why do you cover mirrors during shiva
Can you shed some light on the custom of covering mirrors in a house of mourning? I was told that after the funeral of an immediate relative, we cover all mirrors in the home for the seven days of mourning. I have heard that the reason is that we are not supposed to adorn ourselves while in mourning, but I am looking for a deeper explanation. The Kabbalists give a more spooky reason for covering mirrors in a house of mourning. They write that all types of evil spirits and demons come to visit a family in mourning. When a soul leaves this world, it leaves a void, an emptiness that is prone to be filled by dark forces. This is because wherever there is a vacuum, negativity can creep in. And so the house of mourning, the place where the loss is felt the most, is a magnet for evil spirits. These demons cannot be seen by the naked eye. But when looking in a mirror, you may catch a glimpse of their reflection in the background. And so we cover the mirrors in a house of mourning because we donвt want to be alarmed by seeing these demonic visitors. Before we dismiss this idea as mythical nonsense, letвs try to understand it in terms we can relate to. Perhaps the idea of evil spirits can be interpreted on a psychological level: evil spirits can be thought of as inner demons. The ghosts that visit a mourner are regret, guilt and anger. When people who are grieving take a hard look at themselves in the mirror, they often feel that they didnвt do enough for the departed, or that they didnвt say all they wanted to say, or that there are some loose ends, some unfinished business.
Even if this is not really the case, even if they were exemplary sons or daughters, parents or spouses or siblings, our minds tend to play tricks, and we agonize over what could have been. These thoughts are the evil spirits that haunt the grieving, giving them no rest. So we cover the mirrors. We donвt want to look at those dark figures lurking behind us in the mirror. At a time of such raw emotion, when the loss is fresh and the heart is volatile, there is no room for harsh self-judgment. If there are unresolved issues, there will be time to deal with them later. But in the week immediately following the loss, we focus on the loss itself. The grieving process takes us on a bumpy journey of many mixed emotions. Every emotion needs its time to be felt. But in the midst of that bumpy ride, we are not in a position to judge ourselves fairly. Taking a long hard look at ourselves in the mirror is often a valuable exercise. But it has to be done when there are no ghosts lurking in the background.
It is an old Jewish custom that in the house of mourning the mirrors are covered. This tradition is generally scrupulously observed by most mourners from all of the religious spectrum, yet the purpose of this custom is rarely understood.
We will find that in the reason for this custom a very deep and important lesson is given to the mourner and for us also. First let us understand the normal usage of a mirror. Why does a person use a mirror? Normally it is to see his or her reflection in it. We use the mirror to check our appearance to see how we look so that we may look pleasing to others. A mirror is more than just a symbol of vanity, it is an object that focuses on the most external aspect of a person. When we look into a mirror it is because we are concerned with our external appearance. Life is really supposed to be concerned with our internal essence. How we look: the shape of our nose, the color (or amount) of our hair, etc, has been given to us by our Maker. We really have very little control over that. What we are, what we are doing and what we have done is what we are really about and on that we do have some ability to shape our life. When people must sit shiva in the house of mourning they are in essence paying their respects to the deceased. Shiva is a week that is given over to mourning the deceased. We do not work during that week; we do not indulge in luxuries. We reflect on the merits and deeds of the person who died. What we are mourning is not the externalities of the person, the way the person looked, the way the person dressed but the essential person.
We miss the distinct personality characteristics of this person, how he/she acted and how he/she related to us. We recall the special qualities that the deceased had and of our relationship with him/her. When we sit shiva we try to concentrate on the inner person who is no longer with us not on the external appearance of the deceased. As we begin to remind ourselves of this special aspect of the deceased and we reminiscence about the person we bring that fine and unique aspect of the dead person into our personality in a miniscule manner. We activate the desire that we should too acquire this positive character quality and that it should not disappear with the passing of this person. As we recall the particular fine qualities of this person we assimilate a small part of that person into our essence too. We live in a world that is obsessed with externalities. Appearance is touted as the key to success; driving the correct automobile gives others the message that we possess a certain character (which we unfortunately strive to obtain). We have developed into a society that pushes external manifestations of achievement over the actual achievement itself. Much of what is done in today's society is geared to impress either the girls, the men, the boss, the relatives, or just the neighbors.
We are constantly being subject to advertisements, to television programs, to merchandising that is pushing the external manifestations of success. Is success in life really purchasing a fancy and expensive sports car? Is success making it and being seen with a beautiful girl? Is success in life having much money? Or is success really dependent on the perfection of the human personality and accompanying character traits. When we sit shiva, we don't focus on the automobile that the deceased drove, nor on the clothing that he/she wore. We try to focus on the good that the person accomplished in his/her life. We speak about the help that the deceased rendered to needy people. We talk about the special character qualities that made his or her personality unique. The mirror is all about the opposite of this. The mirror is all about focusing on ourselves. The mirror is for emphasizing our external being. The mirror is almost the opposite of the purpose of life. Therefore it is only fitting that the mirrors be covered up in the house of the mourners. This is a message that we can take with ourselves far beyond the borders and limitations of the house of mourning. This is a important message that should be taken with us from the house of mourning into the real world. This concept is the essence of life and is ironically to be found in the house of death.
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