In Israel, when someone dies, we sit shiva. I will explain that in a minute.
However, you know that someone has died because a sign is posted for seven days at the home where they are grieving. Since most of Israel’s population dwell in apartments, the sign is often posted at the entrance to the building. It could be the deceased’s home or the home of an immediate relative. The sign looks like the image above.
This particular sign is written in the name of her family hung on our building door for the a few days in September. It said:
“With great regret and sorrow we are informing (people) of the death of my wife, our mother and grandmother. Underneath in larger letters is her name, and below that is information on the funeral, and even though it is written in the future tense, the funeral most likely took place just after the sign went up. Next, it lists the mourners, her husband’s name, the names of her son and two daughters as well as their spouses.
I have to admit I find these signs unsettling. For native-born Israelis, it is all they have.
But I don’t come from a culture where, when someone passes, you are confronted with a large black and white sign that screams at you: Someone has died! Someone has passed into Eternity!
First, I began to index my neighbors. Who died? Did I know them? Was it the English teacher on the 3rd floor, or maybe that strange older fellow on the 1st floor who once asked me to help him connect his speakers to his computer?
I don’t think it was Russian guy I see at the gym all the time. What if it was my neighbor Erica, a Holocaust survivor, or her husband? You see before I even have a chance to read the name, this massive sign has already injured my soul.
I look at the name—she’s a female. She has grandkids. Someone handwrote that they are sitting shiva on the first floor. I don’t recognize the name, but then again I don’t know the names of all the inhabitants of the sixteen units in my building. I conclude that I did not know her and they are sitting shiva at the home of one of her children.
What is Shiva?
Sitting Shiva is a seven-day mourning period immediately following the death of a loved one. Because a funeral in Judaism is supposed to be held within 24 hours, the shiva typically begins after the funeral. Shiva means seven. During this period, grieving family members wear a ripped peace of clothing to symbolize they are in mourning.
Friends and other relatives supply food and comfort during this week. It is considered a mitzvah (good deed) to visit a home in mourning during shiva. Prayer services are held at the home, and often neighbors will be drafted to come, no matter how religious or secular they are, in order to make up a minyan, a quorum of 10 adult (over 13) men—without which, you cannot have the prayer service. In the past, I have been asked to join.
When I wrote this in September, two floors below, a man had lost his wife. Three children buried their mother. And several grandchildren mourned the loss of their savta. And if not for the ominous sign downstairs, I would have no idea. If not for the sign, I never would have known about Chasiya Teller, beloved wife, mother and grandmother. I am sure she will be missed.
Ron Cantor is the director of Messiah’s Mandate Int’l in Israel, a Messianic Ministry dedicated to taking the message of Jesus from Israel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Ron also travels internationally teaching on the Jewish Roots of the New Testament. He serves on the pastoral team of Tiferet Yeshua, a Hebrew-speaking congregation in Tel Aviv. His newest book, Identity Theft, will be released on April 16th. Follow him at @RonSCantor on Twitter.