Role of the Shiva Minyan

The daily prayer services in the mourner's home offer community and connection to those facing devastating loss.

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Why does Judaism mandate seven days of minyanim in the home of a mourning family?

Let's start with the reality of loss and rage following the death of a lifelong spouse or a beloved sibling. For the person left behind, a jagged hole looms in the center of the heart, an empty space in the depths of the soul. Having built a life around the pres­ence and cheer of one who was deeply cherished, we can only rage against a universe in which such horrors as this death too fre­quently occur. The Mishnah's admission that "we cannot understand either the tranquility of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous" provides no comfort, only the recognition of an often bleak and unfair reality. Not without logic, amorphous fury at what has transpired is often directed against God. After all, how can there be a God or how can God claim to be good if this outrage could happen to one so needed, so loved?

It's difficult enough to endure the death of a loved one, but to simultaneously lose the comfort of God's love, to exclude the strength and endurance that can emerge from opening one's heart to God, from sharing one's pain with the source of all comfort, can only make a painful situation excruciating. As Psalm 42 observes, "Day and night, tears are my nourishment, taunted all day with 'Where is your God?'" Isn't that precisely the crisis that every mourner faces? Just when God is most needed, the tragedy that produces such pressing need also renders the divine presence least accessible.

One central function of the shiva minyan, then, is to restore access to God's love. Words often remain superficial, and sermons regularly fail to penetrate the recesses of the human heart. But the silent presence of fellow Jews, the simple gesture of sitting together or offering an outstretched hand speaks more eloquently than the most lofty speech. God's presence cannot be articulated or alluded to. But it can be demonstrated. Just by being there, we embody God's love, and we make that love tangible. "To You, God, silence is praise."

Think again of the mourner's devastation in the wake of death. Not only is receptivity to God's love diminished, but a healthy sense of purpose and a willingness to trust is shattered as well. It is relatively easy to rely on the habitability of the universe while loved ones thrive. It may feel effortless to maintain a buoyant spirit and a cheerful countenance when blessed with health, companion­ship, and prosperity. But with the death of a loved one, our facade of control dissolves into fantasy. Suddenly, the world we inhabit appears random at best, cruel or deceitful at worst.

Life no longer makes sense. Without conviction, without an affirmation of purpose or meaning, human life becomes impossi­ble.  When the psalmist says, “Were it not for the Lord, I would have perished," he is using biblical language to maintain that we cannot flourish in a random world. Chaos is the enemy of our abili­ty to thrive.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.