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What is Sitting Shiva?

Many cultures and religions have their own traditional way of grieving after a loved one passes away. In Judaism, this specific tradition is what’s known as shiva. Shiva has customs and rules associated with it, so if you’re trying to figure out the answer to questions like “What is shiva in Judaism? What is a shiva service? Do I actually sit during shiva?”, this article is for you. It will help to answer many of these questions, clarify sitting shiva’s meaning, and provide insight into sitting shiva for non-Jews who aren’t clear what to expect in this mourning ritual.

What is sitting shiva in Judaism?

Shiva is a mourning practice in Judaism observed by the family of a deceased individual. It is a seven day period of mourning and reflection that allows family members and close friends to come together and support one another after the loss of a loved one. Shiva is observed by Jews of various denominations and is considered a meaningful way to honor the deceased and come to terms with their loss within the context of Jewish tradition.

What does “sitting” shiva mean?

Sitting shiva serves as a time for mourning, reflection, and honoring the memory of the departed loved one. The word "shiva" means "seven" in Hebrew, and during this period, mourners often withdraw from their daily activities to focus on their grief for seven days. It is a time to remember the deceased, share memories, offer condolences, and seek comfort and support from family, friends and the wider community.

How do you sit shiva?

During shiva, mourners typically gather in the home of the deceased or the home of a close family member. The environment is usually solemn and reflective, with mirrors covered and the mourners sitting on low stools or cushions. The immediate family members, such as the children or siblings of the deceased, observe certain mourning customs, including refraining from work, avoiding personal grooming, and wearing torn clothing (known as "kriah") as a symbol of their grief.

Do you actually “sit” during shiva?

If you’re asking yourself “What does sitting shiva mean?” you’re probably curious about the sitting part. Sitting shiva’s meaning comes from a practice where Jewish mourners would sit on boxes (or stools that were close to the ground) during the mourning period as they were accepting condolences. While you’re not required to sit the entire shiva, sitting is done as a symbolic gesture to emphasize how “low” you’ve been brought by the passing of the deceased.

How long do you sit shiva for?

Traditionally, shiva lasts for seven days, beginning immediately after the burial or cremation of the deceased. The number seven holds symbolic significance in Jewish tradition. However, it's important to note that in some cases, shiva may be observed for a shorter duration, such as three days or even one day, depending on various factors, including the specific Jewish community and individual circumstances. If you’re concerned over how long to sit shiva, it can also help to communicate with your religious leader or the family.

What is a shiva service?

A shiva service, also known as a minyan, is a prayer service conducted during the shiva period. It typically takes place in the home of the mourners or at a synagogue and is held daily during the mourning period. The service may include recitation of psalms, readings from the Torah, and prayers such as the Mourner's Kaddish.

Is sitting shiva part of a Jewish funeral?

Sitting shiva is not typically considered part of the formal Jewish funeral service itself. The funeral service is focused on the final rites and honoring the deceased, whereas sitting shiva occurs after the burial or cremation and serves as a dedicated period of mourning and reflection for the immediate family and close friends.

Where do you sit shiva?

Shiva is traditionally held in the home of the person who passed away as that’s believed to be where someone’s spirit is said to be after they pass and is where many memories were held during their lifetime.

I’m not Jewish, should I still sit shiva if I’m a close relative?

As someone who is not Jewish, sitting shiva, which is a specifically Jewish mourning practice, is not a religious obligation for you. However, whether or not to participate in sitting shiva is a personal decision that depends on your relationship with your Jewish relative(s) and your desire to support the grieving family during their time of loss. If you feel it would be meaningful and respectful to join them in their mourning process, you can discuss your intentions with the immediate family and seek their guidance on how you can best show your support. Ultimately, being present, offering condolences, and expressing your sympathy in a way that aligns with your own beliefs and relationship with the deceased can still be a meaningful way to honor their memory and provide comfort to the family.

Who has to sit at a Jewish shiva? Do grandchildren sit shiva?

In a traditional Jewish shiva, the immediate family members of the deceased are the primary individuals who sit shiva. This typically includes the spouse, children, siblings, and parents of the deceased. These individuals are considered "avelim" (mourners) and observe the mourning rituals associated with shiva. Depending on the age of a relative, it may be difficult for them to participate in each aspect of sitting shiva (such as remaining seated for the extended period of shiva), but both children and grandchildren are generally expected to respect the environment of the shiva house.

Traditional shiva customs in the home

The rules and customs of sitting shiva can vary somewhat depending on the specific Jewish community and individual preferences and is just one of many different customs after someone passes away. Here are some common practices and guidelines observed during shiva

Duration: Shiva typically lasts for seven days, beginning immediately after the burial or cremation of the deceased. However, there are variations, such as three days or one day, depending on circumstances or specific customs.

Location: Shiva is usually observed in the home of the deceased or the home of a close family member. Some families may choose an alternative location, such as a synagogue or community center, particularly if they anticipate a large number of visitors.

Seclusion: During shiva, mourners often withdraw from their normal activities and focus on mourning. This includes refraining from work, avoiding personal grooming, and not engaging in leisure activities. The primary focus is on grief and remembrance.

Clothing: Immediate family members, such as children or siblings of the deceased, may practice kriah, which involves wearing torn clothing as a symbolic expression of mourning. Others may wear black or somber attire.

Mirrors: Mirrors in the shiva house are often covered or turned around. This practice is intended to discourage excessive vanity or focus on personal appearance during a time of mourning.

Door locks: Doors are often unlocked during shiva to avoid the disruption of knocking, doorbells, chimes, and other sounds of someone visiting. This also doubles as a way to signal an open door for anyone there to support the mourners during their time of grief.

Sitting on low stools: Mourners may sit on low stools or cushions instead of regular chairs or sofas. This practice is meant to reflect a state of mourning and humility.

Condolences and comfort: Friends, relatives, and members of the community visit the mourners during shiva to offer condolences and provide comfort and support. Visitors typically share memories of the deceased, engage in conversation, and may bring food or assist with practical matters.

Minyan: Mourners strive to have a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish adults, present for prayer services held during shiva. The minyan provides support and allows for the recitation of certain prayers that require a communal context.

Restrictions on leaving: Mourners typically do not leave the shiva house during the period of shiva, except for specific reasons such as attending the funeral of another close relative or a pressing personal matter. This restriction helps maintain the focus on mourning and community support.

It's important to note that these rules and customs can be adapted to individual circumstances and personal preferences. Additionally, specific Jewish communities may have additional traditions or variations on these practices.

If you know someone who has passed away and are looking for a way to support their family, consider setting up a memorial website. Memorial websites on Ever Loved are free to use, simple to set up, and give you a singular place to congregate after someone has passed away. Memorial websites come with the ability to raise funds, post event information, collect condolences and memories, post an obituary, and much more.

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Last updated June 30, 2023
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