The Forward Guide To Sitting Shiva
Not to be confused with Shiva, one of main Hindu deities, Shiva in Judaism is the week of mourning following the death of a family member. It is colloquially referred to as “sitting shiva,” in reference to the low stools that mourners are required to sit on in observance of the mourning period.
In Judaism, there a five stages of mourning that last a year in total. Sitting shiva is the third stage; after the initial mourning and burial, shiva is the time where mourners sit in their homes as visitors come to give comfort (the fourth stage is sheloshim, which is 30 days after the deceased has passed. It is often commemorated with a public memorial service outside of the home. The fifth and final stage is the yahrzeit, where the mourner commemorates the death of a loved one after a year). Shiva is the Hebrew word for seven, because this period of mourning lasts a full week. Only immediate family members are required to sit shiva — a child, a parent, a sibling or a spouse.
There are different traditions that mourners observe. Traditionally, mourners do not work, sit on low chairs while receiving visitors (who often face the mourners while sitting on regular chairs), all mirrors are covered in the mourner’s house, and they wear a torn garment (that was torn during the burial service, also known as kriah). Some people, instead of wearing clothes that have been torn (it’s a small tear), will instead tear a black ribbon and affix it onto their clothing. The torn clothes are not worn on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.
Other traditions include lighting a mourner’s ‘yarzheit’ candle for the entirety of shiva (some recite a prayer with it as well), not shaving, not wearing leather shoes, not having sex, and not doing laundry.
7 — days that are traditionally required to sit shiva
10 — minimum quorum required to conduct prayer services three times a day in the mourner’s home.
30 — days until sheloshim, where loved ones of the deceased will commemorate the dead by visiting the grave and/or hosting a memorial service.
“They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Job 2:13
The concept of sitting shiva, even the specification for seven days, is mentioned numerous times in the Torah. The earliest mention is in Genesis; the patriarch Jacob dies and the Torah describes his son Joseph mourning the loss for a period of seven days.
Because of the above passage in Job, traditionally, mourners would turn couches and beds over and sat on the floor. But over time, the tradition was amended to simply using a low stool.
While historically, community members would come together to help set up a mourner’s home for shiva, nowadays the process is generally pretty streamlined and efficient, with community organizations often coming to set up the mourner’s house for shiva, including providing the low chairs and extra chairs for visitors, covering up the mirrors, and providing memorial candles. There are even companies like Shivashade that make the process of covering up mirrors less arduous.
In secular circles, the shiva period is at times shorter, lasting from three days to only one day (or even just a few hours post-funeral). The shiva house will often have catered food, specifically “Jewish” food like bagels, lox and corn beef.
“Sitting shiva, cover the ‘mirra,’ it’s going to be a Jewish funeral tonight.” — “Billy Crystal,” played by Christopher Wisner, in the play “Who Killed Woody Allen?”
Michelle Honig is the style writer at the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] and Twitter.