“You Shall Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

Understanding the Jewish Tradition of Shiva

In the Jewish faith, the death of a loved one is followed by specific periods of mourning.  

The first such period, known as shiva, begins immediately after the burial ceremony and lasts seven days.

During this time, close family members observe certain customs and rituals to honor the deceased and process their grief.

This article delves into the intricacies of Shiva, its customs, and the guidelines for visitors.

A candle in a white container with a Jewish Star and writing which says "In Memoriam".

The term “shiva” is derived from the Hebrew word for seven, symbolizing the seven-day mourning period.

According to Jewish law, first-degree relatives must observe this period, including parents, spouses, children, and siblings.  

During shiva, mourners traditionally remain at the designated Shiva house, abstaining from work, school, and other outside activities.

Mourners are expected to adhere to several customs and restrictions during shiva, including:

  • Staying at Home: Mourners remain in the shiva house, avoiding work, school, and social events.
  • Refraining from Personal Grooming: Activities like shaving and bathing for pleasure are generally avoided.
  • Simplicity in Appearance: Wearing leather shoes and cleaning clothes are discouraged.
  • Avoiding Celebrations: Mourners do not attend parties or listen to secular music.
  • Limiting Torah Study: Only passages related to mourning are studied during this time.

Prayer services, including the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, are held at the Shiva house each day.

Jewish prayer book known as Kaddish lying on a desk with a black and white garment lying over top.

Preparing the Shiva house is essential to accommodate the mourning customs and comfort the bereaved family.  Here are some common preparations:

  • Seating Arrangements: Low stools or benches are provided for mourners to sit on.
  • Covering Mirrors: All mirrors in the house are covered to focus on the soul rather than physical appearance.
  • Lighting a Memorial Candle: The yahrzeit candle is lit and burns continuously for seven days.
  • Handwashing Station: A water basin and towel are placed outside the door for ritual handwashing before entering the home.

Prayer books are available for daily services, and the house’s doors are left unlocked for visitors to enter freely.

A condolence book is placed at the entrance for visitors to sign.

Visiting a Shiva home is an important act of condolence in the Jewish tradition.  Here are some guidelines to ensure your visit is respectful:

  • Entry Protocol: Do not knock or ring the doorbell; walk in.
  • Seating: Sit in one of the chairs facing the mourners but do not initiate conversation. Wait for the mourner to speak first.
  • Conversation: Focus on listening rather than talking. Any socializing with other visitors should be done outside.
  • Attire: Dress respectfully, though not necessarily in black.
  • Visit Duration: Keep your visit short—typically 15 minutes or less, unless the family asks you to stay longer.
A pile of mixed nuts and dried fruits that are typically taken to Shiva.

In line with Jewish tradition, avoid bringing flowers to a Shiva home.  Instead, consider the following appropriate gestures:

  • Food: Mourners do not prepare their meals during shiva. Suitable food items include:
    • Shiva Platters: Assorted deli items, fruits, nuts, pastries, and baked goods.
    • Baked Goods and Desserts: Bagels, cookies, and rugelach.
    • Chocolates and Sweets: Pretzels, truffles, and candies.
    • Dried and Fresh Fruits: An assortment of fruits and nuts.

Another meaningful gesture is to plant a tree in memory of the deceased, offering spiritual and physical nourishment for generations.

Understanding and respecting the customs of Shiva are crucial in providing support to those mourning the loss of a loved one.  By observing the appropriate rituals and guidelines, both mourners and visitors can contribute to a respectful and comforting mourning process.

By following these traditions and guidelines, we honor the memory of the deceased while providing solace and support to the grieving family.

Mark Sunshine

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