A year or two ago, the cantor of our synagogue gave a class on how to lead a shiva minyan, which is a prayer service for a person who has died. Usually, it is held in the home of a loved one. The word shiva means “seven,” and traditionally a family will observe shiva for even days, but in the Reform world, families often don’t observe the full seven days.
The class was taught in a matter-of-fact way, almost as if there’s a science to it. Since that time, I have lead several shiva services, and I’m beginning to learn that once you have the basics down, it’s more of an art.
Although we, as shiva leaders, need to know how to chant the prayers in Hebrew, it helps to be sensitive to the fact that many of the participants in the service (and we do want them to participate, not just observe), are not well versed in Hebrew. This is because, often, non-Jewish friends of the family come to the service, and, sadly, some Jews are not completely literate in regard to the prayers.
Therefore, I have learned that it’s helpful to ask a family member, before the service starts, whether they think most of the participants will know the Hebrew prayers. If not, I ask the family member their preference regarding how much Hebrew or English to use.
If it isn’t practical to have this conversation with the family before the service, I start in Hebrew. I have learned to keep an ear out for how many folks are joining in. I can then adjust, and use more English, if it would allow more people to participate.
Another thing they didn’t mention in class is that not everyone knows which way north is. This matters because when we stand and pray, we face east, toward Jerusalem. I have a reasonably good sense of direction, but if I’m going somewhere new and especially if there is a windy road, I can easily lose track of which way is which. So now I carry a trusty compass in my car, which I can check before I enter a house, so I have a good idea of which way to face.
Once I know which way is east, I know that is where I want to be during the service, with the participants facing me. This is where my training for my Master’s Degree in Organizational Behavior comes in. One thing they drilled into our heads is, “Take charge of the room.” What this means is that it’s very helpful if I can arrive early enough to influence how the room is set up, so the participants will already be facing east, if possible.
In class, we practiced saying the prayers, but we didn’t talk much about what, if anything, to say in between the prayers. That’s a skill I’m developing now. I find that when many of the participants aren’t Jewish, it’s helpful for me to explain a little bit about Judaism and what the prayers are about as we go along.
Regardless, it’s always helpful to say something about the person being mourned, especially if I knew him or her, and can say something specific. Even if I can’t, I find it’s helpful and appreciated if I add some things like, “When we say the V’ahavta and pray about loving God, you may want to think about (the name of the deceased) and how much s/he loved you.”
Then there is the part where we pause and ask people to tell short stories about the person who died. The trick here is to be comfortable with silence. Some people are shy or uncomfortable speaking in front of groups, but if you are patient and wait long enough, eventually someone will talk. Then, others will follow.
One time, I was afraid I would have the opposite problem. One person said something, which prompted someone else to ask a question, and soon, the two people were talking back and forth. On one hand, I wanted to remind them this isn’t a conversation, but one of the people was the son of the person being mourned, and I wanted to give him the space to say what he wanted to say. Fortunately, the back-and-forth didn’t last long, and then a couple of other people told short stories before I thanked them and continued with the service.
I’m sure there are plenty of things I still don’t know about leading a shiva minyan, and I bet there are more surprises ahead. Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know what happens.