Funeral and mourning rituals and traditions vary greatly between different cultures and religions. Today we are taking a look at the Jewish mourning tradition of “sitting shiva”. To help us understand what this means and what we can do as mourners or supporters of mourners, we have consulted with “The Shiva Ladies,” Karen Cooke and Shelley Marine of In Time of Need, a shiva and event planning services in the greater Philadelphia area.
Sitting shiva is the tradition of mourning in the Jewish religion, and Judaism provides a beautiful, structured approach to mourning. Father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter or spouse are those who are considered mourners, once above the age of 13. Their friends and family gather as a community providing strength and support to help the bereaved through the process of grieving.
Shiva comes from the Hebrew number 7 (sheva), as shiva is traditionally observed for 7 days. During this time, the family stays in a home together, focusing on their grief and recalling their loved one. While shiva is traditionally a seven day period, families often choose to sit for a shorter period of time; 1, 2 or 3 days are quite common. Generally, shiva is announced at the funeral and the information will usually be listed in the obituary. Synagogues may also announce shiva information for their members in bulletins or emails.
Many people are uncomfortable with consoling the bereaved. Jewish customs define the proper etiquette and can help relieve some of those awkward feelings. One should be willing to listen to the mourner and allow them to lead any conversation. The mourner may find a hug and a moment of hand-holding a comfort, but a simple “I’m Sorry” can be enough. Sharing stories or memories about the deceased is appropriate. If the mourner does not feel like talking at all, sitting in silence with them is perfectly acceptable.
Offering to run errands, cook or clean up, or watch children is also appropriate and appreciated. Anything that assists in alleviating the daily chores from those sitting shiva will be seen as an immense help.
It is important to remember that different families will observe the Shiva period differently. While Jewish law proscribes rituals such as covering mirrors, not wearing leather, not shaving, tearing clothes, and sitting lower than the guests, each families decides which, if any of these rituals they will follow. Once the shiva period is finished, the family will often take a walk around the block together to officially end the rituals associated with sitting shiva.