What is shiva?

For a week after a funeral (see: What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral), the close relatives of the deceased (parents, siblings, spouse and children) sit and mourn the loss of their relative.Shiva is Hebrew for “seven,” since this stage of mourning lasts for seven days.

As the mourners to remain home (or in the home of the deceased) “sitting shiva,” it is a great mitzvah to visit them and offer them comfort.

How long is seven days?

Shiva begins after the funeral and ends on the morning of the seventh day. So if the funeral is on Tuesday, your last chance for a shiva call is the following Monday morning. Also note that mourning is suspended on Shabbat, so there are no shiva visits from Friday afternoon until night has fallen on Saturday night. In the event of a Jewish holiday, shiva might be cut short, so you may want to squeeze your visit in before that happens.

In case of a traumatic or sudden death, you may want to wait a day or two before visiting (if you are not a very close friend), allowing the bereaved to pull themselves together somewhat before receiving guests.

What time to come?

Families often specify the times during which they will be receiving guests, and it is important to respect those requests. If no time is given, you can pop in during the day or early evening—unless of course you know that your friend is a night owl or early bird, ready to receive you at odd hours.

Traditionally, prayer services are held in the house of mourning (more on that below). You can time your visit around the services, either coming earlier or staying afterwards to offer your condolences.

What will I see at a shiva home?

The shiva home is an open-door affair, with visitors coming and going. Upon arrival, you will notice the following:

● The mourners will be sitting on low chairs or stools, but everyone else is seated on regular seats or couches.

● The mourners will be wearing torn garments and will not be wearing leather shoes.

● People will be sitting with the mourners, chatting, often about the deceased.

● Many people cover the mirrors in the home of the deceased. (Learn why here.)

● In the morning, and again in the evening, there may be prayer services, held in the shiva house instead of in the synagogue as a merit for the deceased.

● A candle will be burning—a physical expression and reminder of the verse, “The flame of G‑d is the soul of man.”

● Plates or bowls labeled with the name of a charity or worthy cause may be set out. You can donate in memory of the deceased and in honor of the living.

What to wear at a shiva?

You do not need to dress up for a shiva call, but neither should you dress down. For men, a kippah is appropriate, especially if you will participate in the prayer services.

Unless you are a mourner, you should not wear torn clothes or remove your ordinary footwear (unless, of course, the convention where you live is to remove shoes when indoors).

What to bring to a shiva home?

No gifts are expected at a shiva call. Your comforting presence is the greatest gift of all. However, it is customary for people to bring food for the mourners (and their guests). There may be someone coordinating meals for the bereaved family, or you can just bring kosher take-out. This is not at all expected, so don’t stress if you come empty-handed.

Guys: If you will be attending morning services at the shiva house, bring your tallit and tefillin (and prayerbook of choice).

What do I do at a shiva home?

Everyone mourns differently. As the comforter, your job is to follow the lead of the mourners, waiting for them to initiate conversation. If they want to sit quietly, sit with them in respectful silence. If they want to talk about the bereaved (and this is often the case), listen and empathize. Often there is also time to share memories and impressions. Tell them how the departed affected you and what you learned from that person.

Do not make small talk with your fellow visitors about the weather, sports or other subjects. Your focus should be solely on the mourners and how to bring them comfort.

While you can (and should) speak from your heart, there is also a time-honored formula that is said to the mourners:

Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shaar avlay tziyon veerushalayim.

May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Will there be prayer services

When feasible, prayer services are held in the house of mourning, with a male mourner leading the services and/or saying Kaddish (the memorial prayer for the departed). These services are almost identical to those held at synagogue, except that certain sections of the prayers are omitted, and Psalm 49 is said after the morning and afternoon services.

In the case where the deceased has more than one son, some have the custom for every son to lead services. Thus, there may be many successive or simultaneous prayer groups (minyanim) in a shiva home.

Between afternoon and evening services it is common to study Mishnah, the foundational work of the Talmud. This brings merit to the soul of the departed. Indeed, the Hebrew words “Mishnah” and neshamah(soul) share the same letters.

How important is it to go?

If you are still deciding whether or not to attend a shiva, it is almost always better to go. Comforting the bereaved is one of the greatest acts of kindness you can do, and failure to do so is a missed opportunity that is hard to make up. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that G‑d Himself comforted Isaac after the passing of his father. As awkward and difficult as it may be, the importance of attending shiva cannot be overstated. Just do it. You’ll be glad you did.

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.