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What is Sitting Shiva? An explanation for the non-Jewish person

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The Jewish people have a unique ritualistic way of grieving a loved one. This can seem very foreign to the non-Jew. The Jewish people believe in expressing their sadness openly and have five stages of mourning: aninut, Shiva, sheloshim, yud-bet Chodesh, and yahrzeit. Shiva, also referred to as Sitting Shiva is the second stage of mourning in the Jewish tradition.  Shiva is the first day of mourning after burial.

What does Sitting Shiva mean?

Shiva is coined from the Hebrew word “Shi’va” meaning seven. This denotes the seven-days of structured mourning by the bereaved family. The rite is announced immediately after the funeral, which runs through to Shacharit, the seventh day. While Shiva lasts for seven days, it isn’t unusual to see families practicing this art for one to three days. This might be due to factors like the deceased’s wishes, the bereaved family’s decisions, and others. 

Shiva can be dated back to biblical times when the first ritual was recorded in the Torah the time when Methuselah, the world’s oldest man, passed on and was mourned for seven days.

What are the protocols of Sitting Shiva?

Typically, Shiva is held in the home of the deceased as it is believed that the spirit of the dead still lives in that vicinity. Today, with the dispersal of families worldwide, Shiva is held concurrently in different locations. During the process, mourners usually sit on low stools or boxes while sympathizers come to pay them condolence visits. Thus the term “Sitting Shiva,” indicates that the death of a loved one humbles the mourner.

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To show that they are aveilim (mourners), people wear non-leather shoes at the cemetery. Upon arrival from the graveyard, each individual washes their hands before entering the house. The washing of hands signifies the separation of oneself from spiritual uncleanness that Judaism ascribes to death. Bowls of water and disposable towels are positioned at the entrance of the house. A Shiva candle is lit for seven days in memorial of the departed soul. Stipulated prayer times are set where a rabbi presides over the prayer meetings.

Practices associated with Sitting Shiva

The religious event can be attended by non-Jews who are keen on learning the traditions. It’s ideal to make a Shiva call before visiting the immediate family of the dead. This gives them a sense of belonging and remind mourners that they have all the support they need in the trying times. There are various practices unique to each home. Here’s a few of them:

  • Mirrors are covered

During Shiva, the mourner is less concerned about their natural appearance. The covering of mirrors represents a moment of loneliness and sober reflection. During the mourning period, some people may decide not to wear makeup or new clothing, shave or wear new shoes. 

  • Food is served during Shiva

On returning to the Shiva house, the guests are offered their first meal called Seudat Havra’ah or the meal of condolence. This meal usually consists of Jewish foods like lentils, bread, dairy meal, cooked eggs, and other soluble foods. Bread is synonymous with life hence its importance in Judaism. The meal of condolence is a form of expressing care during Shiva.

  • Condolence calls are made

From the burial to the week of Shiva, condolence calls are made. During this period, mourners are usually at home grieving their loss and trying to get back on their feet. While visiting, touch and hug them as this soothes the heart of the mourners. During the condolence call, mourners and guests remember and share good memories. Visitors are expected to strictly follow the hours of visitation designated by the family during this mourning period.

What acts are prohibited during Shiva?

Sitting Shiva is usually three days of intense mourning period accompanied by the other four days. Below are some of the acts restricted during this period:

  • Bathing except for personal hygiene
  • Any festivities
  • Engaging in sexual activities
  • Studying of any kind, especially reading the books of Job, Lamentations, and some chapters of Jeremiah.

It’s inappropriate to be talking about the dead’s passage, except if the bereaved brings up the discussion. It’s advised to let people grieve in their own way and on their own terms. Be compassionate towards the mourners during Shiva as this will help their healing process.