After the burial, the immediate mourners return to a home called the "shiva house," to begin a seven day period of intense mourning. Shiva is from the word sheva, which means seven. This week is called "sitting shiva," and is an emotionally and spiritually healing time where the mourners sit low, dwell together, and friends and loved ones come to comfort them with short visits referred to as "shiva calls."
A person sits shiva after having lost a parent, spouse, sibling, or child. All other loved ones are also mourned, but the observances of shiva do not apply.
Ideally all of the direct mourners sit shiva in the house of the deceased, for it says, "Where a person lived, there does his spirit continue to dwell." Thus the presence of the person who has passed away is strongest in his own home. But one may sit shiva in any home. Particularly, a home of one of the direct mourners will be filled with the spirit of the loved one who is now gone. Memories will come easily there, and part of the comfort of the week of shiva is sharing such memories.
It is best for mourners to move into the shiva house together for the week. If this is not possible, designate one home as the shiva house, and those who cannot sleep there may leave after dark to go home, and return to the shiva house early in the morning.
From the time of death until the conclusion of the funeral, the primary focus and concern is on the care of the deceased and the burial preparations. The care for the departed before burial, the eulogy, the actual burial – all are done to honor the one who has died, and not to comfort the mourners.
However, once shiva begins, the focus shifts to the mourners. The mourners experience a week of intense grief, and the community is there to love and comfort and provide for their needs. This is a critical point, for if one must feel the heart-wrenching pain of grief and loss, it should be done at a time when all those around are there to help and comfort.
Arranging The Shiva House
The physical set-up of the shiva house includes the following:
Memorial Candle – 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 also compared to the body and soul, and the strong bond between them. And just as a soul always strives upward for what is good and right, so too a flame burns toward the heavens.
Thus a memorial candle is lit in the shiva house and remains burning publicly 24 hours per day throughout the entire week. When you look at the candle, remember that your loved one's soul is eternal. This thought can help bring light into the darkness in which you are now immersed.
Chairs – The people sitting shiva are required to sit low as a sign of mourning. Funeral homes often provide chairs with shortened legs for this purpose. One can also remove the cushions of a couch or chair and use that. Some have the custom of actually sitting on the floor. This is a physical symbol of the loneliness and depression that a mourner feels.
Regular chairs should be placed in front of the mourner, so visitors paying a shiva call can sit close and provide emotional comfort. (see Paying a Shiva Call below)
Mirrors – It is proper to cover the mirrors (with sheets, or fogged spray provided by the funeral home) in the shiva house for the following reasons:
- During shiva, a mourner is striving to ignore his/her own physicality and vanity in order to concentrate on the reality of being a soul.
- A mirror represents social acceptance through the enhancement of one's appearance. Jewish mourning is supposed to be lonely, silent; dwelling on one's personal loss. Covering the mirrors symbolizes this withdrawal from society's gaze.
- Prayer services, commonly held in the shiva house, cannot take place in front of a mirror. When we pray, we focus on God and not on ourselves.
Shoes – A mourner should wear either stocking feet or slippers not made of leather. This symbolizes, again, the disregard for vanity and physical comfort.
After the Cemetery
Immediately upon returning from the cemetery after the burial, and before entering the shiva house, the mourners and anyone else who attended the burial perform a ceremonial washing of the hands.
The first thing the mourners do upon entering the shiva house is to sit down (again, low) to a "meal of condolence." This meal should be provided by neighbors or the community, in order to show the mourners that those around them wish to provide consolation.
Another, deeper psychological reason lies behind this gesture, for it recognizes that mourners, having just returned from the heavy trauma of the burial, may harbor a death wish for themselves and not want to go on any more without their loved one. The meal they must eat speaks to that part of them and says, "No, you must go on. You must affirm life and live."
This first meal is eaten silently, and includes:
- Bread – considered the sustenance of life
- Hard-boiled eggs – a food that is round, like the cycle of life
- Cooked vegetables and/or lentils (lentils are round)
All other meals during the shiva should ideally be prepared or sent by others. The mourner always eats sitting low.
