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What Are the Most Common Customs for Shiva?

If you are familiar with Judaism, you have most likely heard of Shiva. But, for those less inclined, Shiva (meaning seven) is the seven day process of mourning that those of the Jewish faith observe after an immediate family member has passed. During this period, family members mourn the loss of their loved one, while also beginning the first stages in the process of healing after a loss. It is also customary for friends of the deceased and the family to offer their condolences during this time. 

How is Shiva Observed?

Shiva begins immediately after the burial of a loved one, and ends on the 7th day of mourning after Shacharit (the morning service).  Shiva is normally observed by family members sitting in the house of a parent, sibling, or child who has passed, though if not possible the residence of a family member or friend is acceptable. Other family members such as aunts, uncles, and cousins also participate in the sitting shiva, though they are not considered mourners and are not required to participate. During this time, family and friends share memories of their loved ones, console one another, and ultimately begin the process of healing together.  

Common Customs During Shiva

Shiva has a variety of common customs that take place during the mourning process. Some of these customs occur even before entering the place of Shiva, while other customs take place throughout the sitting shiva. The time for visitors to enter will ultimately be set by those immediate family members  observing Shiva, and should be respected during their time of grief and healing. 

Entering the Place of Shiva

Before entering the place of Shiva, a bowl of water is set outside the residence so visitors can wash their hands. After entering, a loved one will light the light Shiva candle (usually provided by the funeral home), where the candle will burn for seven days as a sign of respect for the passed loved one, and as a symbol of the soul. It is also customary for visitors to wait until they are spoken to once they enter the place of shiva. 

Low Stools, Chairs, & Boxes

Mourners often sit on low stools, chairs, boxes, and even the floor during the shiva. This is a symbol of showing one’s humility, grief, and pain during the process of healing.

Covering Mirrors

During the shiva, it is a traditional custom to cover any mirrors inside the place of shiva. This is both a symbol and a reminder that the shiva is for mourning  a loved one, and not a time for one's self image. For a similar purpose, many mourners also refrain from the use of cosmetics or common grooming practices such as shaving. 

Giving Condolences

Contrary to many other beliefs, condolences are usually not given during the time of burial. Those wishing to offer condolences do so after the burial, and throughout the shiva. This is done by visiting the place of Shiva and comforting the family of the deceased, while sharing and listening to memories of their loved one that has passed. 

It is customary for visitors to bring shiva baskets and gifts for nourishment, as mourners are forbidden from leaving the house except during Shabbat. It is also considered a great sign of respect and sympathy to plan and coordinate meals for the family at this time, as their attention should be put towards the grieving and healing process. 

The Importance of Shiva

The ultimate goal of the shiva is to provide a time for mourners to heal both emotionally and spiritually. Friends of mourners can help this process by visiting and offering their condolences, and sharing in the memories of the loved one passed. 

Allowing mourners to express their emotions is accepted, and even encouraged to help facilitate the process of healing. Most importantly, family should be together during this time. 

“No more will your sun set, nor your moon be darkened, for God will be an eternal light for you, and your days of mourning shall end.” (Isaiah 60:20)

“Like a man whose mother consoles him, so shall I console you, and you shall be consoled in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)

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