Jewish funeral traditions include a ritualized structure for working through grief after losing a loved one. This formal expression of grief is encouraged as a way to lead the grieving family through the varying mourning stages and back into society again.
Jewish tradition includes Shiva funeral practices among both Orthodox and Reform families. Keep in mind that many cultural influences play a role in the specific activities of mourning. Jewish families descending from different parts of the world will have unique customs and ceremonies that carry through the generations.
This article provides a brief overview of Jewish shiva practices, acknowledging that Jewish funeral traditions vary depending on the preferences and history of each family. The most important thing to know, if you are not familiar with the traditions below, is that it is about simply being there for the family. You don't need to be intimidated or worry that you'll do something wrong. Just showing up--whether in person as is traditional, or virtually as is sometimes needed in the current COVID-19 environment--is the most important part. Your participation will mean a lot to the family.
What is Shiva?
This period of intense mourning coincides with other Jewish burial traditions. The shiva meaning is literally “seven” – a period of seven days when a Jewish family has a formal mourning time to honor their loved one. According to Jewish law, individuals should sit shiva after losing a parent, spouse, sibling, or child.
During the traditional practices of sitting shiva, mourners stay home and hold a service each evening. Family members gather in one location to share this shiva experience, typically the home of the person being honored or another family member’s home.
What does sitting shiva mean? Orthodox Jewish families sit on the floor, stools, or boxes that are near the ground. The purpose is to provide a way to focus on the grieving process. The sit shiva meaning (often known as “sitting shiva” or “sitting shivah”) comes from the mourners being “brought low” after losing a loved one, which is why often the grieving family stays close to the floor. These sitting arrangements are noticeably uncomfortable to honor the significance of losing a loved one.
During shiva, it’s common for friends and family to visit the home to offer their condolences. Visitors bring food to the home to feed the mourners. Some families require Kosher foods, while others may not. Since bringing or sending food is something many people do, it's important to understand the family's preferences before deciding what to bring.
How Long is Shiva?
How long do you sit shiva? Traditionally, shiva lasts for seven days. It starts at the time of burial and lasts for the following week until the family moves into the seloshim or shloshim stage of mourning (which goes for 30 days).
The time of year and religious festivals can influence the length of shiva and seloshim. In modern Jewish practices, non-Orthodox families sometimes only observe shiva for 1 – 2 days.
It’s important to note the differences between shiva and seloshim. Shiva is a mourning period focused on the private needs of individuals, with families often in reclusion during this week. Seloshim continues the mourning, but it's a period when the grieving family members reenter the community.
What to Bring to Shiva?
During shiva, immediate family members wear a black button pin with a hanging ribbon. During the Jewish funeral ceremony, they cut the ribbon as a way to symbolize the emotions that come when losing a loved one. This tradition, known as k’riyah or kriah dates back to the period of King David, with ancient practices when the family would tear their collars as a symbol of grief.
Family members wear the torn ribbon or clothing for shiva. Orthodox or deeply traditional Jewish families wear this torn item for 30 days beyond shiva, during the seloshim stage of mourning.
Other items to bring to shiva include:
- Low Stools or Boxes: For the family to sit on during this time.
- Wash Pitcher: A pitcher of water is placed outside the door for mourners and visitors to wash their hands as a cleansing ceremony before entering the shiva house.
- Candle: When the mourning family returns to the home after burial, they light a candle and keep it burning for the traditional shiva period (seven days).
- Food: Round foods, such as hard-boiled eggs, lentils, and bread, symbolize the continuity of life.
- Mirror Coverings: While the family is at the cemetery, a friend or family member will cover all mirrors in the house. These mirrors remain covered during shiva, to encourage a time of self-reflection.
The immediate family members bring the preparatory items helping to prepare the shiva home. It’s not customary for other visitors to bring any items other than food for the family.
Sitting Shiva Rules and Etiquette
The specific rules and etiquette of shiva vary depending on the desires of the family. For example, Orthodox Jews follow sitting shiva etiquette more religiously than modern Jewish families. These are some of the standard rules and etiquette traditions of shiva:
- Front Door: The home where a family is sitting shiva is left unlocked to avoid unnecessary noises from knocking or doorbells. Visitors can enter the house quietly and peacefully without distracting from the mourning.
- Shoes: Family members in mourning remove their shoes and refrain from shoe-wearing during this time.
- Appearance and Grooming: Mourners don’t worry about their appearance or looks during this grieving period. Generally, mourners don’t wear makeup or dress in specific clothing. Mourning members of the family refrain from haircutting during this period of mourning. Also, men don’t shave during shiva.
- Meal of Consolation: The first meal, known as Seaudat Havra’ah, is served to the mourners when returning from the cemetery.
- Social Gatherings: The family stays at home as much as possible, avoiding all social and religious events. If a mourner decides to attend a religious ceremony, then they don’t participate in the festive meal after the ceremony.
- Entertainment: Mourners avoid all activities that are celebratory or pleasurable in nature, including movies and concerts. The goal is to minimize any distractions that might cause the mourners to lose focus from their healing.
- Work: Family members don’t work during the shiva period. Instead, they stay at home with the other mourners.
Condolence Calls When Sitting Shiva
In Jewish funeral tradition, the custom is to wait to make condolences until after the burial has occurred. The appropriate time to offer condolences starts after the burial, then continues through the week of sitting shiva.
The mourners generally don’t leave home during this time, so friends and family come for condolence calls. The goal is to provide a support system in the first days of grieving. The physical presence of the community is essential to healing. The family determines visiting hours which are often shared through social media or via email or other channels.
Condolence visitors come to the home and simply sit with the family. When sitting in the room with the mourners, the custom is to wait to speak until the mourner addresses you. After being acknowledged, you can offer words, a touch, a hug, or any other desired form of comfort.
One purpose of shiva is to honor the memories of a loved one. So, mourners will often share stories while the visitors listen to the memories. If you can’t attend shiva in person, then it is appropriate to send a note or card to the mourners.
Family Preferences and Customs
This article describes some of the most common traditions associated with sitting shiva, but the specific application of this time of mourning depends on each family's preferences. Cultural influences and various sects within the Jewish religion can also play a part in the mourning activities after burial. As such, friends and relatives should learn more about these grieving practices so you can honor the wishes of each family.
Shiva and COVID-19
The global pandemic has changed the way some families practice shiva, so it's important to check with whoever is coordinating to be sure you're following their wishes and safety protocols such as social distancing and wearing a mask where appropriate to in-person visits. Virtual shiva observances are also growing in popularity as travel and gatherings have been limited. If you'd like help organizing a virtual shiva or a virtual memorial service, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.