From the moment a Jew dies until his burial, family members focus on caring for the body that previously housed his soul. They arrange for a proper burial and the Jewish burial society cleans and prepares the body for interment. After the funeral, the family returns to the home of the deceased to observe shiva -- the seven-day period of intense mourning. When they arrive, mourners engage in various traditional practices designed to help them cope with their loss.
Ritual Hand Washing
When family members and others who attended the funeral return to the shiva house, they wash their hands before entering. When a Jew comes in contact with death, he washes his hands in a ritual manner. He pours water from a cup three times over each hand, alternating between hands. Ritual washing reaffirms life. It marks a Jew's desire to separate himself from the spiritual impurity that accompanies death. The family arranges to have water, a washing cup and large empty bowls or buckets waiting outside the door of the shiva house. As visitors wash, they are careful not to pass the washing cup from person to person. This silent gesture expresses the hope that death should not spread and that family and friends should live long, peaceful lives.
When the family returns home, someone lights a memorial candle in the room where visitors come to comfort the mourners. The candle remains lit constantly and publicly for the entire seven-day mourning period. The flame of the memorial candle symbolizes the "candle of God [that is] the soul of man," as stated in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Its presence throughout the shiva period provides some comfort, serving to remind family and friends that the soul of the deceased -- unlike the body -- is eternal.
Meal of Condolence
Friends and neighbors prepare and serve the meal of condolence -- the first meal the mourners eat after the funeral. The meal generally includes bread, cooked vegetables and round foods -- such as hard-boiled eggs or lentils -- which symbolize eternity or the cyclical nature of life. The meal of condolence is another form of consolation; it is an expression of the community's support and concern for the mourners' physical and emotional well-being. Mourners eat the meal of condolence in silence while seated on low chairs. Friends typically prepare all meals for the family for the duration of the shiva period, which frees mourners of the day-to-day responsibilities associated with meal preparation.
The Shiva House
Shiva is a time for deep contemplation. Judaism discourages activities and behavior that interfere with the mourner's ability to focus on his loss. From the time they return home until the end of shiva, mourners sit on low stools or chairs, which are a physical expression of the mourners' intense loneliness and grief. The family covers mirrors and pictures, which enables and encourages mourners to focus on their pain, rather than their appearance. Similarly, mourners avoid certain physical comforts, including wearing leather shoes, showering for pleasure and wearing freshly laundered clothes. In the absence of such comforts, mourners are better able to contemplate the reality of the soul, grieve for their loved one and move beyond their sense of loss.
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