What To Expect at a Shiva, Jewish House of Mourning
When a member of the Jewish community dies, the closest relatives (spouse, parents or children) will “sit Shiva” in honour of the deceased. The word ‘Shiva” is derived from the hebrew word “Sheva” meaning “Seven” as the mourning period lasts for 7 days. All those close to the deceased individual are invited, kind of like an open house, you do not need a formal invitation – nor is it exclusively for Jews, as gentiles are also invited.
The Shiva is pretty much a memorial service in the person’s home or home of the closest relative. The Jewish religion requires deceased individuals to be buried within 24 hours of death. The world’s first man was called Adam, translated into Hebrew as ‘Earth’ and so man must go where he began, back into the Earth and with G-d.
This means that the coffin is not in the house of mourning, as the Shiva will typically take place on the evening or the evening after the funeral. The Shiva cannot be held on the Sabbath, so it will never be on a Friday night and only on a Saturday evening if sun down has fallen at a reasonable hour (like winter months).
If you do not have experience with a Shiva, we answer some of the key questions below:
What time will it start?
A Shiva will always start in the evening as it coincides with the evening prayers of Mincha and Maariv. So you can typically expect a 7pm or 8pm start – although the closest relatives will usually inform you of this.
How long will the Shiva last?
A Shiva usually lasts around 1 hour. The prayer part is typically around 45 minutes or so and involves a lot of standing. The service includes the two evening prayers and then some additional prayers for the mourners. One of the family’s closest relatives may say a few words about the individual too. You can expect a crowded home with people standing in hallways, the kitchen and leaning against the walls. So best to be there early, otherwise you could have one foot in the house and one foot outside.
Once the service is over, it is customary for the mourners of the family to be sitting on low chairs in a line and for friends and family to go up to them in an orderly fashion and give them words of condolences.
There is usually some light drinks and refreshments such as teas, coffees, cake and fruit. Some families put on quite a spread and it becomes a social occasion – of course you have to assess the mood and whether you are celebrating a life or mourning a tragic death.
What prayers will be said
Other than the standard evening prayers of Mincha and Maariv, the mourners will say the Kaddish which is the standard mourner’s prayer which elicits a response from the other congregants. One can also expect a Psalm of David (Tehillim) to be said too.
Anything unusual to expect?
Separate seating for genders: Yes, Jewish prayer is usually segregated between men and women. So you can expect men on one side of the home, leading the prayers, and the women on the other. The only exception would be for reform or liberal (less religious Jews) where the congregation will be mixed of men and women. In this scenario, you may find more of the service is in English and shorter too.
Mourning customs: Some of the traditional mourning customs include covering any mirrors and for the mourners to be unshaven, bare foot and wearing old garments or clothes with tears in them. This is to show modesty and also distance from vanity and luxury items. (Source: Chabad.org)
Other common customs include mourners sitting on low chairs, whilst other friends and family remain on regular size chairs and stools. There are multiple reasons for this but one of the main ones is that you put yourself lower down to accept G-d’s choice.
Do I need to bring a gift?
No, you do not need to bring a gift to a Shiva, similar to the way that you would not bring a gift to a funeral. It is common however to offer to bring food including cakes or a meal for the family. If the family is religious, it must be Kosher – hence Kosher cold meats or bagels are a good option.
What do I say to the mourners?
You will have an opportunity to speak to the mourners at the end of the service when you organise a queue and get to greet them one-by-one. The simplest thing to say is “I wish you long life.” More religious and traditional audiences will say:“Hamakom yenachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avlei tzion ve’yerushaluyim” or in English, “May God comfort you with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” (Source: Kveller.com)
What do I wear to a Shiva?
You do not need to dress up for a Shiva, nor do you need to dress down. If you have been at work that day, the same clothing is perfectly fine and you can even relax by putting on some jeans and taking off your tie.
For women, it is best to at least cover you shoulders so that no skin is exposed. This is a religious Jewish custom for any religious event or Jewish place of worship. For more religious crowds, women should fully cover their arms too and also avoid wearing trousers and wear skirts instead.
What you shouldn’t do at a Shiva
Small talk and watching TV is not ideal for a Shiva and house of mourning. If the people are laid back and celebrating a life, this may be acceptable. Some Shiva’s turn into a social event at the end of the evening and that is fine for more relaxed families.
If your kids are able to keep quiet for an hour, then it is fine to bring them along. But if they need to be entertained and will more likely be running around or needing an iPad or football to keep busy, it is probably best not to bring them.