Why do we cover mirrors in the house of mourning?

    January 2010            
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Covering the Mirror in the House of Mourning

By Nachum Mohl

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.


from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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