Shiv'ah is a traditional period of grief and mourning in Jewish culture called "sitting shiva". Immediately upon the burial of a loved one, family members may choose to observe this tradition by mourning seven (shiva, in Hebrew) days, although some people 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.
It is important to note that not all Jews mourn alike. Some 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 a time of grief, the last thing mourners may feel like doing is putting on a happy face for the outside world. It is traditional for men and women not to worry about their appearance during the week of mourning (make-up or shaving). It is a tradition for mourners to ritually tear a piece of clothing or ribbon as a symbolic representation of their broken hearts. In some shiv'ah houses, people cover the mirrors.
The mourners may also be in their socks or slippers and sit on low stools or even the floor. This is symbolic of the emotional reality of being "brought low" by the grief. By discarding shoes and sitting on the floor, a mourner is somewhat closer to the earth in which their loved one was buried. It is also a symbol of humility in the face of death.
Traditional mourners will not go to work during the period of shiva, run errands outside of the house, or even turn on the T.V. or radio. They will shun any kind of entertainment or distraction in order to acknowledge their need to grieve in a timely manner. The period of shiv'ah is intentionally set aside from normal, everyday life in order to enable mourners to gather their thoughts and focus on their memories of the deceased. The purpose of shiv'ah is to give voice to sadness, not suppress it.
Mourners are not expected to play host for their guests; therefore, visitors often bring substantial meals and food for the family and guests alike (kosher food, if the family observes the traditional laws of keeping kosher). 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.
Some mourners may adhere to the custom of not greeting their visitors. Some mourners may not even shake hands with their guests. Preoccupied with their own grief, the Jewish tradition temporarily relieves mourners of the social obligation to "meet and greet". It is considered appropriate social protocol for guests making a shiv'ah call to make their presence known to the mourners with a simple, "I'm sorry for your loss," or even a compassionate embrace or arm on the shoulder.
In conversation, one is not required to entertain or distract the mourners. The period of shiv'ah is dedicated to grieving and acknowledging the pain at the loss of a loved one. Therefore, it is appropriate to share memories of the deceased or to tell a story about him or her. Offering new knowledge of the deceased can be a valuable gift to share with the mourners. If one did not know the deceased, it is also appropriate to ask the mourner's to share their memories of the departed. Encouraging someone in grief to talk about their passed loved one is considered a great kindness. Visitors should try not to feel so uncomfortable in a house of shiva that they end up avoiding speaking with those in mourning.
Similarly, it is not obligatory to spend all one's time speaking with the mourners. It is appropriate to bring children to a house of shiv'ah; 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 shiv'ah call is not an occasion to party, the atmosphere should not be one of complete deferential silence or hushed whispers. A house of shiv'ah should have an air of a family gathering, albeit for a solemn reason; it should also be a house in which, despite the presence of death, life continues.
In addition to talking and eating, a house in shiv'ah traditionally includes regular prayer services. Jewish communities and synagogues often arrange for daily worship services to be held in the house in shiv'ah, providing an opportunity for the mourners to recite the Kaddish (an ancient prayer recited in memory of the deceased).
- Rabbi Daniel Kohn "How to Pay a Shiva Call" 
- To Be a Jew Hayim Halevy Donin, Basic Books, 1972
- Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition & Practice Wayne Dosick, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995
- A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice Isaac Klein, Ktav/JTS, 1992
- To Comfort the Bereaved: A Guide for mourners and those who visit them Aaron Levine, Jason Aronson Inc., 1994
- A Guide to Life: Jewish Laws and Customs of Mourning Tzvi Rabinowicz, Jason Aronson Inc., 1989
Judaism, burial, death
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04