Timing of Shiva
The seven-day period of mourning begins immediately after the burial. Thus, the first day of the shiva is the day of the burial. If the funeral was on a Tuesday, the last day of shiva is the following Monday. If a Jewish holiday (for example, Rosh Hashana) falls during the seven days, shiva ends the afternoon just prior to the holiday. In such a case, it is considered that you mourned for seven days, even though it was cut short.
If a person passes away during a holiday, the burial and shiva are done when the holiday is complete. If one passes away on Shabbat, the burial is done the next day.
When Shabbat falls during the shiva, it is counted as one of the seven days of mourning, but one does not mourn publicly. This means that the outer signs of mourning (covering mirrors where others can see, sitting low, wearing mourner's garments, etc.) are suspended, because the joy of Shabbat overrides even public mourning. The outer signs of mourning are suspended before the beginning of Shabbat so that a person has time to properly prepare. On Shabbat, people sitting shiva mourn in their hearts. On Saturday night, the shiva resumes.
Paying a Shiva Call
When one pays a shiva call, the focus is on comforting the mourners in their time of greatest grief. Traditionally, one enters the shiva house quietly with a small knock so as not to startle those inside.
Take your cue from the mourners. If they feel like speaking, let them indicate it to you by speaking first. Then you can talk to them, but what about? Let them lead and talk about what they want to talk about. It is best to speak about the one who has passed away, and if you have any stories or memories to share with the mourner, this is the time to do so.
This is not a time to distract them from mourning. Out of nervousness, we often babble on about nonsense because we do not know what to say.
Often, the best thing to say is nothing. A shiva call can sometimes be completely silent. If the mourners do not feel like talking at that time, so be it. Your goal is not to get them to talk; it is to comfort them. Your presence alone is doing that. By sitting there silently, you are saying more than words can. You are saying: "I am here for you. I feel your pain. There are no words."
Comforting a mourner does not mean distracting a mourner.. Remember that speaking about the loved one they lost is comforting. It's alright if they cry; they are in mourning. It is all part of the important process of coming to grips with such a loss.
Prayer services are held in the shiva house, not in the synagogue. One reason is to insure that for the week of shiva, the mourners do not have to leave the home where they are best able to fully experience the mourning process. They do not have to dress up to go out, or put on a public face for anyone. The services come to them.
It is certainly appropriate and poignant to have services in the home itself, for the center of Jewish life is the home. This is the place where Jewish values are passed down. This is where family celebrations take place and where joys are shared. It is also where pain and loss are shared. It is where Judaism lives.
Leaving a Shiva House
Even if this was a visit in silence, a traditional statement of comfort is said to the mourners just before leaving the shiva house. It can be said in either Hebrew or English: May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Ha-Makom y'nachem et'chem b'toch sha'ar aveilei Tzion v'Yerushalayim.
God in this line is referred to as HaMakom – "The Place." By saying this to the mourner, you are saying that God is everywhere, that we exist within Him – here and in the next world. The person who is gone is still connected to you, for you are together, contained within "The Place."
"Among the other mourners" speaks about the Jewish people. You are saying that we are family. Some people are close and some are distant cousins, but the loss of even one Jew makes us all mourners.
"Of Zion and Jerusalem" speaks of our collective mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the central point of the Jewish relationship to God that was destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago.
The mourner should nod or say "Amen," and you should quietly depart, making sure that the mourner does not get up to see you out.
Getting Up From Shiva
The seventh and final day of shiva is observed for only a few short hours, although this counts as a whole day. After the last Shacharit service, the mourners sit low again for a short time.
The mourners acknowledge that the shiva is over by leaving the shiva house publicly for the first time, taking a short walk around the block with those who have come to comfort them.
The house that the mourners live in for the week of shiva becomes a house of mourning. It takes on an ambience of solemnity, filled with memory, contemplation, and meditation. But it is a house where people will continue to dwell. The concrete act of physically stepping outside, walking around the block, and coming back in, says that this house and our relationship with this house will now be renewed.