Sitting Shiva

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Traditionally, a Shiva lasts for seven (shiva, in Hebrew) days, though some people choose to mourn for fewer days. The tradition of Shiva is meant to give attention to the grieving family, who stay home in mourning for a set period of days immediately following the burial. It's considered a great mitzvah, or commandment, to pay a home visit to the mourners.

Not all Jews mourn alike. Some may follow the religious rituals meticulously, while others may choose to observe only some of the customs.

If you are attending a Shiva, you might expect:

  • Torn clothing or ribbon symbolizing their broken hearts
  • Sitting on low stools (or even on the floor) representing emotional reality of "brought low" by grief
  • No attention made for their appearance, therefore mirrors could be covered, men may not be shaved and woman may not wear make-up
  • A large candle to burn for the full seven days of Shiva, representing "the flame of God is the soul of man" (Proverbs 20:27)
  • Traditional mourners will not attend to normal activity during Shiva, such as running errands, watching TV, or listening to the radio
  • Mourners are not expected to greet their visitors. Shiva relieves the mourners of normal social obligations

If you are paying a Shiva call:

  • Bring food instead of flowers - be sure to ask if the family observes Kosher law. Many bakeries and delicatessens can help you choose kosher foods.
  • Shiva is dedicated to acknowledging the pain and loss, therefore it's appropriate to share your memories or a story with the family.
  • It's appropriate to bring children to a house of Shiva; but children should not expect to be entertained in the home.

If you are not available to attend a Shiva, you can send a sympathy note to the family and follow up with a visit at a later time when it's convenient for you and the family.

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