Waiting for an invitation (don’t), why the mirrors may be covered, and what’s all this about sitting anyway?
Shiva: A seven-day period of formal mourning for the dead, beginning immediately after the funeral. (“My friend’s father died, and she’s sitting shiva, and I’m going to go make a shiva call.”)
Shiva literally means seven, which is the number of days that observant Jews mourn for a loved one. Today, Jews hardly ever sit Shiva for a full seven days. Basically the rabbis of old decided that seven is a good number of days to sit and full-time mourn. After that, people go back to work and get on with their lives. Not that people don’t still miss the person who died, just that the full-time mourning period is over. There’s even a short ceremony to mark the end of the Shiva period.
Shiva usually starts right after the funeral. Sometimes people sit from 1:00pm ’til 3:00pm and take a break, and then start again from 5:30pm ’til 9:00pm. It varies a lot.
Usually, it’s at the home of a relative of the person who died. But that varies too.
Usually family members of the person who died — parents, spouse, children, etc. But, there’s no rule saying that a close friend of the deceased can’t sit Shiva too.
Traditionally the people who are sitting Shiva, the ones who are mourning, have little stools or seats without cushions. Low seating is a throwback to a time when sitting on the ground symbolized mourning.
Should I wait to be invited?
Nope! You’re not going to be invited to Shiva. The people whose loved one has died have enough to think about without sending you an invitation to Shiva. You’re supposed to go anyway. It’s a mitzvah (good deed) to comfort someone in mourning, even if you don’t know the family very well.
Should I ring the doorbell?
Nope again! No need to ring. Just open the door and walk right in. This way, you won’t interrupt the mourners.
How do I find out about it?
In the olden days, when Jews lived in communities of other Jews, they all just knew. Today, hopefully, friends and community members take over and post it on Facebook, send out the group email, etc. so that everyone knows. Don’t assume that someone else is handling it. If you know someone who has had a death in their family, ask if you can help notify people.
Chances are the people sitting Shiva will be casual. They are probably exhausted. But, if you’re dressed up, that’s fine too. This is one of those times where honestly, no one cares. Just show up.
What to SAY?
Great question! Talk about the person who died! This is what you’re supposed to do! It’s why you’re there! Don’t avoid the subject because that is the subject. Here are some openers: “I’m so sorry about your mom. I never had the pleasure of meeting her; can you tell me about her?” Obviously, if the person in mourning would rather talk about “Game of Thrones,” go with it. But the old rabbis wanted us to talk about the person who died. This makes so much sense, (props Rabbis), because it’s like talk therapy for the mourners. Often the family in mourning has photos around the living room of the person who died. Pick one up and ask about it.
What to bring?
Nothing is fine, really. There will probably be some food out, but it’s not really a major food extravaganza. If you just hate the idea of going empty-handed, bring something to eat.
How long do I stay?
Your choice. Probably not more than an hour. You can go a few times if it’s someone you’re especially close to who’s sitting Shiva.
Things you might see at a Shiva call
Those in mourning are theoretically not supposed to care about what they look like. So don’t be surprised if the mirrors in the house are covered with black cloth. This is not a time for vanity. Often, you will see the mourners wearing little buttons that are covered with a piece of ribbon that they’ve torn. Way, way back, when Jews heard that someone died, their reaction was to rip their clothes. Yeah, it sounds weird to us, too. Tradition.
A minyan is when ten or more people get together and pray. Depending on the observance of the folks who are sitting Shiva, they might have a minyan in the evening. This will give the mourners a chance to say Kaddish, which is the Mourner’s prayer. Often, after the formal part of the minyan is over, the person leading will ask if anyone wants to say something about the person who died. This is really a lovely custom.
How did this all get started?
There are several references in the Bible to being with others when they’re mourning. In the book of Job, his three friends “sat down with him upon the ground… for they saw that his grief was very great.” Actually, kind of nice.
Note for mourners
We’re so sorry for your loss, and we’re glad that you’re here. If you’re new to Judaism or haven’t sat Shiva before, the most important thing to remember is that Shiva is a time to reflect on the person who has died and to receive comfort during your time of loss. If you belong to a synagogue, your rabbi will help guide you through it. But you can also create a meaningful Shiva experience on your own by following the guidelines above.
There really is no wrong way to sit Shiva. You may be worried about not knowing what to do, or that it will be too difficult to open up to the intensity of the experience and the outpouring of often-unexpected support that you will feel from your community, but really, that’s the whole point. Don’t let fear prevent you from the experience. Go with it, and breathe a lot. The rabbis of old were on to something with the idea of sharing your sorrow.