Shiva is defined as the seven days immediately following the funeral, with the day of the funeral counting as day one. These are, understandably, the most intense days of mourning. Traditionally, during the shiva period the mourners remain at home except for Shabbat. This is a time for the mourners to receive the condolences of family, friends, and community. Today, families sometimes choose to observe the rituals of shiva for fewer than seven days, and may choose to split the location of shiva between the deceased’s residence and that of the mourners.
Our clergy can assist in decisions regarding observance of shiva and minyanim. Also, the congregation will provide siddurim (prayer books) and kippot at the mourners’ home, and also ensures the presence of a minyan leader and a minyan, which counts both men and women, as defined by Jewish Center policy.
Preparations for the Shiva House
Many people find it helpful to have a close friend stay at the home while everyone else goes to the cemetery for the funeral. The role of this person is to see that all details are taken care of and the house is prepared for the observance of shiva. These details should not be the priority of the mourners. The main preparations are:
Pitcher of Water: A pitcher of water should be placed outside the open front door for those returning from the cemetery. We wash our hands after attending the cemetery to symbolically cleanse ourselves after proximity with the dead. Paper towels and a trash receptacle should be placed nearby.
Mirrors: It is customary to cover the mirrors to remind us of the secondary importance of the physical self during our mourning.
Memorial Candle: The funeral home usually provides the memorial candle. The candle will be lit by the mourners immediately upon returning home and will burn for the entire seven-day period of shiva. There is no blessing that is said at the lighting of the candle, but any thoughts that someone would like to share may be appropriate. One traditional phrase that is often said is, “Ner Hashem Nishmat Adam – The candle of God is the soul of a person.” (Prov. 20:27)
Meal of Condolence: Relatives and/or friends of the mourners set out a meal of condolence for the immediate family. The Jewish Center can be helpful in suggesting how to arrange for this meal. Bread and hard-boiled eggs, symbolizing the continuity of life, are traditionally served. The simplicity of this meal helps to define the mood of the shiva period.
Low Chairs: The Jewish Center will provide low shiva chairs with backs for the mourners. The fact that these chairs are lower than normal symbolizes the way that mourners feel, and is yet another way to mark the unique nature of the shiva period.
What You Can Do as a Comforter
The role of the friend or comforter to someone who is mourning is critical to their emotional and physical state. There are many times when a friend or family member can provide a meal or other nourishment as well as serve as a caring “gatekeeper” when the mourner needs time to himself or herself. In order to provide the most assistance, comforters should ask the mourner what they can do to help and then make sure all of the mourner’s needs are met. If necessary, a friend can say things to other people that are not possible for the mourner to say.
Customs During Shiva
Friends and relatives are strongly encouraged to comfort the mourner in visits of consolation. In a house of mourning, the mourner is not a host and the visitors are not guests. The best time to visit a mourner is usually in the afternoon or at the minyan, which is traditionally held in the evening. The front door should be left unlocked so that no one needs to ring the doorbell. Visitors acknowledge all the mourners for their loss, keeping visits brief in recognition that this is a house of mourning.
Friends may be interested in sending food. It is recommended that one friend be designated to coordinate the food that is brought to the shiva home so that there is not too much. Traditionally, the food in the shiva house is for the mourners and the immediate family; it is not intended for entertaining visitors. Serving food at the time of the minyanim is optional and solely at the discretion of the family. Leftover food may be donated to community charities, a job for which a friend may wish to take responsibility. Please check the list of charities at the back of this booklet.
There is no specific observance prescribed for the end of shiva. However, recognizing the difficulty of the transition back to one’s ordinary routine, tradition suggests that mourners take a short walk in the neighborhood to signal the formal ending of shiva and a return to society. Shiva and the other customs that are followed after the funeral apply to everyone even if the deceased was not Jewish.
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(Excerpted from "Saying Goodbye: A Guide to Dealing with the Passing of a Loved One" .)