In the Jewish tradition, immediately upon the burial of a loved one, some family members may choose to observe a traditional period of grief and mourning referred to as “sitting shiva.” This means to mourn seven (shiva, in Hebrew) days, although some people may choose to mourn fewer days. During this time, family members traditionally gather in one home and receive visitors. It is considered a great mitzvah, or commandment, of loving-kindness and compassion to pay a home visit to the mourners.
To help you feel comfortable paying a “shiva call,” that is, visiting someone in mourning in their home during this time, this article will be divided into two parts. Part one is a list of customs and traditions that you may see and encounter in a house of shiva, or mourning. The second part is a list of suggestions and recommendations of social protocol, such as how to behave, what to say, and what to bring to a shiva. For where to order items for a shiva as well as more information about mourning, visit our partners at shiva.com. If you are looking for information on mourning the loss of a Jewish loved one when you are not Jewish, view our informational booklet here.
It is important to note that all Jews do not mourn alike. Some people may choose to observe the rites and customs of mourning very meticulously as a form of spiritual support during their time of grief, even if they are not very religiously observant in their everyday lives. Others may observe only some of these customs and be more relaxed and creative in their observance. In either case, this article will briefly touch on a wide range of traditional customs so as to provide you with as broad a background as possible.
This video is a companion to this resource, created by BimBam:
What to Expect in a House of Shiva
It may be surprising for a visitor to discover a house of shiva well stocked with food, drinks and cakes. The week of shiva is not only about remembering and honoring the dead, but is also intended to sustain and celebrate the on-going cycle of life. Mourners are not expected to play host for their guests; therefore, visitors often bring substantial meals and food for the family and guests alike. In fact, the first meal upon returning from the cemetery is called in Hebrew the seudat ha’vra’ah, which means, “the meal of healing.” While most mourners may not feel like cooking or eating, it is the responsibility of the community to ensure their physical well-being and make sure there is enough food on-hand for both mourners and well-wishers.
In addition to talking and eating, a house of shiva traditionally includes regular prayer services. Many Jewish communities and synagogues often arrange for daily worship services to be held in the house of shiva so as to provide an opportunity for the mourners to recite the Kaddish. The Kaddish is an ancient prayer in Aramaic, a sister language of Hebrew spoken by Jews in antiquity, and is recited in memory of the deceased. The Kaddish can be recited everyday, three times a day, throughout the week of mourning and beyond, depending upon the relationship to the deceased. When a parent passes, it is traditional for the children to recite the Kaddish for an entire year, long after the period of shiva concludes.
What to Say and Not to Say at a Shiva House
Hopefully, you will not feel so uncomfortable in a house of shiva that you end up avoiding speaking with those in mourning. Similarly, do not feel that you have to spend all of your time speaking with the mourners. It is appropriate to bring children to a house of shiva; it is appropriate to eat the cakes and pastries available, and it is also acceptable to talk with other guests and socialize. While making a shiva call is not an occasion to party, the atmosphere should not be one of complete deferential silence of hushed whispers. A house of shiva should have an air of a family gathering albeit for a solemn reason, but it should also be a house in which, despite the presence of death, life continues.
What to Send or Bring to a Shiva
If you plan to pay a shiva call, arrange to bring some food to the home instead of flowers (see below). If the family observes the traditional laws of keeping kosher, inquire as to where you might be able to purchase some prepared and packaged kosher bakery items.
Instead of flowers, it is traditional for those wishing to express their condolences to make charitable contributions to causes and organizations which were important to the deceased. The reasoning behind this custom is that while flowers may beautify a gravesite or home for a few days, a monetary contribution to a worthy organization supports ideals and actions in the real world that honor the charitable intentions of the deceased. Families often announce such charities at a funeral, in which case it is appropriate to send a contribution in the honor of the deceased. Such organizations often send a card to the mourners acknowledging your gift so your contribution will not go unappreciated.
If you cannot make a shiva call in person, it is also appropriate to send a card or write a letter because the most important gift that you can provide to a friend in grief is your presence. It can be very meaningful to a friend to know that you took the time to remember them and cared enough to contact them in a time of need. And if you are able to visit in person, it does not matter what you say or bring, only that you cared enough to be there for them. To order food to bring or send to a shiva, visit shiva.com.