Shiva, the First Seven Days of Mourning

Shiva is observed in the home as an intensive mourning period for close relatives.

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers).

After the burial, mourners return home (or, ideally, to the home of the deceased) to sit shiva for seven days. Shiva is simply the Hebrew word for seven. During the shiva week, mourners are expected to remain at home and sit on low stools. This last requirement is intended to reinforce the mourners' inner emotions. In English we speak of "feeling low," as a synonym for depression; in Jewish law, the depression is acted out literally. 

There are seven relatives for whom a Jew is required to observe shiva: father or mother, sister or brother, son or daughter, and spouse.

During the shiva week, three prayer services are conducted daily at the mourners' house. The synagogue to which the mourning family belongs usually undertakes to ensure that a minyan (at least 10 adult Jews) be present at each service. Among Orthodox Jews, a male mourner leads the service and recites the Kaddish prayer for the dead. Some Orthodox, and virtually all non-Orthodox, Jews encourage women to recite the Kaddish as well.

jewish shivaAccording to Jewish law, there is a specific etiquette for paying a shiva visit. Visitors are to enter quietly, take a seat near the mourner, and say nothing until the mourner addresses them first. This has less to do with ritual than with common sense: The visitor cannot know what the mourner most needs at that moment. For example, the visitor might feel that he or she must speak about the deceased, but the mourner might feel too emotionally overwrought to do so. Conversely, the visitor might try to cheer the mourner by speaking of a sports event or some other irrelevancy at just the moment when the mourner's deepest need is to speak of the dead. And, of course, the mourner might just wish to sit quietly and say nothing at all.

Unfortunately, people frequently violate this Jewishly mandated procedure. Particularly if the deceased was very old, the atmosphere at a shiva house often becomes inappropriately lighthearted, as Jews also try to avoid confronting the fact of death.

Mourners must not shave, take a luxurious bath, wear leather shoes (which Jewish tradition regards as particularly comfortable), have sex, or launder their clothes during the week of shiva. If the family of the deceased is in desperate economic circumstances, its members are permitted to return to work after three days of mourning.

In the past, when the Jewish community was less affluent, this leniency was utilized more frequently. Solomon Luria, a great Polish rabbinical scholar of the 16th century, was asked by a melamed (a teacher who tutored young boys in Hebrew) if he might return to work before shiva was complete; otherwise he feared the parents would hire another teacher for their children. Rabbi Luria gave him permission on the grounds that his livelihood was at stake and on the further, rather pathetically humorous, grounds that since a Hebrew teacher's life is quite miserable, everyone would know he was not returning to work out of pleasure.

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.