Low Seats and Covered Mirrors during Shiva
Understanding the Jewish Faith Traditions after the Death of a Loved One
In the Jewish tradition, after a loved one has been interred, certain family members will return home for a practice known as “sitting Shiva.” The word “Shiva” is Hebrew for “seven.” Accordingly, the mourners will sit Shiva for a period of seven days. In addition, there are seven family members who are required under Jewish law to sit Shiva: the deceased’s father, mother, spouse, son, daughter, brother and sister.
During the period of Shiva, the mourners are all expected to remain at the home. Among the many traditions that are an essential part of Shiva is the arrangement of the seating. The seating for family members is customarily either low stools/chairs or boxes, so that the immediate mourners are actually seated below the visiting mourners.
Another custom has mourners covering all the mirrors in the house of Shiva for the entire seven day period.
In this blog we look at the origins and meaning of these distinct Jewish mourning traditions.
The Seating of Mourners during Shiva
For many persons of Jewish faith, the Shiva tradition of seating immediate family members lower than others comes from the story of Job. Job suffered unspeakable loss as a test of his faith, including the deaths of family members. The actions of Job in response to his suffering inform some Jewish mourning practices.
In the second chapter of the book of Job, after Job had endured significant suffering, some of his friends came to console him. In Job 2:13, it says that they “sat to the ground” with Job for seven days and seven nights, being with him in his grief. The Talmud emphasizes that they sat “to the ground” and not “on the ground” during this period of mourning.
Others of the Jewish faith associate the custom of placing mourners with the actions of King David after he received a message that Absalom had slain all his sons. In II Samuel 13, it’s related that, upon hearing the news, King David “stood up and tore his clothes, and lay on the ground.”
The practice may also have its roots in the Talmud’s interpretation of words of the first book of Genesis. In verse 26, it states that God created man in his image or likeness. According to the Talmud, upon death, a person’s body is no longer in the image of God, essentially “turning over” to a new image or likeness. To symbolize that turning over, it was long the tradition in the Jewish faith to turn over chairs after the death of a family member and sit closer to the ground. Though the practice is generally not followed now, it was long the tradition for mourners to sit on low divans or chairs and then flip them over for the mourning period, not using them during that seven day period. Many scholars believe that, until modern times, the custom was to sit on the earth/ground during Shiva.
It is also believed that the custom of sitting below normal chair height indicates a departure from one’s normal life resulting from the death of a loved one. It also symbolically demonstrates that the mourner is in a low emotional state, one of sadness or depression. The physical act of sitting on a lower stool/chair/box can give the mourner a tangible and practical way to express the inner grief experienced at the death of a loved one. It is also believed by many to displace the mourner from his or her normal place of prominence, furthering the understanding that life and death are outside of human control and in the hands of God.
Honoring the Tradition
As reflected in practice, there is no one specific way that the custom of seating family members lower to the ground must be done. It may be on a mat, a footstool, a wooden stool, a hassock or even on pillows. There’s no requirement that the seating be uncomfortable—it’s permissible to put a cushion on the stool. In addition, it has generally been established that sleeping on a bed of normal height is acceptable. Furthermore, the tradition does not mandate that the mourner sit at all times, or even sit at all. A person may stand, lie down or walk around. When he or she does sit, though, it should be on a lower stool.
A person sitting Shiva is never required to rise out of his or her seat for any visitor, whether it’s a rabbi, scholar, government official or other dignitary. Mourners who have difficulty sitting, such as pregnant women, elderly family members or persons with health problems, may be allowed to sit on regular seats. Whenever possible, though, they should try to sit on the low seats when visitors come to comfort them.
The Covering of Mirrors during Shiva
As with the lowering of seats, there are many different beliefs regarding the origins and symbolism. For many, the custom is a reminder of the meaninglessness of vanity at the time of death.
There’s also a sense that, when a loved one dies, we tend to be unduly influenced by the voices inside our heads that tell us the we could have done more for the deceased, or could have had a better relationship with that person. It’s the intellectual or psychological equivalent of actually physically looking at ourselves, which is what we do when we look in a mirror. Many believe that, with the opportunity to consider ourselves in a mirror, we deprive ourselves of our opportunity to grieve the loss of a loved, choosing rather to put the emphasis on ourselves and our failings, instead of the deceased and his or her place in our life.
Easing Your Burden in Times of Loss
At Gutterman’s, we offer comprehensive and compassionate funeral home services to individuals and families in New York and Florida. For assistance after the death of a loved one, or to learn about the ways that we can be of service to you, call our offices at one of the numbers provided below. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist you.