Leaving the House During Shiva

The most characteristic tradition of Jewish mourning is the mourner's withdrawal to the sanctuary of his home following the death of a close relative. He does not mix socially, participate in joyous events or take pleasure trips during this time.

This tradition of staying at home is based, generally, on two reasons. First, is a practical reason : If he is prohibited from doing business or experiencing pleasure, home is the most logical place to be. Second, it has positive, curative value : Mourning is an in-depth experience in loneliness. The ties that bind one soul to another have been severed and there is a gnawing sense of solitude. To remain incommunicado is to express grief over the disruption of communication with someone we loved. At certain times every person has a right, even an obligation to be alone. This is such a time. The mourner, therefore, remains at home during the entire period of the shiva. It then becomes the moral duty of the Jewish community to come to the door of the bereaved and to comfort him with words of praise for the deceased, and thereby to draw him out of his loneliness and into the social structure once again.

Following are some details of the law of staying at home during shiva:

  1. If there is a compelling need for the mourner himself to leave the home for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah that he personally is obligated to perform, such as the circumcision of his son, or the purchase of tefillin, where others cannot help him, he may leave the home for this purpose.

  2. The mourner may not leave the house to participate in a mitzvah that can be accomplished without his presence, such as attendance at a Bar Mitzvah, circumcision of the son of a relative or a friend, attending a wedding ceremony, or paying a condolence call upon other bereaved.

  3. If in the house of shiva there is no available place for the mourners to sleep, or if they are needed at their own home (especially if one of the mourners is a mother of young children), or if the bereaved wish to change the place of mourning so that personal friends and neighbors may have the opportunity to visit, they are permitted to leave the house of shiva. They must do this, however, in the manner described below.

  4. If during the shiva there occurs the death of another of the seven close relatives for whom he is religiously required to mourn, he may leave the house to follow the funeral procession, inconspicuously. If he is needed in order to make funeral arrangements or to act as a pallbearer, etc., he is permitted to attend the funeral even during the first day of shiva. If he is not needed for these duties, he may not attend another funeral until the third day of shiva (that is, the second morning after interment). At the funeral he may follow the procession for a short distance, always remaining at the periphery of the cortege.

  5. If there is no minyan that is able to come to the home and if, in accordance with the qualifications stipulated above, he chooses to attend services, he should worship at the closest synagogue. He should proceed alone, or in the company of other mourners. If he is traveling by car, he is considered to be alone. The distance one is required to travel is of no consequence. It should be noted that the mourner may not use this occasion to do anything, except attend services.

  6. The need to leave the home for business or professional purposes, or for special emergencies, will be considered in a special chapter below, on work during shiva.

  7. A mohel may leave the house to perform a circumcision, for this must be performed only on the eighth day after birth. If there is no other mohel available, he may perform it even on the first day of his shiva. If there is another mohel available, and only his services are desired, he may perform the circumcision, provided it is to take place after the third day of the Shiva period.

  8. A Kohen, required for a pidyon ha'ben (the ceremonial redemption of the first-born son, which must be performed only on the thirtieth day after birth), follows the same regulations as for the mohel.

  9. The mourner may be asked to serve as sandek at a b'rit after the third day, but it is considered an impropriety to make such a request of him. A person in mourning surely will have ambivalent feelings about accepting this honor.

  10. The mourner should attend congregational services on Tisha B'av and Purim. If a minyan and Torah Scrolls are not easily available, he should also worship with a congregation on the Sabbath.

  11. When leaving the house of shiva every effort should be made not to do so until the third day-that is (as explained above), the second morning after interment. He should make every effort to leave only after dark. If this proves impractical he may leave during daylight hours, but should proceed as inconspicuously as possible. He should not wear leather shoes, even out of doors, as will be noted below. If this is impossible, he should place some earth or sand in his shoes, as a constant reminder that he is in mourning. In all complicated situations, of course, a rabbi should be consulted.

"Sitting" Shiva

It is an ancient Jewish tradition that mourners, during Shiva, do not sit upon chairs of normal height. Until modern times it was the custom to be seated on the earth itself, a procedure which demonstrated the departure from normalcy during the early stages of bereavement. Thus, expression was given to the sense of loneliness and depression one felt after one's relative was interred in the very earth on which he sat. The Bible tells us that when Job suffered a succession of disasters he was comforted by friends who sat with him "to the earth." It is, almost in a literal sense, a physical adjustment to one's emotional state, a lowering of the body to the level of one's feelings, a symbolic enactment of remorse and desolation.

The mourner today sits "to the earth," in the biblical phrase, by sitting closer to the earth on a wooden stool or hassock or footstool, on a mat or on several pillows. The material the mourner chooses to sit on is, at present, unimportant. It is not the stool that is important. Primarily, the tradition stipulates, he must sit on a level lower than that of normal seating height, and whether the seat is or is not comfortable is irrelevant. If he desires, he may put a cushion on the stool. Sleeping on a bed of normal height is permitted.

Following are details of the tradition of sitting shiva.

  1. One need not "sit" at all during shiva. He may stand or walk or lie down. The tradition is concerned only that when the mourner does sit down, he should sit on a stool of lower height rather than usual.

  2. Elderly people, the physically weak, and pregnant women may sit on normal seats. However, they should make an effort, whenever practicable, to sit on a low stool when people come for short visits to comfort the bereaved. This demonstrative bereavement is the most important aspect of the tradition of "sitting," and it should not be taken lightly.

  3. The mourner need not rise from his seat in respect for any visitor, no matter how important he is, whether he be a renowned scholar, or an eminent public personality, or a government official.

  4. If the mourner wishes to sit on a porch or terrace, he may do so, provided he sits on the low stool.