When a death occurs, certain family members are obligated to observe a period of mourning known as aveilut. An aveil (mourner) is a first-degree relative, that is, the met (deceased) was mother, father, sister, brother, child or spouse. Aveilut has three distinct periods: before the burial, immediately following the burial and the month (or year) following the burial.
The time between death and burial is a time for grieving. The mourner is known as an onen, someone bewailing an immediate loss. From the time of death (or the time the death becomes known) to the time of burial, the onen is exempt from obligations such as tefilin, and is expected only to allow the loss to sink in. Though arrangements must be made (see the previous column on the subject), Jewish tradition makes few demands on someone immediately bereaved.
The second period is known as shivah. Shivah is the number "seven" in Hebrew, and it indicates the requisite number of days for mourning. (For the purposes of shivah, Jewish law considers any part of a day as a day. Hence, a funeral in the afternoon qualifies that entire day as the first day.) Upon returning from the funeral, the mourners eat a meal which includes hard-boiled eggs (a symbol of life) called "the meal of consolation." During the seven days, the aveil remains at home and is visited by friends and acquaintances who come to offer comfort. The aveil sits in a low chair, on a cushion or mat on the floor or on the floor itself as an indication of his/her low spirits. The garment or ribbon which was torn at the time of the burial is worn during the entire week. However, leather shoes (considered a luxury) are not worn, and the aveil should pay little attention to grooming. As such, shaving, hair-cutting and bathing for pleasure are not permitted. (Washing and hygienic bathing are permitted.)
Minyan is held in the home of the aveil three times a day (when it is not possible, the mourner may attend synagogue). Neither music nor television (including the news) is appropriate during shivah, neither for the mourners nor within the home.
Much is made of the custom of covering the mirrors in a house of mourning. Some suggest it is a time to avoid matters of vanity; others believe the mourner should not be forced to see a reflection which is depressed and unkempt. Covering mirrors is a custom, not a requirement.
On Shabbat, public mourning is not observed. Hence, every shivah is interrupted mid-day on Friday, and resumes after dark on Saturday. The torn garment is not worn and all services are held at the synagogue.
On the last morning of shivah (or mid-day Friday if Shabbat is the last day), the mourners go for a brief walk to signify their re-entry into the everyday world.
Observing shivah is a sad privilege which can be understood only from the experience. Far more difficult is visiting a home in which shivah takes place. More on that subject in the next column.