Posted on Sep 8, 2011 in Other stuff
My friend said that after a family member passed away, she needed to go “sit shiva.” I know this is a religious thing, but what exactly is it all about?
You are correct that Shiva is a religious observance. It is a Jewish tradition, and signifies a period of mourning. The word Shiva means seven in the Hebrew language. When one sits Shiva, they do it for a period of seven days so. Loosely translated, Shiva means the seven days of mourning, and is done in order to give the people who have lost someone seven days to adjust to life without their loved one.
The Shiva ritual begins directly after the deceased’s funeral. (Learn more about the Jewish funeral customs in this article from The Jewish Federations of North America.) If mourning the death of a parent, spouse, sibling, or child, one must stay home for seven days. During this time, friends, neighbors and extended family make condolence visits. They are referred to as the non-mourners, and the customary manners are not to initiate conversation with the bereaved, but to allow them to begin a conversation first if they so choose.
During the Shiva days, prayer services are conducted in the home, and the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer is said. It is also acceptable for non-mourners to go to synagogue to offer this prayer as well.
There are certain rules that, according to Jewish tradition, that must be followed during the Shiva period, and particular ways to set up the Shiva house. The Shiva house is typically the home of the deceased or their closest immediate family member. All mourners stay together in that house for the entire seven days. (Sometimes this is not possible due to space issues, but it is definitely preferred.)
There are specific items that are needed to prepare the house before sitting Shiva:
Why these seemingly random items? Keep reading!
The wash basins are set next to the outside doors so condolence callers can wash their hands. This is in tradition of a scared gesture. It separates the duty (mitzvah) of honoring the deceased person from the mitzvah of giving comfort to the mourners.
The ner daluk (Shiva candle) is lit and kept burning for the entire mourning period. This light is a symbol of the divine spark that inhabited the loved one’s body.
Mourners and visitors must sit low to the ground, hence the floor cushions and Shiva benches. The reason for this is that it symbolizes the feeling of being struck down by your grief and loss.
As for the cloth slippers, when you enter a Shiva house, you must not wear shoes made of leather. You can wear cloth socks or slippers or even go barefoot. This signifies that you have been humbled by the death of your loved one.
Aside from the aforementioned rules there are a few more interesting Shiva facts. During the days of Shiva, the mourners are not to do much — if any — activity. This means no cooking or serving and no school or work. Mourners should not wear makeup or shave or do anything that would otherwise bring pleasure or passion to their minds. So, during Shiva there is also no sex allowed.
The doors of the Shiva house remain unlocked at all times so people can come and go as they please without a knock or doorbell that can disturb the mourners. Since no food preparation is allowed, it is up to the visitors to either bring food to the Shiva house, or to prepare it there themselves.
The custom that I find most intriguing deals with mirrors. All the mirrors in the Shiva house must be covered, and stay that will until the seven days are up. Modern Jews do this because it is said that appearance and vanity should be the last thing on the minds of mourners during this initial period of loss. Historically, though, it was believed that spirits were naturally attracted to mirrors, and could become trapped in them — therefore trapping their souls. That said, the modern explanation sits better with me, and makes good sense as well. When someone you loved has died it, should not matter to you if your hair is mussed when you are in mourning.
If you are interested in learning more about the Jewish tradition of Shiva, feel free to take a look at this article, where you can find much more information about Jewish customs, traditions, and holidays.
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