Everything You Need to Know About the Jewish Custom of Shiva
The psychological brilliance of Judaism is apparent in its carefully ritualized structure for dealing with grief. The open expression of sorrow is part of the process, even encouraged. Yet, beginning with the family’s arrival at home after burial, a process begins that leads the bereaved gently but firmly back to life and the world of the living.
The first stage in this gradual process of healing is called shiva. The period of shiva is intended to see mourners through the first days of intense grief and disorientation; Jewish tradition recognizes that grief continues long after shiva and offers additional rituals to support mourners beyond this initial period of grief.
What is the meaning of shiva?
Shiva is a Hebrew word meaning “seven” and refers to a seven-day period of formalized mourning by the immediate family of the deceased.
When did shiva originate?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) holds that the practice originated prior to the Flood, which is described in the story of Noah in Genesis.
The Rabbis of the Talmud cite Genesis 7:10 as the earliest instance of shiva: “And it came to pass, after the seven days, that the waters of the Flood were upon the earth.” The seven days, say the Rabbis, were a period of mourning for Methuselah, the oldest man who ever lived. In Genesis 50:10, the reference is made even more explicit. The text states: “And he [Joseph] mourned for his father [Jacob] for seven days.”
When does shiva begin?
Shiva begins immediately after the burial and concludes a short time after the morning service (Shacharit) seven days later.
Does everyone observe shiva for a full seven days?
Although historically, shiva is observed for a full week, some Jews choose to observe a shorter shiva period. It is the mourning family’s decision what shiva customs they wish to observe and for how long.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are times that shiva ends early. Some holidays interrupt the traditional timing for shiva. When certain holidays – Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover or Shavuot – fall during the shiva period, shiva concludes when the holiday begins, provided the mourners have already had time for shiva. Shiva does not conclude early for other Jewish holidays. Shiva is paused for Shabbat.
Where is shiva observed?
It is customary to observe shiva in the home of the deceased. If this is not possible, shiva may be marked in the home of an immediate family member or even a friend. Most important, the family should be together during this time.
For whom is shiva observed?
Jewish law historically cites observance of shiva for one’s parents, sibling, child, or spouse.
How does shiva begin?
Before mourners and friends enter the home, tradition prescribes that they first wash their hands ritually, using a pitcher of water and a basin outside the front door.
Why are the hands washed?
This custom is generally explained in one of four ways:
- When Jews buried their own dead, they washed their hands to prevent illness before returning home.
- In ancient times, when an individual died of mysterious causes, the inhabitants of that city often washed their hands at the cemetery, symbolically affirming they had not shed innocent blood.
- In later times, washing the hands became a ritual designed to wash off evil demons that some believed might have attached themselves at the cemetery.
- A final rationale for the practice was to cleanse oneself from the ritual impurity associated with death and the cemetery.
Although many Jews observe this hand-washing ritual, it is not a universal practice.
What happens next?
Upon entering the house, a member of the family generally lights a shiva candle, which generally is provided by the funeral home and which will burn for seven days.
When did the shiva candle originate?
Although many scholars feel that the custom originated in the 13th century, others hold that it emerged from the Italian kabbalists in the 17th century. Regardless of its beginnings, it is clear that the candle is intended to symbolize both the soul of the deceased and the Shechinah, the light of God’s presence. Scholars, in discussing this topic, often cite Proverbs 20:27: “The light of Adonai is the soul of man.”
Does Jewish tradition emphasize any physical changes in the house of mourning?
Yes. There are two customs in particular that bear examination:
- Boxes or low stools in place of, or in addition to, chairs
- The covering of all mirrors
What is the purpose of low stools?
It is customary for members of the immediate family to sit on low stools or boxes during the shiva period. Indeed, it is probable that this practice resulted in the expression “sitting shiva.” No one knows exactly how the custom originated. Many scholars cite Job 2:13, which, in relating the arrival of Job’s three friends to comfort him, says: “For seven days and seven nights they sat beside him on the ground.” Others trace it to II Samuel 13:31, in which King David is described as tearing his garments and laying himself on the ground in grief. Still others hold that we sit on stools to be closer to the ground and thus, symbolically, to our loved ones.
Whatever the exact beginnings of the custom, it has become almost universally accepted by Jews as a means of expressing grief and as a way to distinguish clearly this week of sorrow from everyday life.
Why are all mirrors covered?
There is no universal halachic (Jewish legal) prescription for covering mirrors. Wide acceptance of this custom, therefore, may lie in its sensitivity to a human reality.
Generally, mourners do not leave the home during shiva. Nor are they to shave, use makeup, or attempt to “look their best.” The custom of covering mirrors implicitly conveys to the grief-stricken individual that personal appearance simply does not matter now. In doing so, it tacitly removes any cause for embarrassment that mourners might feel.
While neither sitting on stools nor covering mirrors is central to mourning in Reform Judaism, some Reform Jews choose to include one or both practices in their personal observance.
Is it OK to visit the house of mourning, and if so, when?
Before burial, grief is so strong as virtually to preclude consolation by even the most well-meaning friend. Additionally, immediate family is often consumed with the practical arrangements of the burial and funeral. Accordingly, the appropriate time for a condolence call begins after interment during the shiva week.
