Shiva Customs

During shiva the entire physical environment of the mourner is transformed to acknowledge the immediacy of death.

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Beginning of Shiva

Shiva starts when the mourners return home from the funeral. The rituals are elemental, and for the most part wordless.

- Shoes: Mourners remove their shoes and refrain from wearing leather shoes--an ancient sign of luxury--while in the shivahouse. Wearing cloth slippers, socks, or going barefoot is a sign of being humbled by loss.

- Water: A basin of water and a towel may be left outside the door for people to wash their hands, a ritual gesture that separates the mitzvah of honoring the dead from the mitzvah of comforting the bereaved. (This is usually done at the cemetery.)

- Light: It is customary to light a large shiva candle, also called a ner daluk--burning light--which burns for seven days and nights. Candles are universal symbols of the divine spark that inhabits the body. In the words of the Bible, "The soul is the lamp of God." The candle is placed in a prominent spot and lit without saying a bless­ing. The immediate family might gather and designate someone to light the flame; this honor can go to a child, close friend, or other "unofficial" mourner. The funeral home provides a long-burning candle or a special electric light that stays lit throughout shiva.

- Food: Serving a meal [seudat ha-havra'ah or meal of condolence] to mourners upon their return from the cemetery is a tangible act of condolence. Al­though the bereaved tend to be uninterested in eating, friends provide nourishment to signal that life must go on.

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.