Sitting Shiva- Jewish Customs and Traditions
Shiva is the seven-day mourning period following the burial of a parent, spouse, sibling or child.
It is important to know that all Jewish people do not mourn alike. Some may choose to meticulously observe the traditional rites and customs of mourning while others may be more relaxed in their observance. Some families sit shiva for a day or more and others not at all. It is considered a great mitzvah, or commandment of loving kindness and compassion, to pay a visit to mourners. Jewish law prohibits sitting shiva on Jewish holidays or the Sabbath, so do not plan to visit Friday at sundown through Saturday at sundown.
When making a shiva call, it is appropriate to dress as if you are attending a synagogue service however in many homes, more informal attire is just as appropriate.
Some Jewish mourners will not go to work, run errands outside of the house or turn on a TV or radio while sitting shiva. Others may avoid any type of entertainment or distraction in order to fulfill their need to grieve, as the purpose of sitting shiva is to give voice to sadness, not suppress it.
A house of shiva is typically well stocked with food and desserts, intended to sustain and celebrate the on-going cycle of life. When bringing or sending shiva food, make sure it is kosher if the household is observant of Jewish dietary laws.
The Water Pitcher
There may be a water pitcher at the front door of the shiva house. It is customary to pour water over your hands upon returning from the cemetery, prior to entering the home. It is believed that water is the source of all life, therefore when one has come in contact with death, it is proper to pour water over each hand three times (alternating hands each time) in order to focus on life.
The Memorial Candle
A Jewish memorial candle may be lit and remain burning publicly 24 hours a day for the entire week. The candle, reminds us that our loved one's soul is eternal. A person's soul is compared to a flame, since each person brings light into the world. And just as one can take from a flame to light more candles without diminishing the original flame, so too a person can give of him/herself, touching many lives, without ever being diminished.The wick and the flame are a symbol of the strong bond between body and soul. A flame burns toward the heavens, just as a soul always strives upward for what is good and right.
Mirrors may be covered, as tradition suggests that mourners need not be concerned about their personal appearance. Mourners should be aware that their normal priorities have changed, and that vanity is not important at this time. Jewish mourning is intraspective, dwelling on one's personal loss. Covering mirrors symbolizes this withdrawal from society's gaze.
Another explanation is that Jewish tradition dictates that there may not be a mirror in a room where people pray. When praying, Jews are directed to focus on God and not on themselves. Thus, the Prayer services which are held in the shiva house, should not take place in a room with a mirror.
The Black Ribbon -Keriah
Grief is traditionally expressed by tearing one's clothing. Alternatively, mourners may choose to wear a small black ribbon that is cut by the Rabbi. The tear should be on the left side for a parent, over the heart and clearly visible, and on the right side for brothers, sisters, children and spouses. The mourners wear it throughout the week of mourning as a symbol of their broken hearts- many continue wearing it for thirty days.
Jewish mourners may sit low to the ground, on cushions or very low chairs, on the floor, or on special benches provided by the funeral home, bringing them closer to the earth in which they just buried their loved one. This practice symbolizes being struck down by grief. (Visitors to the house sit on normal chairs and couches.)
Wearing Socks or Slippers
Jewish mourners may remove their shoes when they return home from the funeral and refrain from wearing leather shoes in the shiva house. They may wear cloth slippers or socks or go barefoot, which is considered a sign of being humbled by their loss.
The Meal of Condolence - Seudat Havraah
The first meal after returning from the cemetery is called the "the meal of healing." It is the responsibility of the community and visitors to ensure that there is enough food for the mourning family and well-wishers. Mourners in their grief are often reluctant to take care of their own needs. When food is provided by others, the mourners are encouraged to eat, reinforcing the belief that that "life must go on." They also feel that they are not alone in their grief and the meal, therefore, serves as a source of healing and consolation, as its name implies. Round foods (eggs,lentils,etc.) are eaten to represent the circle of life.
Shiva Prayer Services
As the center of Jewish life is the home, it is appropriate to have services there. It is where Jewish values are passed down from generation to generation. Family celebrations take place in the home and joys are shared there, so too are pain and loss. Prayer services may be held in the shiva house, rather than in the synagogue to insure that for the week of sitting shiva, the mourners do not have to leave their home. They do not have to dress up to go out, or put on a public face for anyone. The services come to them. Traditional services are usually led by a Rabbi, Cantor or member of the congregation and often thoughts from the Torah are shared in memory of the departed. It is good to pay a shiva call during these times, because a minyan (quorum of people) is needed to conduct the service and for the mourners to recite Kaddish.
Jewish Law requires that the Kaddish be recited during the first eleven months following the death of a loved one by the mourners. Interestingly, there is no reference to death in the prayer and it is written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. The theme of Kaddish is the Greatness of God. We are asked to view the passing of our beloved from the perspective that his/her soul was gathered in, so to speak, by the One who originally created it. Its purpose is to reaffirm our faith at a time when we are especially vulnerable to turning away from God. We are taught that with faith we can be strong enough to endure the death of a loved one. In this prayer, we pray for peace - peace between nations, peace between individuals, and peace of mind.
Tzedekah is the Hebrew word for charity. Righteous giving is an appropriate way to honor one's memory. Contributing money, time and effort to organizations and causes that were important to the deceased keeps their beliefs alive and active. Tzedakah connects the living and the dead in the work of tikkun olam (repairing the world). Jewish tradition views charity as the strongest force in the universe… even greater than death.
Shiva is followed by Sheloshim, which lasts until the 30th day after burial. During this period, the bereaved may not attend parties or celebrations, and some may not shave or cut their hair. The final period of formal mourning, Avelut, lasts for 12 months from burial and mourners may choose not to attend festive occasions and large gatherings, especially where live music is played.
Learning in Memory of the Deceased
There is a tradional Jewish belief that if we learn specifically in the memory of someone who has recently passed it helps elevate their neshama. It is customary for the subject to be relevant or meaningful to the deceased.
Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning "a year's time". Each year the anniversary of the death is commemorated according to the Hebrew calendar. This day is observed as a solemn day of remembrance, honoring the memory of the deceased. The main expression of the Yahrzeit is reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish Prayer and lighting a Yahrzeit candle. The candle is lit on the eve of that date and burns for 24 hours. A Yahrzeit candle is symbolic of the soul and spirit of the deceased. Many people visit the graves of the deceased, fast at that time and/or make a charitable donation in memory of the deceased.
Yizkor ("remembrance") prayers are recited by those who have lost either one or both of their parents. In the Yizkor prayers God is asked to remember and grant repose to the souls of the departed. The Yizkor service takes place in synagogue four times a year on Yom Kippur, the last day of Sukkot, the last day of Passover and the last day of Shavuot.The Yizkor prayers include an obligation to make a charitable donation in memory of the deceased. It is customary to kindle a twenty-four hour candle on the evening preceding Yizkor.
Unveiling (Hakamat Matzeivah)
The erecting of a stone or monument gives honor to the body that housed the soul. It has become customary in the United States to have a ceremony to “unveil” and dedicate the memorial marker. While many families wait until almost the full year has passed, others schedule the unveiling sooner, at a time when family members are available and follow it with a gathering. At the ceremony, the unique qualities of the deceased are celebrated.