Why Do Jews Sit Shivah for Seven Days?
Why is the traditional Jewish mourning period, shivah, seven days long? (I know that shivah means “seven” in Hebrew, but I’m asking why it’s specifically for seven days.)
The Historical Precedent
Mourning for seven days is an ancient custom that predates the giving of the Torah. We read in Genesis that when Jacob passes away, his son Joseph “[makes] for his father a mourning of seven days.”
And even earlier in history, before the Great Flood, G‑d tells Noah, “In another seven days, I will make it rain upon the earth . . .” Why the delay? The sages of the Talmud explain that G‑d was waiting for the end of the seven days of mourning for Noah’s grandfather, the righteous Methuselah.
Why seven days?
The Talmud explains that just as when it comes to rejoicing during the main holidays of Passover and Sukkot, the Torah commands us to rejoice for seven days, so too when it comes to mourning, we mourn for seven days. The connection between the two is alluded to in the verse in Amot in which G‑d warns, “I will turn your feasts into mourning.”
Although there are clear biblical sources for the idea of mourning for seven days, many are of the opinion that mourning the full seven is actually an enactment from Moses. The Jerusalem Talmud declares that “Just as Moses enacted seven days of rejoicing after marriage (Sheva Brachot), so, too, he enacted seven days of mourning (shivah).”
Souls Mourn Too
It’s not just the person’s relatives who mourn for seven days. The Talmud tells us that the soul of a person mourns over its own body for seven days as well. Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555–1631), known as the Maharsha, explains that the soul mourns the fact that the body learned Torah and did mitzvahs in partnership with it, and yet the body’s fate is to be buried in the earth, while the soul soars to the heavens.
On a Mystical Note
This mourning is not to last. We are actually prohibited from mourning for more than the allotted seven-day period, for we believe that death is only temporary. Ultimately, our bodies and souls will be reunited when G‑d will resurrect the dead.
The mystics explain that, in general, the number seven is a complete unit of time that symbolizes the natural order of things (e.g., we have seven days of the week and a seven-year Shemittah cycle). The number eight, however, corresponds to that which is higher than the natural order (which is why circumcision is done at eight days).11 This concept of “eight,” that which is beyond nature, will be revealed during the ultimate redemption and the resurrection of the dead. As the Prophet Isaiah declares, “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord G‑d will wipe away tears from all faces.”12 May it be speedily in our days!
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