How to Prepare for Sitting Shiva

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In the Jewish tradition, shiva is the seven-day mourning period that begins immediately after the funeral of a loved one. The custom stems directly from the verse in Genesis in which Joseph mourns his father, Jacob, for a week.

Things You'll Need

  • Cloth Slippers
  • Floor Cushions
  • Outdoor Wash Basins
  • Shiva Benches
  • Shiva Candles
  • Observe shiva for any of seven relatives: your father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter or spouse. Other relatives may join in for some or all of the observance, but Jewish law does not mandate their participation.

  • Keep in mind that shiva always takes place in the home of the deceased or in the home of a principal mourner. If space allows, all the mourners stay in the house together.

  • Cover all the mirrors in the house and leave them cloaked for the seven-day period. This centuries-old custom began as a belief that spirits were attracted to mirrors and could be trapped there; the modern reinterpretation is that the practice discourages vanity and encourages inner reflection.

  • Place a basin of water beside the outer door so people can wash their hands, a gesture that separates the mitzvah (or duty) of honoring the dead from the mitzvah of comforting the bereaved.

  • Light a large shiva candle, also known as a ner daluk, or burning light, and keep it burning for seven days and seven nights as a symbol of the divine spark that inhabits the body.

  • Remove your shoes when you return home from the funeral and refrain from wearing leather shoes in the shiva house. You may wear cloth slippers or socks or go barefoot, which is considered a sign of being humbled by loss.

  • Eat food brought by friends and neighbors for your first meal after returning from the cemetery (called seudat havra'ah, or the meal of consolation). It is traditional to emphasize round foods to recall the cyclical nature of life.

  • Sit low to the ground, on cushions or very low chairs, on the floor, or on special benches provided by the funeral home. This practice symbolizes being struck down by grief. (Visitors to the house sit on normal chairs and couches.)

  • Leave doors unlocked so that visitors can enter without distracting mourners with knocks or doorbells.

  • Refrain from virtually all usual activity during shiva. Jewish law prohibits mourners from cooking, running errands, attending school, shaving, wearing makeup or engaging in pleasures of any kind whether sensual, sexual, athletic or intellectual.

Tips & Warnings

  • Because Jewish terms are translations from the Hebrew, spellings vary. For instance, the seven-day period of mourning can be correctly spelled shiva, shivah or shiv'a.
  • Parts of days count as full days of shiva. For instance, the day of the funeral is considered the first day, even if burial takes place in the afternoon. Traditionally, shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day, right after the shaharit, the morning prayer service.
  • Jewish law prohibits sitting shiva on the Sabbath.
  • With shiva, as in virtually every other part of Jewish life, the degree to which people stick to the letter of the law varies greatly, not only among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches of the faith, but also among individual congregations and families. Some people observe all of the steps outlined above; others observe only a few.

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