Shiva means seven and is the period of mourning immediately following the burial. The day of burial counts as the first day of shiva, which continues for seven days. Although no public mourning is observed on the Sabbath, the Sabbath and holidays count in the seven days. Recently, the trend has been for families to “sit shiva” for only a few days. This is particular true of the reform and conservative movement. This is a personal decision that each family should discuss amongst themselves. Whatever decision a family makes, will be appropriate. This period of mourning is often observed at a family member or friends home. Other venues families have chosen include a private room at the Jewish Home of Rochester, Wolk Manor, the Summit at Brighton, a private room within our funeral home or even a restaurant for families that are reform.
How holidays and festivals affect Shiva
Many festivals affect the observance of shiva and your rabbi would be best qualified to explain how they affect a particular situation. For example, some festivals cancel the observance of shiva completely, and some festivals postpone the beginning of Shiva. Under special circumstances, the observance of shiva is for fewer than the traditional seven days. Shabbat (The Sabbath) is included in counting the seven days, though onShabbat no outward signs of mourning apply, such as the black k’reah ribbon.
On Friday (unless it is the seventh day of Shiva) or on the day before a festival, Shiva is observed until two and half hours before sunset. On Pesach (Passover) eve, it ends at noon. Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, cancels the remainder of Shiva, provided that the mourner has first observed at least one hour ofShiva before the holiday began. If burial takes place on the intermediate days (Chol Hamoed) of the holiday of Pesach or Sukkot, then Shiva is not observed until after the end of the holiday. Again, we suggest you consult your rabbi as to a particular situation.
Washing of Hands
This is done after the funeral, after any visit to the cemetery, or after being in close proximity to a deceased we wash our hands. A container of water should be prepared for this purpose outside the entrance of the residence which one is about to enter forshiva. We wash our full hand from the wrist to the finger tips, three times alternately, first the right hand, then the left alternating, right, then left. The hands should be left to air dry, not towel dried. This tradition is from the early post-Talmudic period. It is done to dispel the spirits of uncleanness, which might cling to one’s person, these being the demons that follow people home. The tradition today is looked at as metaphorically cleansing from a place of death to a place of life. When washing your hands before entering a house of mourning, you are not supposed to pass the cup of water to the next person. The suggested reason for this custom is based in superstition. Just like the shovel used for burial, the vessel used for pouring water is not passed on as one might be passing death or the contamination of death to someone else.
Lighting a Candle
Traditionally, when mourners return to the house after the funeral, they light a candle that burns for the entire seven days. This candle is placed in a prominent spot in the room where people will be sitting the most. There is no blessing that is said when lighting this candle. This candle or plug in lamp should burn for the time the family is sitting shiva. Brighton Memorial Chapel provides a seven day candle or plug in lamp to families that request them. The light is symbolic of the soul of the departed. We use a light to remember someone who has brightened our lives. We also use a light to symbolizes God’s presence with Ner Tamid (the perpetual light) before the Ark in the synagogue. Amid the sadness and gloom of mourning, light is a symbol of hope and comfort. Candles are symbolic of the soul. A material physical candle burns with a lovely peaceful glow, turning itself into energy, and then the physical candle disappears into the air. So too, does the soul pass away from this world, no longer needing its physical body. The Bible teaches us that “the light of God is the soul of humankind.” (Proverbs 20:27). Theshiva candle is therefore symbolic of the soul of the deceased.
Meal of Consolation – se’udat havra’ah – סעודת הבראה
One of the oldest, most important and meaningful traditions the Jewish people have is, upon returning to the house of mourning following the burial, the community provides the first meal. It is customary for the meal to be dairy and would include round foods such as hard boiled eggs, lentils or bagels, which symbolize the cycle of life. This meal of condolence was started because if it was left to the mourner’s own will, they may not eat and would become ill. Today, the community provides the first set of meals, because the mourners should not feel as if they are “hosting” a party, or that they be concerned about taking care of anyone else’s needs. Rather, the community is there to take care of the mourners.
Condolence Calls – Nichum Avaylim
A tradition of shiva is for the mourners to sit lower than their visitors. The mourners are not meant to be uncomfortable, but simply lower than others. This is to remind the mourners that the house of mourning is not to have a party like atmosphere. Doors are left unlocked so that visitors can enter the house without ringing the doorbell or knocking, as this distracts the mourners from their grief. Traditionally, mourners do not stand to greet visitors. The atmosphere in the house of mourning should be one of dignity, and one should avoid creating a party like atmosphere. Talk should be centered on the deceased. Shiva should be a time to remember with fondness many of the events of which the decease was a part. Mourners find comfort in hearing stories of their loved one. Although they may seem overwhelmed and upset, they would prefer people talk about their loved one rather than think that people have forgotten the person.
Many families do not observe shiva for a full week, or observe it to varying degrees. TheKaddish is said daily in the home or synagogue in the presence of a minyan (ten or more men. The reform movement includes women in a minyan). Some temples can arrange for a minyan to come to the house of mourning for services.
People visiting a house of mourning should not expect to be served or even offered food by any of the mourners, who thus would be acting in the inappropriate role of hosts at a social gathering. It is proper for relatives and friends to attend to the needs of the mourner and the household. Usually, gifts or flowers are not brought to a house of mourning, but food is often welcome. We would caution that many people keep kosher, and adhere to strict dietary rules. Click here for a link to a list of kosher vendors that could have food delivered to a house of mourning.
The practice of covering the mirrors in the house was based on the belief that the spirit was attracted to the mirrors. Some people thought the soul could even be trapped in the reflection. Rabbis reinterpret this custom that vanity should be discouraged, and that one should concentrate on their inner reflection. This is the same reason orthodox men do not shave during shiva.
Pouring water out
There is an old custom of pouring water out of any bowls after a death of a loved one. The suggested reasons for this superstition were that the angel of death may have washed his sword in the water, and it may be harmful. Another thought is that water is reflective like a mirror, so one would pour the water out as not to see their reflection for the same reason we cover mirrors.
At the conclusion of shiva
To mark the end of shiva, it is customary for the mourners to take a short walk around the neighborhood, as a way of taking a first step back into the world. It is thought that the deceased abides with the mourners. The soul is there to comfort the family. This first walk is for the mourners to escort the soul out of the house, indicating that they are going to be alright.