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Sitting Shiva

The psychological brilliance of Judaism is nowhere more apparent than in its carefully ritualized structure for dealing with grief. The open expression of sorrow is permitted, even encouraged. Yet, beginning with the family’s arrival at their home after burial, a process is set into motion 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.

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.

Where is shiva observed?

It is customary to observe shiva in the home of the deceased. Where this is not possible, shiva may be marked in the home of an immediate family member or even a friend. Most importantly, however, the family should be together during this time.

For whom is shiva observed?

Jewish law prescribes 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 in a ritualistic manner, using a pitcher of water and a basin outside the front door.

Why are the hands washed?

This custom originated out of superstition and is generally explained in one of three ways. In ancient times, when an individual died of mysterious causes, the inhabitants of that city often washed their hands at the cemetery, symbolically affirming that 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 third rationale for the practice was to cleanse oneself from the ritual impurity associated with death and the cemetery. While many Jews observe this ritual, it is not universal in practice.

What happens next?

Upon entering the house, a member of the family generally lights a shiva candle, which is almost always provided by the funeral home and which burns for seven days.

When did the shiva candle originate?

While many scholars feel that the custom originated in the thirteenth century, others hold that it emerged from the Italian kabbalists in the seventeenth century. Regardless of its actual beginnings, however, it is clear that the candle was intended to symbolize both the soul of the deceased and the Shechinah, the light of God’s presence. Scholars, in discussing the matter, often cite Proverbs 20:27: “The light of Adonai is the soul of man.”

Does Jewish tradition prescribe any physical changes in the house of mourning?

Yes. There are two customs in particular that bear examination:

  1. Boxes or low stools in place of, or in addition to, chairs.
  2. 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. Most 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, where 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 became almost universally accepted by Jews as a means of expressing grief and as a way of clearly distinguishing 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.

What is the meaning of s’udat havraah?

S’udat havraah is a Hebrew term referring 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 to 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.

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, 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.

The Jewish Home (Revised Edition) by Daniel B. Syme