Knowing that your father has just passed away I thought it would be timely to ask about the mirrors in a house of mourning. I recall the practice of covering all the mirrors in the house from my childhood, when my parents sat shiva for relatives. Where does this practice come from, why do we do it, and is it still practiced?
For an hour or so during the Shabbat morning of shiva, I was charged with the watching of our grandchild as his tired jet-lagged-East-Coast mother took a nap and the rest of the family was in synagogue. At a bit of a desperate moment of having exhausted many an entertainment option, I plunked little Ilan down in front of a full-length mirror, the bottom of which did not get covered as it should have been. As I watched him curiously consider his image, it never occurred to me that this odd juxtaposition of the week of shiva for my father, of blessed memory, who lived till the beautiful old age of 93, and this fetching, little gazing 10-month-old, was a hint as to why mirrors are indeed covered in a Jewish house of mourning. More on this later, but first the basics.
During the week of shiva, I, along with most mourners, had the opportunity to revisit, discuss and learn about the host of rituals that are part of the Jewish customs of mourning. Most would agree there is a tremendous amount of sense and practicality about the Jewish way in death. In the case of covering mirrors, there is much meaning to the symbolism.
The basic practice is that as soon as mourning begins for a loved one who has passed away, the mirrors in the home are covered. According to Jewish law, there are seven relatives for whom one officially mourns: Father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter and spouse. It is for these that one observes shiva and then additional mourning of 30 days, and for parents only, a full year. Some practices are pretty self-explanatory: Tearing clothes, sitting low to the ground, not wearing leather, not offering greetings, not studying Torah — all resonate with shades of sorrow. Does this practice of mirror covering fit in this category as well? It just might. We are sad and therefore not inclined to vainly pretty-up. But there seems to be more.
Some suggest the mirror is a cynical instrument. It reflects only what it sees in the immediate present. It has no memory and no skill for anticipating the future. Cover the mirror. We wish to distance ourselves from such behavior; we hope to remember the person who has died and treasure him or her well into the future.
We are not the only ones to have this practice. Far be it for me to attempt a “who came first” on this one. Many cultures have the practice of covering mirrors upon a death in the family. It is attributed to Irish, Italians, to the Victorian age, to Germany, Belgium, England and France. For some, the basic explanation is similar to our most prevalent explanation: That is, that the mirror draws attention to one’s self and the time of mourning is a time to focus on the individual who has passed — not on our own particular narcissistic diversions.
But for some, the explanation is more of the paranormal, Snow White variety: “Mirror, mirror on the wall!” Mirrors are seen as a portal to the afterworld, to spirits and ghosts on “the other side.” Some were wont to conjure up souls by divining through mirrors and feared being swept away by a returning soul still roaming about who through the mirror might draw a live soul into the netherworld. For this reason the mirrors are covered so as to stymie these activities.
Yet the fundamental reason, sensible though it is, would be enough: Our tradition has recorded a number of other perspectives with further layers to this conversation. Some offer a matter-of-fact, utilitarian explanation. Mirrors are covered because prayers are usually recited in a house of mourning and one may not pray in front of a mirror.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in the chapter, “Sitting Shiva is Doing Teshuvah” in Reflections of the Rav, cites the Talmud Moed Katan’s exhortation that “a mourner is obligated to overturn his bed” as the precursor to the modern-day practice of covering the mirrors. In Talmudic times it was the practice to turn one’s bed upside down during the week of shiva. On one hand, this would preclude the sitting on the bed, which is forbidden. We are to sit low during shiva. But on the other hand, it evokes the idea that new souls are drawn into this world in the bed of mother and father, the bed being the agent of the procreative process. With the passing of one of these links we realize our human failure at perhaps not living up to the mission of being a bridge in the tradition being passed from parent to child. He writes:
Overturning the bed was later replaced by turning the mirrors to the wall or covering them. The symbolism is the same as the turning of the bed, namely that our image is not as lustrous as it should be. The period of mourning suggest human failure and covering the mirror is a form of vidui, confession.
Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein elaborates on this teaching: Death is the antithesis to birth. In mourning, therefore, we mourn not only a specific person but also the loss of “demut deyukani” — the image of God, now defeated with death. We mourn the loss of the human-Divine image, and therefore we must conceal it and overturn the place where it is seen: The mirror.
Rabbi Maurice Lamm, in his book Consolation, The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief, suggests that covering mirrors addresses a primitive fear — the fear of becoming invisible. As we mourn, we inevitably begin to think about ourselves. Funny thing about we humans, it seems to always be about: Me!
This drama of vanishing calls our very existence into question. And well it should. We are not here forever; one generation comes and another passes. The covered mirror tells the tale.
“Covering the mirror helps us confront our fears in both directions: that it is real in a sense that life will go on without us and that it is unreal that each of us does make a difference.”
On one hand, we are not here forever; on the other, a life well-lived is remembered.
One personal reflection: After a week of not seeing myself I pulled down the paper and took a good hard look. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I am still here. There I am. I have survived this deeply sad experience of losing my father.”
But there is more. There is my little grandson, Ilan, plunked in front of the mirror. The challenge for each of us after the passing of a parent is to figure out the puzzle, of “What now?” Jacques Lacan, French psychoanalyst theorist of the “mirror stage,” had noticed babies first become cognizant of themselves and their own image at about the age of 6 months, when they recognize themselves in the mirror. This mirror stage is a decisive turning point in the mental development of the child. It’s no accident we cover our mirrors as we face death. This Jewish mourning practice of giving ourselves a break in looking at the mirror demands of each of us to look anew at our own image, to ask ourselves, who are we now that a generation is past?