Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Leading My First Shiva Minyan

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last night I led my first shiva minyan. It was exhausting.

The word “shiva” means “seven.” For the first seven days after someone close to them has been buried, a family stays at home and observes a number of practices. One practice is to hold prayer services in their home. The prayer service requires a “minyan,” or a group of ten or more Jews.

Last year the Cantor offered a class on leading a shiva minyan. We have a large congregation, and often there can be more than one or two deaths in a week, so it’s hard for the clergy to be able to do all the shiva services. I attended the class, and my name was added to the list of people who can help do this.

I also was able to get some experience leading Tuesday morning services. The morning service is longer and more involved than a shiva service, so between that experience and the shiva minyan class, I should have felt fully prepared.

However, walking into the mourner’s house last night I felt completely unprepared. I was ready to do the actual service itself, but somehow I hadn’t expected everything else that goes on around it.

First, I hadn’t expected people to come to me for advice. One woman asked me where she could find a support group of people who are faced with ailing parents. I was able to point her to Jewish Family Services, but I wished I had a list of support groups with me.

Before the service I spoke with the sons of the women who died, and one of them asked how long the service would be. What popped into my head was, “I have no idea – I’ve never done this before.” I didn’t want to tell them this was my first time. However, there are some portions in the prayer book we can say or leave out, so I asked them whether they would like a full service or an abbreviated one.

Later, one of them asked, “Did you start to do this after your father died?” and I said, “Technically, yes” since that was true without admitting this was my first one.

I also found that the sons were looking for my approval. I kept thinking, “I’m not a rabbi. Who am I to approve or not?” but they needed me to tell them it was okay that many of their friends and family don’t speak Hebrew, and it’s okay that the funeral earlier that day was hard so they didn’t want to talk about their Mom again during the service that night, and it’s okay if they don’t want me to go through the whole prayer book. They were relieved by my assurances, but being the person to give them those assurances felt heavy.

Then the service started, and it was too hot. I was wearing a blazer, which I should have taken off. I could feel my face getting red, and I was starting to sweat, but I didn’t want to interrupt the service to take off the blazer. I hoped my appearance wasn’t too distracting.

We got to haskiveinu, which is a lovely song about God spreading a shelter of peace over us. I explained the meaning of the song, and suggested those present think about sending thoughts of peace to the mourners.

Then I started singing, and realized that only one or two other people knew the song, so it was virtually a solo. I know full well the song is too high for my voice, but usually when we get to the high part nobody can hear me because I sing softly and my voice is covered by everyone else. No such luck here. My voice was shaking anyway, I got to the high part and my voice cracked like I knew it would, and I just pressed on.

At the end I was hoping it wasn’t too awful. I thanked everyone for coming, and to my surprise a couple of people thanked me for leading the service, and said I did a good job.

I spoke with a friend about it afterward; particularly about why it was so exhausting. She pointed out that when you’re in a situation where you have to be hyper aware of what is going on around you, and adjusting what you’re saying and doing to fit what you’re seeing and hearing, it takes a lot of energy.

So although the next time I lead a shiva minyan it may not be less tiring, at least next time I think I’ll feel more prepared.


  1. I've been reading your blog for a few months and this latest posting really bothers me. What did you expect was going to happen? You're a rabbi, why AREN'T you prepared? Shiva is one of the basic lifecycle events; did you sleep in on the morning they were teaching that lesson?

  2. Anonymous -

    Thanks for reading my blog. I am not a rabbi, nor am I in rabbinic school. I was completely prepared for the service itself. I was just a little surprised that people who I think of as peers were coming to me for advice on other things, and asking my permission for things.

    Now I realize that in agreeing to lead the service I'm being viewed as an authoritative leader, and I'll be much more prepared for that the next time.

    But once again, I am not a rabbi.

  3. Bravo to you Susan! It's a great Mitzvah what you are doing. One never reallys knows what to expect ever when you encounter a grieving family....Everyones grieves differently. I would certainly carry a small notebook to make notes and carry a list of support groups, etc. This notebook will become invaluable to you in the future. Keep up the your good works.

  4. I love this blog very much and I think it's very interesting, just because living a Jewish life in the US is not so simple. Adore reading every post. Thanks for being sincere here and for sharing every emotion.

  5. Susan,
    You performed a great Mizvah and it sounds like you were able to provide the family EXACTLY what they needed... compassion and assurance and emotional support. No experienced Rabbi could have done it any better than you did. Indeed, after leading dozens and dozens of shiva minyans, i imagine some might become less motivated to be as accomodating as you were. G-d bless you! -CJH