Sitting Shiva in the Sand

by Kim Phillips

Originally posted on November 10, 2010 at Kim’s Little Blog.

My mother died, and she wasn’t Jewish.  I am, and sometime after I converted, it occurred to me to wonder, “Do I sit shiva if my mom passes away?” The word shiva comes from the Hebrew word for “seven” and refers to the week of intense mourning just after a loved-one passes away. because my mother wasn’t Jewish, sitting shiva didn’t really make sense.

Judaism has some fairly precise customs for mourning a parent. Sit shiva for a week, limit your activities for 30 days (in Hebrew, shloshim), say the mourner’s kaddish—a special prayer praising God—for the next 11 months, erect the tombstone, and get on with your life. Observe the yartzeit, the anniversary of death, going forward. Seems a rather neat and tidy prescription compared to the actual messiness of grieving.

As it turns out, my husband and I had a beach vacation planned to begin the day after the funeral. We went, and it was the best thing imaginable. In late October, the beach was deserted and it was certainly too chilly to swim. There was nothing much to do but sit and stare at the ocean, read, eat, stroll the empty beach and cry. Not the type of shiva observance I had become accustomed to. No rabbi, no prayer service, no egg salad.

Then there was the matter of saying the kaddish prayer: Should you say it for a non-Jewish parent? The original intent of the prayer has been lost; it doesn’t mention death at all but is a long list of praises for God, used in the beginning to punctuate sections of serious study. For centuries, people believed that saying kaddish would shorten the amount of time the deceased spent in Gehenna (hell) before ascending to Gan Eden (heaven). Whatever it is now, it’s certainly a Jewish custom to say it for Jewish parents.  Most people who recite the kaddish probably don’t understand it in the Aramaic, but the sound of it is a familiar, comforting refrain.  I couldn’t resist saying it at Momma’s graveside. She wouldn’t have minded.

It’s been a month now—shloshim—since Momma passed away. In some ways, it has been good for a new-Jew to ponder Jewish mourning rituals.  We do things because they are custom, but do we really know why? One thing became clear: these rituals are for us, not for the dearly departed or for God. Having such a prescribed process isn’t a pass for us to avoid work or chores or social responsibilities; they do let others know how to deal with us while we are mourning. The length and intensity of the actual grieving may not fit into the shiva/shloshim/kaddish slots neatly, but the rituals give us a start. Time, and love, do the rest.

Kim Phillips was certified in pararabbinics at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and studied at Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. There, she found the creative spark for Hebrica, her Judaic art.

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10 Responses to “Sitting Shiva in the Sand”

  1. avatar

    One thing that has really perplexed me about the development of the Reform Movement over the past half century is the fact that they discarded one of the most beautiful contributions to the Prayer Book that the early Reformers made. Early in the Movement’s history, even before it was transplanted to these shores from Germany, the rabbis added an extra paragraph to the Mourner’s Kaddish, right before “oseh shalom”. They wanted to solve the “problem” that the prayer said on behalf of the dead didn’t mention the dead! So, they took a passage from the “hashkava” prayer, the Sephardic version of El Maleh Rachamim, and translated it into the same style of Aramaic that the Kaddish is written in. What genius! The resulting paragraph was translated into English as the famous “The departed whom we now remember have entered the peace of Life Eternal…” It comforted generations of Reform Jews before it was erased from our collective consciousness. It last appeared in the 1940 Union Prayer Book, but held on a little longer in funeral pamphlets. I remember several funerals in the 90s and early 2000s that used those old pamphlets, and they had actually gone over the “al yisrael v’al tzadikaya” paragraph in black marker or white tape! WHY were they do eager to strike it out? Was it just for the sake of being “more traditional”? Was it because they didn’t believe in the afterlife and resented its mention in the Kaddish? If that’s the case, then why is it still “Kosher” to say El Maleh Rachamim during Yizkor services?

    I don’t see how, in a non-Orthodox context, there can be any problem with reciting the Kaddish or even El Maleh Rachamim on behalf of non-Jewish friends and loved ones. For those who pray with sincerity, there is no greater act of love one can perform for the deceased.

  2. avatar

    My best friend just died very suddenly. she wasn’t Jewish..but was no other religion by practice either. We are both more druid/pagan in our belief in nature than any ‘religion’..but I choose to participate fully in Jewish ritual. I go to services weekly, Torah study regularly, am a member of the ritual committee at my (reform) synagogue, so involved in planning and coordinating ritual events. My rabbi knows my beliefs, and continues to welcome me fully. When my friend died, part of me really wanted to sit shiva. When I told my mother, she said “why? Pam wasn’t Jewish!’ When I told my rabbi (who, by the way, is also a convert), she said “of course you would want to, it’s part of who you are’ As it turned out, my friend’s son is now living with me, so we spent that week moving him and working on the house to make room for him here. It was very therapeutic, and was more important than shiva. However, I say kaddish for her every week. Our kaddish is never limited to just those who are Jewish. We include everyone, because the rabbis always adds: ‘those who died with no-one to say kaddish for them..’ I feel blessed to be in such an inclusive, open congregation with such a spiritual rabbi, who understands that religious does not necessarily mean spiritual…and one can be spiritual with or without being religious

  3. avatar

    I’m so glad I’m not the only convert struggling with this issue! (
    Thank you so much for addressing the conflict between mourning rituals as a comfort to the mourner and mourning rituals as an elevation of the spirit of the deceased.
    Shabbat Shalom!

