How to Make a Shiva Call
Because a shiva call requires total sensitivity to the needs of the mourner, the tradition mandates appropriate behaviors for the visitor.
The problem is exacerbated by mourners and their families who do not know how to set an appropriate tone. Many observances have become like parties, with plenty of food, drink, and chitchat. Of course, there are alternatives. In some shiva homes, the minyan [prayer service with at least 10 Jews, where the mourner says Kaddish, the memorial prayer] becomes the focus. During the service [or just before and just after it], the life of the deceased is remembered through stories and anecdotes.
Whichever type of shiva home you encounter, there are some basic guidelines for making a shiva call.
Decide when to visit. Listen for an announcement at the funeral service for the times that the mourners will be receiving guests. Usually the options are immediately after the funeral, around the minyanim in the evenings and mornings, or during the day. Should you wish to visit during another time, you may want to call ahead. Some experienced shiva visitors choose to visit toward the end of the week, when it is frequently more difficult to gather a minyan.
Dress appropriately. Most people dress as if attending a synagogue service. Depending on the area of the country, more informal dress might be just as appropriate.
Wash your hands. If you are visiting immediately after the funeral, you will likely see a pitcher of water, basin, and towels near the door. It is traditional to ritually wash your hands upon returning from the cemetery. This reflects the belief that contact with the dead renders a person "impure." There is no blessing to say for this act.
Just walk in. Do not ring the doorbell. The front door of most shiva homes will be left open or unlocked, since all are invited to comfort the mourners. This eliminates the need for the mourners to answer the door. On a practical level, it avoids the constant disruptive ringing of the bell.
Take food to the kitchen. If you are bringing food, take it to the kitchen. Usually there will be someone there to receive it. Identify the food as meat, dairy, or pareve [neither meat nor dairy]. Be sure to put your name on a card or on the container so that the mourners will know you made the gift. It also helps to mark any pots or pans with your name if you want to retrieve them later.
Find the mourners. Go to the mourners as soon as possible. What do you say? The tradition suggests being silent, allowing the mourner to open the conversation. Simply offering a hug, a kiss, a handshake, an arm around the shoulder speaks volumes. If you do want to open a conversation, start with a simple "I'm so sorry" or "I don't know what to say. This must be really difficult for you" or "I was so sorry to hear about _______." Be sure to name the deceased. Why? Because one of the most powerful ways to comfort mourners is to encourage them to remember the deceased.
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