during shiv’ah, it is interesting that this action is inserted at this point. Perhaps this is a sign to the mourner that although he has been sitting and thinking about death all week, it is now time to take a step back into the other aspects of life and to begin to rebuild his life after his tragedy.

The sheloshim period begins next – thirty days during which one is restricted from doing laundry, getting a haircut or shaving, and attending happy events.[xvii] This period eases the mourner’s transition back into the regular world; if a person were to re-enter society immediately after a loss, he might get involved with something else and lose sight of what just occurred. Thus, the restrictions of sheloshim remind the bereaved of what happened while still lessening the degree of mourning, thereby helping him to readjust back into his normal life in a healthier fashion.

The system of mourning set up by the rabbis seems to have been created with consideration for the many psychological elements that constitute the mourner’s reaction as he deals with this tragedy in his life. R. Soloveitchik claims that “Judaism maintains and insists, [that man] is capable of determining the kind of emotional life he wants to live,” and that “the precept of avelut… rests completely upon this Jewish doctrine of human freedom from emotional coercion.”[xviii]  The Torah does not forbid a person from acting human, but rather encourages him to express his emotions. It encourages him to “tear his clothes in frustrating anger and stop observing mitzvot because his whole personality is enveloped by dark despair and finds itself in a trance of the senses and of the faculties. Let him cry and shout, for he must act like a human being.”[xix] According to the Rav, Halakhah divided mourning into stages in order to allow the person not “only to sub[mit] himself to the emotional onslaught, but gradually and slowly to redeem himself from its impact.”[xx] This approach portrays the message that the system set up for mourning was created not as a way to mandate the way people should feel about death, but rather to provide them with a framework to act out and then to slowly return to society.

R. Chaim Navon expresses this idea explicitly when he says:

Mourning has enormous psychological value. On the one hand, the mourning laws compel the mourner to give expression to his suffering and even provide him with the framework within which to do so.  On the other hand, Halakha returns him in stages to the world of the living. The psychological profundity of the laws of mourning explains why many secular Jews meticulously observe them and express great interest in fully understanding them (as reported to me by the head of a Chevra Kadisha in Tel Aviv).[xxi]

R. Navon points out that Shulhan Arukh says that one who does not know that his relative has died is allowed to be invited to a celebratory meal, even if the host knows.[xxii] This shows, he explains, that before one receives the news that he is a mourner, “he is not yet considered a mourner.”[xxiii] According to R. Navon, this seems to imply that the mourning period is not a magical or mystical time, but rather is a result of the psychological state that a person is thrust into once he hears the news. This state is clearly addressed by Halakhah in a way that not only shows respect for the dead, but also helps the mourner cope with his loss in a way that allows for natural emotions and psychological difficulty. The Jewish process of mourning is truly psychology in disguise, a process that gives help to people in need.

Penina Wein is a sophomore at SCW, majoring in Jewish Education, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.



[i] Irwin W. Kidorf, “The Shiva: A Form of Group Psychotherapy,” Journal of Religion and Health 5,1 (January 1966): 43-46, at p. 44.

[ii] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 341-342, 361.

[iii] R. Chaim Navon, “Philosophy of Halakha- Lecture #24: Mourning,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at: www.vbm-torah.org. (Originally written in Hebrew, transl. by R. David Strauss.)

[iv] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 340.

[v] Colin Murray Parkes, Bereavement (New York: International Universities Press, 1972), 80.

[vi] Schindler, Ruben. “The Halachic Framework of Mourning and Bereavement and its Implications for the Helping Professions,” Journal of Jewish Communal Service 51,4 (1975): 325-331, at p. 326.

[vii] Joel Wolowelsky, “Communal and Individual Mourning Dynamics Within Traditional Jewish Law,” Death Studies 20,5 (Sep-Oct 1996): 469-480, at p. 471.

[viii] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 343-344, 361.

[ix] Sefer ha-Hinnukh, Mitsvah 16.

[x] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 380.

[xi] See “Life, Death and Mourning,” Jewish Virtual Library, available at: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

[xii] Wolowelsky, 472.

[xiii] Ibid., 474-475.

[xiv] Kidorf, 474.

[xv] Wolowelsky, 474.

[xvi] Ibid., 474.

[xvii] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 389:1, 390:1, 392:2.

[xviii] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Avelut Yeshanah and Avelut Hadashah: Historical and Individual Mourning,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at: www.vbm-torah.org.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Navon.

[xxii] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 402:12.

[xxiii] Navon.