Shiva Traditions

Understanding Shiva

After the interment, mourners return home to sit Shiva for seven days. Shiva is a Hebrew word for seven. During the Shiva week, mourners are expected to remain at home.

There are seven relatives for whom a Jew is required to observe Shiva: father, mother, brother or sister, son, daughter, or spouse. During the Shiva week prayer services are usually conducted at the Shiva house.

Upon returning from the cemetery each individual pours water upon their hands before entering the Shiva home. Washing of the hands symbolically represents separating ourselves from the spiritual impurity Judaism attributes to death. Containers of water and paper towels should be placed near the entrance of the home.

Mirrors in the house of mourning may be covered to disassociate ourselves from our general concern with our physical appearance. The covering of mirrors emphasizes a period of time set aside for spiritual reflection.

Doors are left unlocked so that visitors can enter without knocking or ringing the doorbell, which would distract the mourners from their grief and cause them to act as hosts.

Upon returning from the cemetery, a Shiva (seven day) candle is placed on the memorial plaque, provided by Chicago Jewish Funerals, and is lit immediately. It should be placed in the room where Shiva will be observed. It symbolizes the soul of the human being, as the psalmist states: “The Candle of the L-rd is the soul of man.”

The first meal eaten by the mourner upon return from the cemetery is called the meal of condolence, prepared and served by friends, creating an atmosphere of support. The family should eat before anyone else. It is a Jewish custom to include round foods such as hard-boiled eggs, symbolizing eternal life or the cyclical nature of life. The word Shiva comes from the Hebrew word for seven.

Seating for the mourners should be arranged. The mourners may be lower to the floor than the general seating. This custom is to reinforce the mourners’ inner emotions. Feeling “low” is a symbol of depression, in Jewish law depression is acted out literally. When individuals visit to offer comfort it is appropriate for the mourner to be seated.

During the Shiva period mourners may choose not to wear shoes made of leather. Slippers and canvas gym shoes provide appropriate footwear for the mourners.

Traditional services are usually held in the morning (Shacharit), late afternoon (Mincha) and evening (Maariv). It is good to pay a Shiva call during these times, because a quorum of people (Minyan, 10 people) is needed to conduct the service and for the mourners to recite Kaddish.

If Shiva has begun and there’s a major holiday (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) then Shiva is considered complete and no other days are observed. If a death occurs on the holiday itself, then the burial and Shiva begin afterward.

Observing the various traditions is a personal decision. Many traditional Shiva restrictions include no wearing of new clothes, no shaving for men, no washing clothes, no bathing.

It is a custom not to remove anything from the Shiva house during the week of Shiva. The return of food should be done after the Shiva period is completed.

If you do not know the time-honored declaration which is traditionally recited as you are about to leave, then simply say: “May G-d soon comfort you upon your loss together with all other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

On the seventh and last day of Shiva, the mourners are required to sit for only a small part of the day followed by a walk around the block, symbolizing the return to the regular world.

Shiva is followed by a longer and less intense stage of mourning. First, is shloshim (thirty), a thirty-day period and then a year of mourning. Jewish law mandates a full year of mourning for one’s parents, the mourning period for all others terminates at the end of shloshim.

On the anniversary of the Hebrew date (some use English date) of death, mourners light a 24-hour candle and recite the mourners’ kaddish. This is called the Yahrzeit date.

Four times a year, (Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavouth) individuals in the Jewish community remember their deceased loved ones in communal prayer called Yizkor. On these days, a 24-hour candle is lit.

The death of a loved one creates an outpouring of sympathy from friends and family. Chicago Jewish Funerals has created a very helpful pamphlet that includes a Shiva checklist and a journal to record the kindness of others. To download a copy of Condolence Journal, click here.