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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Reprinted with permission from Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, edited by Jack Riemer (published by Schocken Books).

A few weeks ago, my community experienced an unusually high number of funerals within a short period of time. As a result, we endured the challenge and the trauma of providing several shiva minyanim [services with at least 10 Jews where the mourners may recite Kaddish, the memorial prayer] simultaneously. Fortunately, the congregation takes the mitzvah [commandment] of nichum aveilim [comforting mourners] seriously, so I didn't have to worry about whether or not enough people would attend the Ma'ariv [Evening] services going on simultaneously in so many homes.

 

What I did have to ponder was my own embarrassment while forced to lead a prayer service praising God in a place where God's love and power were so hidden, so missing. After all, each one of these homes sheltered families that had suffered the death of a beloved spouse, parent, or sibling. How could I expect these peo­ple to be willing to praise God's greatness, to extol God's power, or to express gratitude for God's goodness. Still aching from the pain of death and separation, these mourners could no longer view God as either benefactor or friend.

Perhaps it was just such a moment of rage and sorrow that orig­inally generated the Yiddish expression "if God lived on earth, all God's windows would get broken."

Yet it was precisely into those homes--homes filled with rage at God's impotence, homes tormented by an overwhelming aban­donment and isolation--that Judaism compelled me to stand and to sing of God's enduring love and incomparable power.

In a home that reeled from the loss of a wife and mother, one of its pillars of purpose, meaning, and identity--into that home I had to proclaim the continuing habitability of the universe, the benefi­cent purpose underlying God's creation.

And in homes ripped from communal moorings, uncertain of the continuing relevance of friends, community, or Jewish fellow­ship--into precisely those homes poured friends and congregants, awkwardly reciting the phrases and melodies of our timeless tradi­tion. Did this strange practice make any more sense to them than it did to me?

I, leading the prayers at the front of the minyan, represented the anomaly of God's love in a place bereft of love, of God's purpose in a home torn by the random cruelty of finitude and mortality, of God's covenanted community in a place isolated by loneliness.

Small wonder, then, at my embarrassment and discomfort. Leading the minyan of mourners in what could only feel like a "prayer of the absurd," forcing mourners to mouth words they would hardly mean, I, and they, needed to confront our puzzle­ment and frustration at a tradition that imposed this farce on me, this outrage on them. Despite the gap between the mourner's embittered frustration and the rooted piety of Jewish tradition, I and my congregants were obligated to bring our minyan, our prayers, and our presence to these hurting people. Why?

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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.