Thanks, Berkshires Week!
How to be sick well: Toni Bernhard's guide for the chronically ill

Preparing for shiva

Looking for a printable shiva minyan liturgy? There's one at the end of this post.

 

I almost always begin a shiva minyan by telling a story about what we're doing and why we're doing it. (Shiva means seven and minyan means the group of at-least-ten who gather together to pray; a shiva minyan is a prayer gathering during the week called shiva, the first week after a loved one's burial.)

The custom of the shiva minyan came about, I explain, at a place and time where it was assumed that all Jewish men considered themselves obligated to pray three times a day. (This often draws forth a chuckle from the room, because we know that this is not how most of us in the room approach our prayer lives.) Imagine that you have the custom of going to shul every day: both because you feel metzuveh (commanded / obligated) to daven (pray) in community, and because you want to help the community make a minyan, the quorum of ten which is required for our call-and-response prayers, among them the Mourner's Kaddish.

Suddenly your life is ruptured by loss. A loved one dies. Now your days feel strange and measureless as you navigate this new landscape of aveilut, mourning and bereavement. The sages of our tradition recognized that in the wake of a loved one's death, the mere prospect of getting dressed nicely and leaving the house may feel completely overwhelming. So during the first week of mourning, the minyan comes to you. The community comes to your home; they bring prayerbooks, they bring food, they sit with you and listen to you and daven with you so that you can recite the Mourner's Kaddish in the embrace of loving community.

A shiva minyan, in other words, is intended to be something to soothe and comfort the mourner -- not yet-another-thing for the mourner to worry about doing, or doing "right." It's not supposed to be an onerous obligation; it's supposed to remove the onerousness from the obligation which one has already taken on, the obligation of daily communal prayer. But for those who don't have a practice of daily communal liturgical prayer, and/or who may not be especially comfortable with the Hebrew of traditional Jewish liturgy, the prospect of a shiva minyan may seem daunting. It may feel like an unwanted obligation, or be a source of discomfort, which is exactly the opposite of its purpose.

Candles

What might make a shiva minyan more approachable, even comforting, rather than intimidating? What matters most, I think, is the gentle presence of someone who can create a safe container for worship and for grieving. It is the hearts of the people present, and perhaps especially the heart of the person leading the prayer and seeking thereby to open a channel between the community and God, which create a shiva minyan that can offer healing. But it doesn't hurt to also have a set of prayer materials which will speak to people where they are.

Maybe that means transliterations. Maybe it means skillful translations. Maybe it means augmenting the traditional texts with a well-chosen poem or song -- bearing in mind that the purpose of the shiva minyan is to allow the mourner to slot into the familiar groove of reciting Mourner's Kaddish, and that too much ornamentation would risk detracting from that holy purpose.

All of this has been on my mind as I've been updating my shul's shiva minyan booklets, with grateful acknowledgement to my predecessor Reb Jeff from whom I inherited a lovely, simple, and classical homegrown booklet for evening prayer in a house of mourning. After some years of being carted around from house to house, many copies had disappeared, and the ones which remained were getting a bit worn. It was time to reprint, which meant there was also an opportunity to revise.

The heart of any shiva minyan booklet is the standard daily service. Since our community does not have a weekday morning minyan, our shiva minyanim are always in the evening -- which means the core liturgy is the evening liturgy, which typically takes about 30 minutes to pray. I began with the same material which was in our old booklets: the lighting of a memorial candle, the call to prayer, the Shema and her blessings, the silent Amidah / standing prayer which is at the heart of daily Jewish worship, the closing prayer known as the Aleinu, a special prayer of remembrance called Eil Maleh Rachamim ("God, full of compassion!"), and the Mourner's Kaddish.

And then I added a few things which I hope might speak to people for whom the traditional liturgy is opaque. Two poems from Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude, which is one of my favorite resources. Reb Zalman's beautiful English rendering of the Shema. Some art which I found via Open Siddur. A set of one-line affirmations or meditations, on the themes of the weekday blessings in the Amidah, created by Reb Zalman (z"l) and by Rabbi Daniel Siegel, which I first encountered thanks to Rabbi Chava Bahle. A poem by Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory. And Reb Zalman (z"l)'s English rendering of the Mourner's Kaddish, which opens up a new level of understanding of the familiar cadences of the Aramaic.

It's still a simple folded xeroxed booklet. And I know that it doesn't matter nearly as much as whatever heart and presence I am able to muster. But I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to immerse myself for some hours in the combination of weekday liturgy and poems and prayers of mourning. I hope that the end result brings comfort.

 

If you have come to this post in search of a shiva booklet, you are welcome to use ours. The attached pdf is meant to be printed duplex (two-sided); the pages are oriented so that when you print it that way and then fold the sheaf in half, everything will be right-side-up and in the right order.

If you are alone and in mourning, you may prefer to substitute the special version of the Kaddish designed for solo prayer, which you can find on Reb Daniel's blog.

May the Source of Peace bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.

   Revised-Shiva-Booklet [pdf] 368kb

 

Comments