Shiva Customs

During shiva the entire physical environment of the mourner is transformed to acknowledge the immediacy of death.


Reprinted with permission from Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, & Mourn as a Jew (Schocken Books).

Shiva [the seven days of intensive mournng that follows the death of a relative]is traditionally observed either in the home of the deceased or in the home of a principal mourner. If possible, mourners spend the whole week in the shiva house together, sleeping under the same roof. Where this is not practical, mourners share their waking hours.

Transformation of Space During Shiva

Just as shiva transforms how mourners pass time, it also changes the look and use of space.

– Sitting low to the ground–on the floor, on cushions, or special benches provided by the funeral home–is an outward sign of being struck down by grief. (Visitors sit on regular chairs and couches.)

– The practice of covering the mirrors began centuries ago and was based on a belief that spirits were attracted to mirrors. Some people thought that the soul could be trapped in the reflection or that the dead person’s spirit lingered on earth for a time and might reach out from “the other side.” The rabbis reinterpreted the folk cus­tom, declaring that mirrors should be covered to discour­age vanity and encourage inner reflection. Regardless of its symbolism, covering mirrors is a striking visual cue, a token of the disruption and grief felt by everyone who enters the house.

– 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.

– A condolence book (often provided by the funeral home) may be set out in a prominent spot. This can be a useful record if family members wish to write thank-you notes to visitors. Condolence books and thank-you notes are American secular and Christian customs that have been adopted by many Jews. Though traditionally one would never thank someone (or expect to be thanked) for fulfilling a mitzvah [commandment] as profound as honoring the dead or comforting the bereaved, many people find that writing to visitors and answering sympathy cards are part of the healing process.

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Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include The New Jewish Baby Book, Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

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