Contact Us

Preparing the House of Mourning

Preparing the House of Mourning


Candles in the House of Mourning

The house of mourning must be prepared with candles for the return of the mourners from the cemetery. Candles, in memory of the deceased, should be kindled and kept burning for the entire seven-day period of shiva. They are kindled upon returning from the cemetery. (The shiva candles are usually provided by the funeral director.)

To the Jew, the candle signifies a special event, some notable occasion in life. There is candlelight on Sabbath, on major holidays, customarily at the Brit, the pidyon ha'ben, under the wedding canopy, and often at occasions of simcha shel mitzvah-meals celebrating the successful conclusion of a commandment.

During shiva, candlelight is the symbol of the human being. The wick and the flame symbolize body and soul, and the bond between them. The flame is the soul that strives ever upward, and brings light into darkness. Jewish mysticism has suggested profound and insightful analogies of the flame and the soul of the deceased in its comments on the shiva candle, yahrzeit lamp and yizkor candle.

  1. Because of this deep significance of the flame, the shiva candle, ideally, should not be an electric fixture, but one of wick and flame, either of olive oil or paraffin. If these are unavailable, an electric light should be used. Also, if there is any danger of fire, the electric light, of course, should be used.

  2. Where the candle should be kindled is a matter of opinion in the sources. It is most proper that it be lit in the home of the deceased, where he lived and died. This should obtain regardless of where the death occurred. If it is not feasible to observe the shiva at the residence of the deceased, it should be kindled wherever the mourners are sitting shiva.

  3. The candle should be kindled immediately upon returning from the cemetery, or upon hearing of the death within the seven days. The candle is left burning for the duration of the shiva, even throughout the Sabbath at which time demonstrative mourning is not observed. Also, on chol ha'moed of Succot and Passover the candle is lit immediately, even though shiva begins after the holiday is over. In such a case, the candles should remain burning through the holiday and until the end of the shiva. It is preferable on those days, however, to place the candles in a room other than the dining room so as to make the symbol of grief less prominent on the holiday which is a joyous occasion for the entire Jewish people.

  4. One candle is sufficient for the household. There should be one lit also wherever the mourners observe the shiva.

Covering the Mirrors

It has been a time-honored tradition to cover the mirrors in the shiva home from the moment of death to the end of shiva. While the custom is of uncertain origin, its practice is appropriate to the pattern of avelut.

A variety of reasons have been advanced for the custom of covering the mirrors:

  • Judaism has always taught that man was created in the image of God and that he derives, from that resemblance, his dignity and his value. It has supplemented this concept with the idea that the death of one of God's creatures diminishes the very image of the Creator Himself. Man's demise represents a disruption of the relationship between the living man and the living God. The dignity of man is the reflection of his Creator and, therefore, the image of the Creator Himself shrinks with the death of His creatures. At the time of the destruction of the image of God, represented by man, the mirror-which serves to reflect man's "image"--ought not be used.

  • When death strikes, the mourner should contemplate the relationship between God and man, Creator and creature. When, instead, the bereaved dwells vainly on self-adoration (through the use of his mirror) and continues to be concerned with his own image and his own creatureliness, he thereby brings to almost comic proportions the austere moment of tragedy.

  • It should be recognized that the mirror occupies an unusual place in the household. It is the object which, more than any other, serves to enhance the attractiveness of man and wife for each other. The silvered glass reflects the external appeal of each of the mates.

    Judaism has taken great care to promote a relationship of kindness, concern, courtesy, and even physical desire between a man and his wife. Nevertheless, with the death of a child or parent or sibling, this intimate relationship must be suspended. One commentator thus states that the ancient custom observed during shiva, of kfi'at hamitah, the overturning of the bed or couch, served as a means of discouraging marital relations. When the cloud of death settles on a household, the mirror-happy symbol of secure and intimate family living-must be covered, and the mourner must concentrate on the painful loss.

  • It is obvious that the individual, if he were isolated from society, would have little need of the precious reflecting glass. The mirror is the means of achieving social acceptance by enhancing the appearance. The spirit of Jewish mourning, however, is the spirit of loneliness, the mourner dwelling silently, and in solitude, on his personal loss. Social etiquette and appearance become terribly insignificant. The covering of the mirror symbolizes the sense of withdrawal in avelut.

  • The fifth reason is a very practical one: Worship services are customarily held in the home of the bereaved, as will be noted below. Jewish law clearly states that one may not worship an image or stand directly in front of one, whether it be a picture, or a reflected image in a mirror. Thus, mirrors must be covered in this temporary House of Worship.

Additional House of Mourning Preparations

Several other matters regarding the house of mourning should be noted. These will be recorded here and discussed in further detail in the appropriate chapters below.

  1. Arrange with the funeral director for shiva benches or stools for all the mourners, even for those who are too ill to sit on them constantly throughout the shiva. The mourners will also require slippers that are not made of leather.

  2. Ask the rabbi or sexton or lay official of the synagogue for a sufficient number of men to constitute a minyan, and for prayer-books for all present, men and women, and skullcaps for the men.

  3. Also arrange for chairs for those who will visit during shiva.

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining Staff via March 10, 2017

To Carol My condolences on your loss. Many have the custom to continue lighting the yahrtzeit candle for the first eleven months of mourning. Reply

Carol Berkson Wilmette, IL March 9, 2017

Why was I given more than one mitzva candle? Reply

Anonymous October 4, 2016

I feel that I'm still confused about the mirror's function.I hope maybe someone can tell me something about the mirror's function in detail. Reply

Simcha M Bart for February 23, 2016

One does not dispose of food left over in after the Shiva is over. The prevailing custom is not to take food out of the Shiva home, but it can be consumed in the house after the Shiva is over.

Anonymous Cote Saint-Luc February 23, 2016

Can you keep the Shiva food in the house of mourning past the 7 days or does it need to be disposed of at the end of the Shiva? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for February 27, 2014

Taking food from a mourner's home It is generally not recommended to take food from a house of mourning. However, if the food will go to waste if left there, it is okay for it to be given to others. Reply

Sheldon Buchman New jersey February 26, 2014

Can a person that has provided the food to the mourners take some of the leftovers
Home. Reply

Donna Lader Cleveland, Ohio May 29, 2008

Question About The Mourners Food At an Orthodox home after the funeral, the mourners ate their meal. There was a lot of food leftover. I learned that you can't give the food away to other people other than the mourners. Why is that? Some of the food was taken by one of the mourners to her first grade class of inner city children who needed the food. Isn't that a mitzvah even if the food wasn't supposed to be taken for that reason? Thank you for any answers... Reply

Related Topics

Introduction: Dealing with Death; The Jewish Approach
Life to Life Library


Yahrtzeit Calculator
Kaddish Service
Yahrtzeit Reminder
Arrange Kaddish for a Loved One