What Is Shiva? | What Specific Customs Are Observed?
In the Jewish faith, after the death of a loved one, it’s customary for certain family members to participate in ritual periods of mourning that may last anywhere from a week to a year. The first such tradition, which begins immediately after the burial ceremony, is called the shiva.
What Is Shiva?
In Hebrew, the word “shiva” translates to “seven.” Accordingly, the shiva period last for seven days. Under Jewish law, first-degree relatives must engage in the week-long period of mourning. That includes parents, spouses, children and siblings.
During the period of shiva, mourners traditionally stay at the designated shiva home, refraining from going to work or school, or other outside activities. Other restrictions are also typically practiced by mourners, including shaving, bathing for pleasure, wearing leather shoes or cleaning their clothes. Mourners are also customarily prohibited from going to parties or festive occasions during shiva, or from listening to secular music or enjoying any type of entertainment. Some traditions also ban the study of the Torah during shiva, except for passages related to mourning.
Prayer services are conducted at the shiva house each of the seven days. Those mourners present during these services will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
How is a House Prepared for the Shiva?
The first-degree mourners who stay at the shiva house will generally be seated for most of the mourning period. Accordingly, to prepare the house, pillows may be put on the floors or the family may bring in low stools or benches. It’s customary to cover all mirrors in the house and to light a candle (the yahrzeit candle), which will burn for the entire week. A water basin and towel will often be placed outside the door, so that mourners may ritually wash their hands before entering.
Prayer books may be placed prominently in the home for the daily prayer services. The doors to the home are left unlocked, so that visiting mourners may come and go without disturbing the family. A condolence book is traditionally placed at or near the entrance to the home.
Guidelines for Visiting a Shiva Home
Paying a visit to a shiva home is, in the Jewish tradition, an important act of condolence. Individual shivas may differ in some ways, but there are general guidelines that can help you make certain you respect the tradition:
- Though shiva is a religious ritual, attendance is not limited to members of the Jewish faith. Be careful, though, to determine in advance when the shiva will be open to those outside the immediate family.
- When you arrive at the shiva home, don’t knock or ring the doorbell—just walk in
- First-degree family members will typically be seated on low stools/chairs or on the floor, with regular chairs facing them. Take a seat in one of those chairs, but don’t initiate conversation. Wait until the mourner speaks to you. Be a listener, rather than a talker. All conversation should be directed only to mourners. Any socializing with other visitors should be done outside. It’s okay to share a story about the deceased, but often the best and only thing you need to say is “I am sorry for your loss.”
- You don’t have to wear black to a shiva house, but your attire should always be respectful.
- Keep your visit short—It’s not how long you stay, but that you pay the visit. Fifteen minutes or less is fine and don’t ever stay more than an hour, unless asked by a first-degree family member to do so.
What to Bring and What Not to Bring to a Shiva House
It’s contrary to Jewish tradition to send flowers to the family after the death of a loved one or to bring flowers to a shiva home. The most common gift is food, as the mourners will typically not be preparing any of their own meals during shiva. Among the most common types of food are:
- Shiva platters (New York or Florida)-These typically contain an assortment of deli items, fruit and nuts, pastries and baked goods, and other specialties.
- Baked goods and desserts (New York or Florida), such as bagels, cookies and rugelach
- Chocolates and sweets (New York or Florida), including pretzels, truffles and candies
- Dried and fresh fruit and assorted nuts (New York or Florida)
Another meaningful way to remember a loved one is to plant a tree in their memory, providing both spiritual and often physical nourishment for generations to come. It has been a Gutterman’s tradition for many years to plant a tree on behalf of a Gutterman’s client and you can join us here through our friends at shiva.com and the Jewish National Fund.
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