When mourners are sitting Shiva, they are following the Jewish death ritual of receiving family and friends who come to pay their condolences. This period of mourning lasts for one week either at the home of the deceased or the close family member, i.e. sister, brother, mother, father, spouse. “Shiva” literally means “seven” in Hebrew, the number of days the mourning practice lasts.
How Jews Sit Shiva
During this period following the funeral, the closest family members may be present every day while other family and friends will come on any day during the Shiva period to pay respects.
If you are unfamiliar with Jewish customs, you will notice the mirrors will be covered. This time of mourning is a time when mourner pay no heed to their appearance, forgoing shaving, applying makeup or concerning themselves with their hair.
There may be a pitcher of water present near the front door to allow guests to wash their hands following a visit to the cemetery, a symbolic cleansing. Sitting low, on boxes or low chairs, represents the low feeling of losing someone dear. The rituals of sitting Shiva may vary widely from reformed to orthodox Jews, but most will refrain from working or attending any time of social event. This time of mourning is meant to be experienced without vanity or distractions.
During the seven days of Shiva, a single candle will burn in the home throughout the week. Mourners are usually dressed in black and continue to wear the torn black material on their chests that were given to them by the rabbi or cantor at the funeral.
While most family members are expected to observe the Shiva ritual, there are some exceptions. Small children may be excused if they are inclined to be disruptive. Newly married couples, if in their first few weeks of marriage, may also be excluded as the Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of celebrating the happiness of marriage during this time.
While sitting Shiva, the family may recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and Prayer of Mercy, two traditional prayers honoring the deceased.
In the Jewish culture, it is customary to send fruit or meat platters to the home of the family members rather than flowers.