Last year I lost a dear friend. Though Jim had been diagnosed with a neurological disease that slowly robbed him of physical and cognitive abilities, we thought he would live for more years. The end came quickly and as a surprise. Thus his wife had not made arrangements for a funeral or memorial. When Sally was asked what she wanted for Jim, she thought a moment and said, “a shiva.” Understand that Jim and Sally are Episcopalians, and their only real experience with a shiva was 15 years ago when my husband died. Sally knew that her life with Jim was centered in their home, and she wanted all of us to remember him in the comfortable surroundings that so reflected both of them.
Our Book Club planned and provided the shiva food. As the only Jewish member it was my role to prepare an explanation of shiva to distribute to visitors and to be sure we included traditional foods. This task prompted me to learn more about our shiva tradition. Here’s what I wrote.
In the Jewish tradition, Shiva, which means “seven,” is the initial period of mourning. It is set for seven days based on an interpretation of a verse in Amos (8:10):
And I will turn your feasts [which usually lasted seven days] into mourning, and all you songs into lamentations; and I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning for an only son; and the end thereof is a bitter day.
Another interpretation of the seven-day period is associated with Joseph, who mourned for his father, Jacob, for seven days (Genesis 50:10).
In this modern era, Shiva has many variations. Often families “sit shiva” for one day, and while it is traditional for Shivas to take place in the home, some families prefer them to take place in other venues.
One of the time-honored traditions of Shiva is that friends provide the Shiva meal and take care of all arrangements, ensuring the immediate family is freed from any responsibilities and is cared for by others. Another tradition is to provide round food at the meal to symbolize the cyclical, eternal and continuous nature of life. Though bagels and hard boiled eggs are commonly used, we have chosen a different round food for Jim’s Shiva: M&M’s. Jim dearly loved them and was known to occasionally sneak away to indulge his appetite for candy.
As we grieve for Jim, let us remember him as an exceptionally kind, witty, bright, talented, devoted husband, father and friend. We shall miss you, Jimbo!
What I took away from this experience is a renewed understanding of how much our Jewish traditions honor families, are deeply personal, and transcend religious boundaries. I would not be surprised to learn that other non-Jewish friends begin to have shivas too.