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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers).
After the burial, mourners return home (or, ideally, to the home of the deceased) to sit shiva for seven days. Shiva is simply the Hebrew word for seven. During the shiva week, mourners are expected to remain at home and sit on low stools. This last requirement is intended to reinforce the mourners’ inner emotions. In English we speak of “feeling low,” as a synonym for depression; in Jewish law, the depression is acted out literally.
There are seven relatives for whom a Jew is required to observe shiva: father or mother, sister or brother, son or daughter, and spouse.
During the shiva week, three prayer services are conducted daily at the mourners’ house. The synagogue to which the mourning family belongs usually undertakes to ensure that a minyan (at least 10 adult Jews) be present at each service. Among Orthodox Jews, a male mourner leads the service and recites the Kaddish prayer for the dead. Some Orthodox, and virtually all non-Orthodox, Jews encourage women to recite the Kaddish as well.
According to Jewish law, there is a specific etiquette for paying a shiva visit. Visitors are to enter quietly, take a seat near the mourner, and say nothing until the mourner addresses them first. This has less to do with ritual than with common sense: The visitor cannot know what the mourner most needs at that moment. For example, the visitor might feel that he or she must speak about the deceased, but the mourner might feel too emotionally overwrought to do so. Conversely, the visitor might try to cheer the mourner by speaking of a sports event or some other irrelevancy at just the moment when the mourner’s deepest need is to speak of the dead. And, of course, the mourner might just wish to sit quietly and say nothing at all.
Unfortunately, people frequently violate this Jewishly mandated procedure. Particularly if the deceased was very old, the atmosphere at a shiva house often becomes inappropriately lighthearted, as Jews also try to avoid confronting the fact of death.
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