Shiva is the seven-day period immediately following the burial of a loved one. During this time, families gather together to mourn. It is an intensely personal time filled with ritual and meaning. And yet, despite the heaviness, it is a time when the community shows support for those grieving by visiting their home and participating in a shiva minyan. In fact, it is a Jewish obligation to help comfort mourners.
Sitting shiva can be an intimidating or uncomfortable process to those who have never performed the mitzvah. The tradition goes back centuries and feelings of apprehension can be mitigated by becoming aware of what to expect.
Temple Emanuel of South Hills Senior Rabbi Aaron Meyer explained that sitting shiva or coming together for a shiva minyan “offers an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who mourn and express your love and support for them. When entering, one might expect a relatively somber household. This is our opportunity to care for those in the most intensive period of mourning.”
“The job of the person coming to a shiva house is to enable the grieving process to precede in a healthy way,” said Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Foundation Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff. “You’re not coming to a party or a place where you mumble clichés. It’s a place where human beings need your help. The best way to provide that help is to be as human and real as possible.”
When entering the home of a family in mourning, one may encounter several Jewish traditions that are part of shiva. Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills pointed out that these traditions may start with the clothes a person wears. “They may be wearing the garment they wore at the funeral, called kriah, because they tore it in open display of mourning.” The kriah may also be a black ribbon adorning the mourner’s shirt that has been torn. This is used as an outward expression of loss and grief felt at the loss of a loved one.
Mirrors may be covered and those in attendance might be sitting on low stools or cushions rather than the living room furniture. Rosenblum explained that often “people take the cushions from their sofas and use those placed on the floor.”
Those attending a shiva need not wear formal suits and dresses as they would for a Shabbat service, rather, according to Schiff, they should “come dressed for respectful commemoration of the life of a human being who ought to be remembered respectfully.”
Meyer agreed, stressing it’s more important to show support for a person in mourning than worrying about the clothes one wears.
“Physical presence always matters more than what one is wearing,” he said. “If you are coming straight from work, to make it on time for the minyan, whether you are doing construction or banking, come as you are, rather than miss the opportunity because you’re afraid you won’t fit in.”
Often, food will be present even though a shiva is not a social occasion. So, rather than bring deli trays or other food when you arrive, many communities will organize a meal not just for the first few days of mourning, but for an extended period after, allowing the family to focus on their loss and grief.
One of the hardest things for those attending a shiva is knowing what to say to a mourner. “None of us like to see someone in raw pain,” said Rosenblum. “What we tend to do is try to comfort ourselves, so you’re not sitting with someone in such raw pain, we tend to divert the conversation to something different or funny.”
While such diversions might make us feel better, it isn’t the reason we’re sitting shiva with the family.
“Our sages teach us, when you share someone’s pain, you actually take a piece of it from them, so that’s actually what you’re trying to do. While this is difficult, it’s important to remember that’s the goal.”
Rabbi Seth Adelson, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, said that Jewish custom calls for guests to not make the mourners attend to their needs. To this end, those attending a shiva should not knock on the door; they should simply enter the home. And they should not address the mourners unless they speak first.
If you’re unsure of what to say, Rosenblum said, it is appropriate to talk about how the deceased touched your life. “Even though you may cause the mourner to cry or tear up, that’s fine, you’ll never be disrespectful if you impart a story or the way that person touched your life. You’ll never offend them. You may make them cry, but you won’t offend them.”
Shiva also helps a family in mourning fulfill their obligation for daily prayer. “Mourners do not leave the house, so they fulfill their daily obligations to pray morning, afternoon and evening at home,” said Adelson. “The congregation generally sends somebody to lead services and prayer books as needed.”
These prayers, according to Meyer, include the daily prayers, Jewish prayers of mourning — El Maleh Rachamim or Kaddish Yatom, the mourner’s kaddish — “and a number of Psalms that offer comfort and remind us of God’s presence and nearness.”
Shiva is an important part of the grieving process, but it is not the final step. “You never know when a trip to the grocery store is going to remind them of a loved one’s favorite food or a particular smell is going to bring memories rushing back, even years later,” Meyer said. “Recognize shiva as the beginning of a mourning process. Continue to be there for friends and loved ones mourning.”
“Bring your human presence, a willingness to listen and the warmth of your hug,” Schiff said. That will be more than enough. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@