After the death of a loved one, it’s important to rely on the support and love of those surrounding you. The Shiva is the second phase of the Jewish mourning process, and allows mourners to pay their respects to the deceased, as well as the family. Attending the Shiva is a sign of respect, as well as the appropriate way to console the mourning family. Before holding or attending a Shiva, it’s important to understand this custom, and the rules that traditionally apply.
When is the Shiva Held?
In the Jewish tradition, the funeral is generally held as soon as possible. This practice helps the soul to move into a peaceful place early on, and enables the family to process this grief.
The family holds the Shiva for 7 days after the burial, and is the second stage of the mourning process.
Where is the Shiva Held?
Traditionally, the family holds the Shiva in the home of the individual who passed away. This location is significant to the rest of the family, and is an important place to say goodbye. However, the shiva may also be held in the residence of one of the mourning family members. For example, if a mother passes away, one of the children may choose to host the shiva.
Holding multiple shivas in different locations has also become somewhat common for families that are spread out.
How is the Shiva Home Prepared?
Before holding the shiva, there are several preparations that the family traditionally makes.
- The Family Sits on Cushions: To fully process their emotions, the mourning family sometimes sits on cushions, which are lower to the ground. This position symbolizes their grief. However, the rest of the family will remain seated at a normal height on standard furniture.
- Covering Mirrors in the Home: During the mourning process, and especially the shiva, mourners are encouraged not to be outwardly vain. So, the family generally covers mirrors, as well as any photos. Rather than concern over appearance, mourners focus on conversation, and helping the family. This also encourages personal reflection on the time spent with the deceased individual.
- Keeping Doors Unlocked: Because mourners are inside the house during the Shiva, the host generally keeps the doors unlocked. This also allows mourners to enter and exit at will. In doing so, they do not distract the mourners from their reflection, conversation, and grief.
- Leaving a Condolence Book: In Judaism, paying respects to the deceased and their families is a mitzvah, or commandment. Because of this, Jewish families who are mourning are not under any social or religious obligation to thank mourners. And visitors should not expect to be thanked either. However, some families choose to leave out condolences books during the shiva. This helps keep a record of people who attended, and gives the family the option to write thank you notes. While this is by no means expected, it can be cathartic.
- Burning Memorial Candles: Another traditional part of the mourning process is burning candles throughout the shiva.
- Washing Hands Before Entering the Shiva Home: As family and friends enter the Shiva home, they are expected to wash their hands using a basin left outside. This ritual cleanses their hands, preparing them to comfort those who have suffered a loss. This basin also helps mourners who have moved from the cemetery to the house to wash away impurity from death.
Customs for the Mourning Family
Throughout the time that the family hosts a shiva, they are excused from duties at work and chores around the house. Instead, this time is spent mourning, and overcoming the loss with the strength of those around them. Traditionally, the family is forbidden from working, as well as leisurely activities like listening to music and watching television. However, these customs can vary depending on the family’s individual preferences.
The Meal of Consolation
The meal of consolation, also known as the meal of condolence, generally follows the family’s return from the cemetery. This point in time is also the beginning of the shiva. This meal is provided by the community, and is intended to help the family recover from these stresses.
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