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Guidelines for sitting Shiva

The Jewish Tradition for Grieving and Healing after the Death of a Loved One

In the Jewish tradition, in the days following the death of a loved one, it’s customary to observe “Shiva,” a seven-day period of formal mourning, involving certain family members. This blog looks at the basic guidelines for “sitting Shiva.”

What Is Shiva?

The term “Shiva” comes from the Hebrew for “seven.” Though it’s perhaps the best known of the stages of mourning in the Jewish faith, it’s actually the third of five stages. It lasts for seven days and is intended to be the time when mourners talk about their loss and receive/accept the comfort of others. Shiva is mandatory for specific family members, including the spouse, parents, children and siblings of the deceased. Shiva typically begins immediately after the burial and ends shortly after the Shacharit service on the morning of the seventh day.

The Traditions and Guidelines for Shiva

The tradition is to sit Shiva in the home of the deceased, though it’s not necessary. If that home is not available or practical, Shiva customarily takes place at the home of a friend or immediate family member. At the commencement of Shiva, when family members arrive, it’s traditional for those sitting Shiva to wash their hands and dry them with disposable towels. At that point, a family member lights a candle (the Shiva candle), which stays lit for the entire seven-day period.

It’s traditional for those sitting Shiva to refrain from going to work, leaving the Shiva home or participating in the normal routines of their lives. The family members in the Shiva home will typically spend some time each day in prayer and mourning together, and will also welcome visitors who wish to express their condolences or share in mourning. There are a number of specific rituals that are followed:

Guidelines for Those Sitting Shiva

  • Prohibited acts—Under Jewish law, those sitting Shiva are expressly prohibited from engaging in a number of activities, including:
    • Leaving the Shiva home, except to attend synagogue on Shabbat
    • Shaving or cutting hair
    • Bathing (though basic hygiene is allowed)
    • Wearing leather shoes
    • Wearing any new clothing—many mourners will tear an article of clothing (the keriah) prior to Shiva and wear that same article of clothing for the entire seven days
    • Going to work or engaging in business pursuits
    • Engaging in study that gives pleasure (including any reading from the Bible other than Job, Lamentations or some parts of the book of Jeremiah)
    • Using cosmetics
    • Participating in any type of festivity
  • The covering of mirrors—During Shiva, all mirrors in the Shiva house are covered, so that mourners focus their attentions on the deceased, rather than themselves.
  • Seating on stools or low boxes—It’s also traditional for those sitting Shiva to sit on low boxes or stools as a sign of their loss.
  • The meal of consolation—The first meal at the Shiva house is called the Seudat Havra’ah—the meal of condolence. It’s customarily provided by friends and family members other than those sitting Shiva. The food provided is generally associated with life in the Jewish tradition, and typically includes hard-boiled eggs, bread and lentils.

Guidelines for People Visiting a Shiva House

There are also traditions for guests in a Shiva home:

  • The custom for entering a Shiva house—It’s traditional to leave the front door to a Shiva home unlocked, so that guests may enter quietly on their own. Those sitting Shiva do not meet and greet visitors at the door. You may be asked to remove your shoes as you enter. In addition, you may find a pitcher of water outside or inside the home, so that you can wash your hands before coming in, though it’s typically not a requirement. When you enter, simply take a seat and wait for family members to approach you (if they choose to). Once you have been acknowledged, it’s permissible to express your sympathy, but it’s best to keep your comments short, simply expressing your condolences. Shiva is primarily a time for you to listen, but you may want to briefly share a positive memory with a family member.
  • The dress code for a Shiva visit—The most important thing to remember about your dress—be respectful. It’s better to err on the conservative side. Men should wear long pants and women are best advised to wear long skirts and long-sleeved shirts. It’s certainly proper to wear a yarmulke or a kippah, and many families will actually make some available to you as you come in.

Let Gutterman’s Assist You in Your Time of Bereavement

At Gutterman’s, we have provided funeral and burial services to individuals and families for more than 125 years, serving individuals and families in New York and Florida. We know that grief and mourning don’t stop because of a pandemic, but we respect the social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines necessary to safeguard our health. We are available by phone, text message or videoconference to help you after the death of a loved one, but are not currently having any services in our chapels or in synagogues. To learn how we can help, call us at one of the numbers below. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.