  4. avatar

    Jordan Friedman asks about the additional paragraph in the Mourner’s Kaddish that was found in the Union Prayer Book and has been removed since Gates of Prayer. This goes back to the very first Reform congregational prayer book, that of the Hamburg Temple, published in 1819, and is indeed based on the Sefardic Hashkavah prayer, as well as the Burial Kaddish and the Kaddish deRabbanan. It is discussed at length in the Ten Minutes of Torah entry for August 26, 2010 (available in the TMT Archives on the URJ website). BTW, the English rendering in UPB, “The departed whom we now remember,” is an extended paraphrase of the Aramaic paragraph, not a translation (you’ll find an accurate translation in that TMT entry). The decision to omit this from GOP (and subsequently from MT), to my knowledge, was based on two considerations:
    1) No one other than the rabbi was able to read the Aramaic, which was unfamiliar to many people (and in some cases was not even read by the rabbi—the English often was rendered at that point in the recitation, often including the Kaddish list itself); 2) To those entering the Reform movement from a more traditional background, this paragraph had no symbolic associations–and even interrupted the mantra-like flow of the traditional Kaddish with which they were familiar–so concern here was for the recitation by the mourners themselves; 3) Hand in hand with 2) was the general preference for more traditional forms that, while present in our movement from the time that large numbers of Jews of eastern European origin began joining Reform congregations (as early, with statistical significance, as the 1920’s), became much more significant in the late 60’s and 70’s (and subsequently). So the reasons were both practical (who could read this?) and sociological (to whom did this have meaning, symbolic or otherwise?) Jordan’s posting indicates that the paragraph (at least in English) continues to have resonance to some Reform Jews.

  5. avatar

    Thank you, Dr. Sarason, for clarifying the inclusion (or not) of the additional paragraph. I read Leon Wieseltier’s book, Kaddish, some years ago and it shed a great deal of light on the history of that prayer, but it also left me somewhat confused on the issue of saying kaddish for a non-Jewish parent. As a Reform Jew (and a new one at that) I always want to pay honor to the tradition, while incorporating what resonates in our practice today.

  6. avatar

    Kim—From a strictly halakhic point of view, you would not recite Kaddish for non-Jewish parents (since a convert to Judaism is deemed to be “reborn” and to have no “connections” to their previous family). From a Reform perspective, you obviously can, since Kaddish is deemed to be more for the sake of the mourners, remembering and paying homage to their parents, than for the sake of the deceased (releasing their soul from purgatory).

    • avatar

      That is a very interesting way of framing it, Dr. Sarason! Of course the halakhic concept that a proselyte renounces “connections” to their “previous” family is quite extreme and not appropriate for a Reform context. However, what I was trying to communicate with my original comment was that I disagree with the reversal of the early Reform impulse to take the Kaddish, which was traditionally for the mourner’s sake (and only occasionally thought of as “elevating” the soul of the deceased) and MAKE it about the departed by adding the extraction from hashkava. I would say that it is appropriate to say Kaddish for non-Jews because it is a general measure of honor, love, and respect for the deceased, and in no way mentions that the deceased must be Jews. Are non-Jewish friends and loved ones not worthy of a prayer that glorifies God generically, with little particularistic reference? Of course, if I were editing a Siddur, I would render the last part “oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yoshvei tevel” in order to further universalize it. “Aleinu” can refer to “Yisrael” because Kaddish is said in the context of Jewish worship where most of those present are Jews.

      I suppose that I support the notion of saying prayers on behalf of the deceased, and not just for the sake of the mourners, because my personal theology, cosmology, and eschatology allow me to conceive of ways in which both the deceased and God are able to “receive” the honor we give them, and that is where I draw my comfort from when I recite Kaddish. Of course I don’t think that saying Kaddish makes an eschatological “difference” or “elevates” souls–God doesn’t need to be “told” what to do with the departed. But, for those who believe in both a personal God and a spiritual afterlife (neither of which should be controversial in Reform Judaism), Kaddish makes sense as something more than just “for the mourners”. If it were up to me, I would restore “al yisrael v’al tzadiqaya”, or at least always read the English paraphrase.

      I just wonder if you might explain a bit more about why you cited the fact that Kaddish is mainly for the living as a reason why it’s okay to say Kaddish for non-Jews.

  7. avatar

    Does not the season of reflection really end with Shemni Atzeret after which we stop saying Psalm 27?

  8. avatar

    Jordan—-I should not have conjoined the two clauses of my last sentence with “since.” Both clauses are accurate, but they really are not causally related. From a Reform perspective, deceased parents of whatever religion are still one’s parents, and worthy of love, respect, and memorialization. Period. Not because Kaddish is for the sake of the mourners. Separate idea: Traditionally, saying Kaddish was NOT for the mourner’s sake, but for the sake of the deceased relative, to redeem their soul from purgatory. The use of the Kaddish as a prayer led by orphans dates from the time of the Crusades in Germany. The son takes the place of the deceased parent in the congregation by leading the congregation in prayer (recited either Bar’chu or Kaddish, depending upon the source–but the idea is that the congregation responds to the reader’s exhortation to praise God) and, according to a medieval legend, this releases the soul of the deceased parent from purgatory. But the TEXT of the Kaddish never had anything to do with death or the dead—it is simply a prayer for the speedy coming of God’s Kingdom on earth, originally recited at the end of a public exposition of Torah. There is a traditional form of the Kaddish, recited both at a burial and upon concluding the study of a tractate of the Talmud, that makes more explicit mention of the resurrection of the dead as part of the messianic scenario, but it doesn’t talk about the deceased. Separate memorial prayers (such as Yizkor and El male rahamim or Hashkavah) were composed for that purpose. The early Reformers reframed the “orphan’s Kaddish” as a genuine memorial prayer, borrowing language from these traditional memorial prayers, as a way of textually thematizing the custom of reciting Kaddish on behalf of one’s parents, so that the text reflected the usage rather than being entirely unrelated to it.

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