What Happens At A Shiva?
What Is Shiva?
Shiva is an important religious event in Judaism that is held after a funeral service, which is in certain respects is similar to a wake held in other cultures, celebrating the life of someone who has passed away at one person’s home who receives visitors. The word ‘Shiva’ itself means seven, and this refers to the week-long mourning period (the word means seven in Hebrew) in which those coming to mourn for the person who has passed away are supposed to sit as low as possible to the ground. It is generally considering to be a celebration, a mitzvah where people can pay a home visit to pay respects to a loved one.
However, with Shiva, it is usually held over the course of seven days. Close family friends and relatives visit (with the shiva mostly held at the family home during this time) and pray at the shiva, with guests all praying together. This means that if you are close to the family of the deceased, it is customary to visit on every day during shiva, especially for the daily minyan (a religious service held for the dead, often in late afternoon or evening). During this service, mourners will recite the mourner’s prayer, the Kaddish, in order to honour the memory of the deceased.
Each and every day, the family will come and gather at the home to pray and mourn for the person who has passed. The event is also known as ‘sitting shiva’ and out of respect, there are some customs that are honoured and respected. For example, whilst observing Shiva, family members will tend to take time off work for the first week and cancel their social or working obligations for the week. Many mourners do not leave their homes at any point during shiva, in order to take the time to work through the innumerable feelings felt during grieving.
What happens when you arrive at Shiva?
It is tradition to just enter the house of those who are mourning at the shiva, as opposed to ringing and knocking on the door. This is to not disturb those who are mourning. The front door is usually left unlocked so people can pass through quietly. It is important to note that when you enter a shiva, it is respectful to enter on your own.
For many, it is tradition to wait to speak until the mourner has spoken. At some shivas, the family may adhere to the customer of not shaking hands with their guests. If you are unsure what to do, try to take into account what other people present are doing. When you have been acknowledged by the people holding the Shiva, you can just say ‘I’m sorry’.
There will usually be a carafe of water placed either outside the house where the shiva is being held, or just at you enter the house. This is part of a religious ritual where handwashing is very important. Whilst it is not expected that you take part in this tradition if you feel comfortable it is worth doing so.
Whilst not customary at all Shivas, some families decide to cover all the mirrors in the house, which is a meaningful Jewish custom. It to remind mourners to not worry about their appearances and vanity, but to instead focus on the person they have all lost.
Do I bring anything to Shiva?
Bringing flowers is not a customary part of Shiva. However, if you want, bringing food as a means of paying respects is acceptable. A shiva for many is a way of not only honouring the dead but also to celebrate the cycle of life. In fact, the ‘seudat ha’vra’ah’ which means the ‘meal of healing’ is the very first meal after returning from the funeral service.
If you do bring food, you should inquire as to whether or not they are obeying the traditional laws of keeping kosher, in order you can bring the appropriate food for the service, such as kosher bakery items.
Nevertheless, the most important part of the Shiva is you being present. Some like to pay their respects to the deceased by planting trees in Israel through Jewish National Fund.
What do I wear to Shiva?
Whilst there isn’t specific clothing that you are expected to wear when you are attending a shiva, it is important to dress in a respectful manner, as you would for any other similar event.
If the Shiva is being hosted by an orthodox Jewish family, women will usually be expected to dress very conservatively, wearing long skirts and long-sleeved shirts.
If you will be taking part in the daily minyan and prayers at the shiva, it is traditional and respectful to wear a kippah or yarmulke, which is a Jewish skullcap. If you do not have one of your own, you still may be able to participate in the minyan, and it may be worth asking the family who is hosting the shiva, as they may have kippahs for guest to wear for the prayer service.
At some shivas, mourning may decide to wear a ripped black ribbon or a piece of clothing that is ripped as a symbolic gesture to the deceased. It is supposed to represent their grief and pain at losing someone, a psychological acknowledgement of the turmoil felt – something ripped away from them.
As previously mentioned at the very beginning of this article, it is customary to sit low to the ground at a shiva. This is supposed to mimic the feeling of being ‘brought low’ by the death of the person who the shiva is held for. As a result, mourners may also decide to not wear shoes at the event, or just wear slippers and be sitting on stools, or sometimes the floor. Some mourners believe the removal of shoes at a Shiva represents one’s humility in light of death, as well as a way of being closer to the earth and therefore, the person who has passed away.