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In the Jewish tradition, immediately upon the burial of a loved one, some family members may choose to observe a traditional period of grief and mourning referred to as "sitting shiva." This means to mourn seven (shiva, in Hebrew) days, although some people may choose to mourn fewer days. During this time, family members traditionally gather in one home and receive visitors. It is considered a great mitzvah, or commandment, of loving kindness and compassion to pay a home visit to the mourners.
To help you feel comfortable paying a "shiva call," that is, visiting someone in mourning in their home during this time, this article will be divided into two parts. Part one is a list of customs and traditions that you may see and encounter in a house of shiva, or mourning. The second part is a list of suggestions and recommendations of social protocol, such as to how to behave, what to say, and what to bring to a house of shiva.
It is important to note that all Jews do not mourn alike. Some people may choose to observe the rites and customs of mourning very meticulously as a form of spiritual support during their time of grief, even if they are not very religiously observant in their everyday lives. Others may observe only some of these customs and be more relaxed and creative in their observance. In either case, this article will briefly touch on a wide range of traditional customs so as to provide you with as broad a background as possible.
What to Expect in a House of Shiva
When entering a house of shiva, you may notice a tall candle burning on a table or window sill. Often provided by funeral homes, these candles burn for seven days throughout the period of shiva. The candle is not merely a time-keeper, but a symbolic memorial to the deceased in keeping with the biblical sentiment, "the flame of God is the soul of man." (Proverbs 20:27)
In some shiva houses, people cover the mirrors. Superstitious reasons abound for this practice, but it is rooted in a sensitive and meaningful Jewish custom. In a time of grief, the last thing we may feel like doing is putting on a happy face for the outside world. Therefore, it is traditional for men and women not to worry about their appearance during the week of mourning. Women should not feel obliged to put on make-up and men should not feel the need to shave. Covering mirrors is a way to subtly remind mourners and visitors alike of the ephemeral nature of our bodies and our shared mortality.
The mourners themselves, in addition to not wearing make-up or shaving, may also continue to wear a ripped black ribbon or even a ripped article of clothing throughout the week of mourning. It is a tradition for mourners to ritually tear a piece of clothing or ribbon as a symbolic representation of their broken hearts. Wearing this ripped garment or ribbon is an acknowledgment of the psychologically enduring sense of loss felt by the mourners, but it is ultimately put aside after the seven days of mourning.
The mourners may also be in their socks or slippers and be sitting on low stools or even the floor. This is symbolic of the emotional reality of being "brought low" by the grief. By discarding shoes and sitting on the floor, a mourner is somewhat closer to the earth in which they just buried their loved one. It is also a symbol of humility in the face of death.
Traditional mourners will not go to work during the period of shiva, run errands outside of the house, or even turn on the TV or radio. They will shun any kind of entertainment or distraction in order to acknowledge their need to grieve in a timely manner. The period of shiva is intentionally set aside from normal, everyday life in order to enable mourners to gather their thoughts and focus on their memories of the deceased. The purpose of shiva is to give voice to sadness, not suppress it.
It may be surprising for a visitor to discover a house of shiva well stocked with food, drinks and cakes. The week of shiva is not only about remembering and honoring the dead, but is also intended to sustain and celebrate the on-going cycle of life. Mourners are not expected to play host for their guests; therefore, visitors often bring substantial meals and food for the family and guests alike. In fact, the first meal upon returning from the cemetery is called in Hebrew the seudat ha'vra'ah, which means, "the meal of healing." While most mourners may not feel like cooking or eating, it is the responsibility of the community to ensure their physical well-being and make sure there is enough food on-hand for both mourners and well-wishers.
In addition to talking and eating, a house of shiva traditionally includes regular prayer services. Many Jewish communities and synagogues often arrange for daily worship services to be held in the house of shiva so as to provide an opportunity for the mourners to recite the Kaddish. The Kaddish is an ancient prayer in Aramaic, a sister-language of Hebrew spoken by Jews in antiquity, and is recited in memory of the deceased. The Kaddish can be recited everyday, three times a day, throughout the week of mourning and beyond, depending upon the relationship to the deceased. When a parent passes, it is traditional for the children to recite the Kaddish for an entire year, long after the period of shiva concludes.
What to Do in a House of Shiva
If you plan to pay a shiva call, arrange to bring some food to the home instead of flowers (see below). If the family observes the traditional laws of keeping kosher, inquire as to where you might be able to purchase some prepared and packaged kosher bakery items.
Some mourners may adhere to the custom of not greeting their visitors. Some mourners may not even shake hands with their guests. Please do not be offended, as they are not trying to be rude. As mentioned above, mourners are not expected to serve as hosts in their own home during shiva. Preoccupied with their own grief, the Jewish tradition temporarily relieves mourners of the social obligation to "meet and greet" their visitors. In addition, most social greetings include a friendly but often superficial, "How are you doing?" It is considered rude and insensitive to blithely ask someone in grief how are they doing, when it is clear that they may be in great pain and sadness.
Therefore, it is considered appropriate social protocol for guests making a shiva call to make their presence known to the mourners with a simple, "I'm sorry for your loss," or even a compassionate embrace or arm on the shoulder. It is not important what you may say, but rather that you came and offered your presence to a friend in a time of need.
In conversation, do not feel obliged to entertain or distract the mourners. The period of shiva is dedicated to grieving, and acknowledging the pain at the loss of a loved one. Therefore, it is appropriate to share your own memories of the deceased or to tell a story of your experiences with them. Maybe you know something about the deceased that even their family member did not know, in which case you have a valuable gift to share with the mourners. If you did not know the deceased, it is also appropriate to ask your friends in mourning to share with you their memories of the departed. Encouraging someone in grief to talk about their passed loved one is considered a great kindness, as you are providing a sympathetic, compassionate ear.
Hopefully you will not feel so uncomfortable in a house of shiva that you end up avoiding speaking with those in mourning. Similarly, do not feel that you have to spend all of your time speaking with the mourners. It is appropriate to bring children to a house of shiva; it is appropriate to eat the cakes and pastries available, and it is also acceptable to talk with other guests and socialize. While making a shiva call is not an occasion to party, the atmosphere should not be one of complete deferential silence or hushed whispers. A house of shiva should have an air of a family gathering albeit for a solemn reason, but it should also be a house in which, despite the presence of death, life continues.
Instead of flowers, it is traditional for those wishing to express their condolences to make charitable contributions to causes and organizations which were important to the deceased. The reasoning behind this custom is that while flowers may beautify a gravesite or home for a few days, a monetary contribution to a worthy organization supports ideals and actions in the real world that honor the charitable intentions of the deceased. Families often announce such charities at a funeral, in which case it is appropriate to send a contribution in the honor of the deceased. Such organizations often send a card to the mourners acknowledging your gift so your contribution will not go unappreciated.
If you cannot make a shiva call in person, it is also appropriate to send a card or write a letter because the most important gift that you can provide to a friend in grief is your presence. It can be very meaningful to a friend to know that you took the time to remember them and cared enough to contact them in a time of need. And if you are able to visit in person, it does not matter what you say or bring, only that you cared enough to be there for them.