Considered one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world, Judaism is rich in history with time-honored rites and rituals passed down for centuries including those practiced during the time of mourning known as shiva. The traditions observed during shiva help those left behind deal with the loss of a loved one while grieving with family and friends.
The word shiva actually has different meanings in various cultures found all around the world. In Hebrew, it translates to seven, the number of days in which this structured mourning period takes place. Commonly referred to as “sitting shiva” or attending this solemn event at a “shiva house,” there are different observations according to certain Jewish communities and their beliefs including:
Following the burial services, the house of the deceased, an immediate family member (spouse, child, parent or sibling), becomes a place of communal support for those in bereavement. Traditionally, these mourners remain in the house during the entire week-long period of mourning and one’s appearance is of little importance.
For those unfamiliar with Judaism and its practices, some may wonder what to bring or send to a shiva during this time. As with many families who are grieving, bringing or sending food is a common practice to show you care.
Another way to honor the deceased is to plant a tree in Israel in their name or make a donation to a designated charity, synagogue or favored charitable organization.
Covering mirrors in the house of shiva is a common practice for many people. During shiva, mourners abstain from daily rituals such as shaving or the use of cosmetics which emphasizes the belief that personal appearance is simply not important while grieving.
Mirrors are also covered as a way to remind us the observation of shiva is not about ourselves but rather a time to concentrate on the deceased. The concept of vanity is shunned as this is considered a time of self-reflection, to concentrate on one’s inner self and not outward appearances.
In the shiva house, mourners are seen seated on the floor, on pillows, low boxes, stools or smaller chairs. If a person is unable to perform this feat due to advanced age or physical impairment, they are permitted to seat themselves more traditionally. This is an outward symbol showing one’s humility, grief and the pain of the mourner being brought “low” by the passing of a loved one.
The Old Testament relates the suffering of Job in many ways and during a time of mourning it is said three friends sat with him on the ground solemnly for seven days and nights. However, the Talmud relates they sat “to the ground” and not upon it. This more literal translation is believed to be at the very root of this custom of being seated low rather than on the ground itself.