Morah Yehudis Fishman

Understanding Delayed Shiva

Morah Yehudis Fishman

After the amazing and unique turnout for the funeral of the amazing and unique Froma Fallik, of blessed memory, many people may be somewhat mystified by the unusual Jewish practice of postponing the deeply meaningful Shiva week of mourning till after the long week of holidays from Sukkot to Simchat Torah. On one hand, we have been taught how important the rites of departure are both for the one who has passed on, and for close relatives who are grieving. On the other hand, Halacha, Jewish law, stipulates that, if someone is buried right before the Chag, even the members of the immediate family do not display open and explicit signs of mourning until after the Chag.

Our hearts cries out, ‘Not fair! Irrational! Insensitive!’ All legitimate and humane responses. And yet it behooves us to try and understand the meaning behind this law, and perhaps even enlarge our own consciousness in the process. Like many perplexing questions in Judaism — as well as in life — there are some underlying axioms that can give us a bigger picture. In this case, I think the axiom is one of the primary themes of the month of Tishrei: that of interlocking frames of identity. If you were to complete the sentence ‘I am’ with whatever came to mind, your lines could go on indefinitely.

In plain language, and as modern insights into human nature are making more and more explicit, we are a sum total not just of our personal physical, psychological, and spiritual makeup, but of all our networks of interrelationships, both conscious and unconscious- perhaps even including past and future.  Just one example of the seasonal relevance of this idea: In terms of heavenly judgment on Rosh Hashana, the mystics tell us that if G-d forbid we deserved a negative decree, if there were people who would be unjustly upset by that decree, our decree might be abrogated just because of the effect on significant others.

This brings us to the issue of delayed Shiva. The premise that can help us comprehend this legislation is not just that the laws of the holiday override the laws of mourning, but that we superimpose the festive spirit and energy over the still existing grief.  This combined dynamic still allows for the personal feelings of grief but also provides a larger context of Jewish life that at least for the time being, docks the outward manifestation of our turbulent ship of angst in the bay of tranquility and elevated perspective in which the Biblical holidays immerse us. We are awakened to our higher selves which resonate with the calendar moments when heavenly curtains are opened up.

One Torah example: We are taught that Abraham served Matzot to the three angels who came to visit right after his circumcision at the age of 99. Imagine, to say the least, the discomfort Abraham had to overcome to serve his guests! But wait, the bigger surprise: How can he bake Matzot if there was not yet any Egypt of Jewish nation to be enslaved and then liberated? Here is where the Rabbis explain that a cosmic Pesach existed before the historical one, and Abraham was able to perceive it from his soul’s insight. Just one illustration of the idea of the eternity of a holiday.

A related Rosh Hashana image I spoke about at a recent Shmoozers meeting: The broken sounds of the shofar are surrounded by two unbroken notes to teach us that the brokenness is partial and supported by frames of wholeness. This support can come from the bigger picture of our lives, or by our theology, or simply by our family, friends, and communities who hold us up when we are tottering. Sukkot in particular, represents the loving embrace of the Divine that cushions us from the hard knocks of life. The Zohar calls the Sukkah the ‘shade of faith,’ reminding us that there is a bigger and more constructive design to our existence than our peephole on reality ordinarily lets us see. Just as we allow ourselves to feel and lament the painful experiences of our lives, let us also allow ourselves to tune into and be touched by the higher notes that vibrate from a more eternal plane, whatever the circumstantial timing of Divine Providence may bring to us.

The traditional consolation prayer for a mourner begins with the words, ‘HaMakom Yenachem Etchem..’ May the Place ( a term for G-d) console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Hamakom seems to be a strange choice of one of many names of G-d in Jewish literature. However the rationale is clear from the perspective I have tried to convey: We see life from our limited place, and from that place our loved one is gone. But there is another place where the essence of the person resides, and even beyond that place there is the container of all realities and all meaning. How fortunate are we to be able to connect to that Place even when our earthly place seems to be pulled from under our feet. Jewish holidays are times where that higher Place comes down to touch us, and Sukkot is the actual meeting ground and cosmic container that takes us from Egypt to the Promised Land, both individually and collectively. May we all reach our promised land where tears of sadness will be erased from all our faces.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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  1. Thank you Yehudis! In Froma's merit, beautiful words of Torah, also to her merit, finding what's positive in everything. I might also ask, does the Torah commandment, "I have placed life and death before you…you shall choose life", inform the halacha here? Could this be the root of "the show must go on"?

  2. Morah Yehudis, thank you for such a beautiful article explaining deep concepts with such sensitivity!