Jewish scholars see the condolence call as an ancient custom. The Talmud (Sotah 14a), for example, teaches that consoling mourners was originally an act of God. This tractate cites Genesis 25:11, which states: “After the death of Abraham, God brought blessing to Isaac his son.” Thus, states the Talmud, just as Isaac was consoled by God’s presence, so too we are commanded to bring comfort to loved ones with our presence.
Many commentators cite Job 2:13 as the first instance of a condolence call, when Job’s three friends “sat down with him upon the ground…for they saw that his grief was very great.”
The Jewish value of nichum aveilim, or comforting the mourner, refers in part to the historical obligation to visit the house of mourning during the shiva period.
What happens during a shiva condolence call?
It is traditional not to knock or ring the doorbell, but rather just to enter a house of mourning, so as not to bother the mourners. Many do not observe this custom today, but it is a good idea to try the door before ringing the bell when paying a shiva call.
Upon entering the house of mourning, a member or friend of the family is often a greeter, bringing visitors into the living room or the room where the mourner is sitting. It is customary to wait to speak until after the mourner speaks. But, once you are acknowledged, all you need say is “I’m sorry.” That simple phrase, a touch, or a hug will mean more to the mourner than you can ever know.
Shiva is a time to reminisce, remember, and recapture memories of a loved one. As such, a focus of a condolence call is to listen to those memories that the mourner wishes to share or to talk about other subjects initiated by the mourner that may have nothing to do with his or her loss.
Shiva condolence calls do not need to be longer than 30 minutes. Supporting, listening, and responding to the mourner are primary goals.
Should we bring a gift or flowers?
No. Except for food, it is not customary to bring anything to the house of mourning. Again, just being present is the main objective. If you wish, you can be to make a donation to the deceased’s favorite charity or to a synagogue in his or her memory.
Is there food at shiva?
At the beginning of shiva, there is a meal called s’udat havraah, a Hebrew term that refers to the first meal served to mourners in the house of mourning upon returning from the cemetery. It is commonly known as the “meal of condolence.”
When did the s’udat havraah originate?
The first mention of the s’udat havraah occurs in the Talmud. It directs that the first meal after burial of a loved one must be provided by friends. The meal prepared by neighbors, relatives, and fellow congregants thus helps the mourner begin to accept life again.
What foods are served at the s’udat havraah?
The traditional meal of comfort usually includes lentils, hard-boiled eggs, and bread – all foods that in Judaism are associated with life. Often, this meal is a dairy meal if the family keeps kosher.
Why do we eat eggs?
Eggs are an obvious symbol of life. At the seder table on Passover, a joyous occasion, they are dipped in salt water to acknowledge that life sometimes brings tears and pain. And, at the s’udat havraah, a time of grief, we eat hard-boiled eggs to affirm hope in the face of death.
Why do we eat bread?
Bread is the staff of life in Judaism and, indeed, in virtually every major faith and culture. At a time of mourning, it is especially appropriate.
Is it permitted to have liquor at the s’udat havraah?
Yes. In fact, one Talmudic passage infers that it is praiseworthy for friends to provide mourners with wine. This teaching is based on Proverbs 31:6–7: “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul; let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more.” Of course, wine or liquor should be drunk in moderation and should not be used as an attempt to avoid the reality of bereavement or feelings of loss. The meal of consolation is a mitzvah (a sacred obligation), not in any way a social event.
May friends bring food to the house of mourning throughout shiva?
Yes. It is considered an act of great caring to free the family from everyday concerns during shiva. The beginning of shiva also offers friends an opportunity to express their sympathy through visits to the home. At the same time, those in mourning initiate a process that will ultimately lead them back to the world. This process involves many customs with a twin rationale: acceptance of death and a determination to return to life.
May we pay more than one condolence call during shiva?
Yes. Especially for those close to the deceased’s family, it is appropriate to come each day, particularly for the daily minyan, which is a central custom of shiva.
Will there be a religious service at the house of mourning?
It is customary for a daily service, known as a shiva minyan, to be held usually in the late afternoon or early evening. This brief service allows the mourners to recite the Kaddish, the prayer recited in memory of the deceased. This can also be a time for publicly sharing memories of the deceased. Sometimes, the mourners gather together for a meal following the brief service.
Can we visit mourners on Shabbat?
Since Jewish law prohibits sitting shiva on Shabbat, most people do not receive visitors during Shabbat (sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday).
What if we cannot be physically present during shiva?
It is proper and comforting to write a card or note if you cannot be present. If you were close to the deceased, mourners would usually also welcome a phone call. It can also be thoughtful to make a donation to the deceased’s favorite charity or to a synagogue in his or her memory.
How does a mourning family mark the end of shiva?
Some Jews find it meaningful to follow a Jewish custom to mark the end of shiva: a walk around the block. This can tenderly symbolize mourners’ slow reentry into the outside world. Friends and family can accompany mourners on this walk as a show of support.
Parts of this article were adapted from The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (Revised Edition), by Daniel B. Syme
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim is the program director for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Founders’ Fellowship. She lives in Charlotte, NC.
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