In Orthodox Jewish law the first stage of mourning lasts for seven days and is therefore called Shiva (seven in Hebrew). That seven day period is itself divided into two sections: the first three days and the remaining four. The first three days are considered the most intense mourning period and are reflected in visitors being prohibited from addressing the mourner with greetings of Shalom (or in the strictest perspective with any conversation whatsoever), the mourner being prohibited from answering greetings, the suggestion that only the most intimate friends and family visit, and the mourner not changing the residence of his Shiva sitting. During the last four days of Shiva, visitors are freer to open conversation, the mourner is freer to respond, all people are encouraged to visit the mourner, and if necessary the mourner may move to a different residence to complete sitting Shiva.
It would seem that since Shiva is composed of two time periods, more lenient Jewish movements allowed sitting Shiva (which would then be a misnomer) to last for only three days, although the Halachah (Jewish Law) requires seven.
Why do some people hold 7 days of shiva for a close relative and some hold 3 days?
“Shiv’ah”, literally “seven”, meaning a traditional seven days of post-funeral mourning, is an ancient Jewish practice, customary behavior practiced since time out of mind. The earliest rabbinic codification of a seven days’ period of confinement in the home following the burial of a loved one does not mandate such behavior, but rather assumes it:
“[In the case of ]one who buries his dead [i.e. his close relative]
three days prior to the festival, the decree of “seven” is annulled.”
(Mishnah, Tractate Mo’ed Katan 3:5)
That is to say, if one has buried a close relative, then observed three days of the seven, at which time the festival commences, the mourner is allowed to omit the balance of the seven days of confinement. The mourner moves to the next stage of the mourning process, the thirty days period following the burial, in which less onerous restrictions upon behavior apply.. (Incidentally, in its later elaboration, Jewish law did not follow the ruling of the Mishnah in this particular case: the seven-days’ confinement would be concluded early, with the arrival of the festival, even in the case of a burial concluded only one hour prior to the festival.)
In the Gemara, the Rabbinic expositors of the Mishnahs sought to ground the seven-days’ mourning in biblical texts. For example, they quoted the verse, “I [God] will turn your festivals into mourning” (Amos 8:10) and argued that, just as Passover and Sukkot are seven days in length, so is the period of mourning of seven days’ duration. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Mo’ed Katan, 20a) But the Rabbis themselves acknowledged that such derivations do not have the force of absolute logical inferences, but are simply “asmakhtot”, meaning “Scriptural supports”, for the practice. Ultimately, the duration of seven days for the post-funeral confinement rests upon custom.
The abridgement of the seven days’ period to three days is a by-product of the history of German and Austrian Jews in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Austrian Emperor and the various German rulers promulgated a series of edicts mandating that the Jews of their realms delay the burial of the dead for 48 or 72 hours following the cessation of vital signs. These “delayed burial” edicts were based on the fear that the Jews, whose customary practice was to bury the dead within the day, were perhaps burying the comatose, and thus committing murder. Traditionalist Jews resisted this infringement upon their internal autonomy, but by the 1790’s, a group of Modernist Jews in Berlin had created a “Gesellschaft der Freunde (Society of Friends)” to handle burials in the “modern” manner, complete with a three-day’s delay between the cessation of vital signs and burial. This was the occasion of much tension in the Jewish community of the day. In one instance, the traditionalist chevra kaddisha (burial society), which controlled the cemetery, sought to block a modernist funeral, and the modernists called the police to enforce their right to use the cemetery.
In 1846, when the Reform-minded rabbis of Germany met in Breslau, for their third annual synod, they passed a resolution calling for the abridgement of the seven-day period to three days. Among their justifications was the argument that, unlike pre-modern times, when burial took place on the same day as death, in their own day, the burial was delayed by three days; hence, a seven-day mourning period would extend the dislocation of the mourner’s life beyond the originally-envisioned seven days. The rabbis at Breslau also pointed to the nuances within the original Talmudic discussion of the seven days of post-funeral mourning (Tractate Mo’ed Katan 21b), where the restrictions on the mourners’ conduct during the first three days were regarded as more stringent than the norms applicable during the second half of the week. Nonetheless, that interpretation of the Talmud was novel and perhaps tendentious. It seems plausible that the Reform decision was in fact caused not by a changing understanding of the teachings of traditional texts, but rather by the pressure felt by Jews, living in a country with a notably strong work ethic, not to diverge too greatly from the mourning rhythms of the Christian majority. In German Christian practice, a wake, followed by a funeral, constituted the entire time off from work. (For a fuller discussion of the history recounted in these paragraphs, please consult the author’s doctoral dissertation, Modernity and Mortality: The Transformation of European Jewish Responses to Death, 1750-1850 (University Microfilms, 1989).
In America today, more Conservative/Masorti families are opting to observe the briefer period of three days, or some other period less than one week. This has not been a formal decision of the movement, however, which continues to teach the importance of giving the bereaved a week to adjust to the reality of their situation. In 1991, The Jewish Theological Seminary, the preeminent educational institution of Conservative/ Masorti Judaism, released a film, Saying Kaddish, starring Tova Feldshuh, that promoted the psychologically therapeutic value of observing the traditional rites of mourning, implicitly including the traditional period of seven days.
Traditional Judaism prescribes a seven day (the word "shivah" means seven) period of mourning for 7 close relatives: spouse, bother, sister, mother, father, son and daughter. Any book dealing with traditional/Orthodox Judaism can give you the reasons, practices, and exceptions.
In my understanding and practice of Reform Judaism, a three -day period is acceptable, both from a spiritual and practical standpoint. In the URJ book "Liberal Judaism At Home," we see the following: "This three-day period is recognized even by the Orthodox as the more rigorous part of the period. So if a person must attend to business, he is allowed to do so after the first three days."
Should Shabbat be among those three days, you will have to determine whether to count it as one of your own three days of "shivah."(it is counted in the 7 in Traditional Judaism, though the customs and prayers of mourning are relaxed on that day).
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