“One of my colleagues just lost her mother. She’s Orthodox and will be sitting shiva for a week. I’d like to visit, but I’m not sure what to do. What can I expect?”
In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, after the funeral of an immediate relative, a mourner stays at home for seven days “sitting shiva,” which literally means “sitting seven”—shiva being the Hebrew word for seven. Sitting shiva demonstrates the dislocation from the normal patterns of living that have been disrupted by the death of a loved one, just as a mourner wears a torn garment in order to display on the outside what the mourner feels on the inside, that the fabric of our lives has been ripped asunder. The primary purpose of sitting shiva is for the mourner to honor the memory of the deceased by withdrawing from the distracting hustle and flow of outside activities and dedicate a week of mourning to memory, reflection and prayer. The mourner has no obligations toward friends and community. There is no need to feed or entertain guests, and Orthodox shiva houses do not commonly provide refreshments.
Family, friends and community, on the other hand, bear the responsibility of support of the mourner. At the very least, the seudat havra’ah—the meal of condolence consisting of bread and eggs is provided by the community. In practice, most Orthodox communities have Chesed Committees (kindness committees) that provide some, if not all of the meals for the week of shiva, ensuring kosher food and practical support, e.g., setting the table, cleaning up after the meal. Rather than bringing a gift of food to a shiva house, it is best to inquire if there is a way to make a contribution toward the local Chesed Committee that is providing meals and support. Flowers and other such gifts are not customary.
For family, friends, colleagues and community, the hallmark of the shiva week is visiting the mourner. Shiva visitation aims to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of comforting the bereaved as an act and expression of sincere kindness. In the Orthodox tradition, shiva visitation often is welcome all day and evening, except for mealtimes. Daily prayer services are usually held in the shiva home in the morning, as well as 15 minutes before sunset, to enable the mourner to recite the Kaddish. Other than prayer times, the mourner sits on a low chair, while visitors sit on regular chairs surrounding. Jewish tradition counsels to wait until addressed by the mourner before speaking, allowing the mourner to decide how and when to converse during this time of heightened emotion. Once conversation ensues, the best way to perform the mitzvah of comforting the bereaved is not by bringing up distracting topics or by using the time to catch up with an old friend, but rather to ask the mourner to share some memories of the deceased. Focused questions on the life and values of the deceased are also appropriate. Especially meaningful is when visitors share stories honoring the deceased of which the mourner him/herself is unaware. While the conversation is directed to the purpose at hand, the effect is usually not solemn and morose, but an appropriately comforting celebration of the deceased’s life.
When taking leave of the mourner it is customary to recite the following formula: “Ha-Makom Yi-na-chem et-chem be-toch sha-‘ar a-vey-ley Tzion vi-rushalayim—May the Omnipresent comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The idea underlying this formula is that although traditional Jewish theology affirms that God is omnipresent—that is, everywhere, God is really nowhere unless we let God in. When we emulate the divine attribute of kindness and compassion and visit a person during his/her time of loss and grief, the support and comfort we provide weaves God and godliness into our lives, and knits up the mourner struck by solitary grief within a matrix of meaningfulness and connection to family, friends and community. At a certain level, the mourner may be alone in his or her grief, but also enveloped in the love, companionship and concern of others.