Shiva etiquette

My father-in-law passed away this morning. I had written part of the guide below for my basic Judaism class, but as it is now timely, it is posted here in full:

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After the death of a close relative (parent, child, sibling, spouse), Jews observe a seven-day mourning period called shiva, during which many normal activities of daily living are not done, and during which others come to the mourner’s house to offer condolences and consolation. Typically, the mourner(s) do(es) not leave the house except on the Sabbath, sits on a low chair, wears torn garments, does not bathe, listen to music, or read for pleasure – pretty much most normal pleasure activities are not done. Mirrors in the house are covered.

It is customary to visit a house where shiva is being observed. When coming, do not bring flowers, anything festive or celebratory, hospitality gifts or the like. Don’t bring young children. Greetings are not exchanged – don’t knock, just come in. Wait for the mourner to speak before talking. Do not eat or drink in a house where shiva is being observed unless explicitly invited to do so by the mourner.

While Jews believe in an afterlife, the mourning period is a time for focusing on the loss of the relative in this world. “He is in a better place” is not a good thing to say at that time. It is not appropriate to try to “cheer up” the mourner – s/he is going through the process of learning to live with a loss which cannot truly replaced. Instead, merely being present and able to listen to the mourner is itself the comfort.

In the morning and late afternoon (near sunset) there will be minyanim (prayer services), where men from the community come to make a quorum. Those times are relatively crowded, so if you want to spend more personal time with the mourner, it’s best to come well before sunset (~7:45PM in May). There is no fixed length of time for a shiva visit, but visitors tend to rotate through.

When you are ready to leave, it is customary to say to the mourner “Hamakom y’nahem etkhem b’tokh sha’ar aveylei tziyon viyrushalayim.” which means “May the Omnipresent One comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” There is normally a printed sign with this in Hebrew and in English near where the mourner is sitting.

About thegameiam
I'm a network engineer, musician, and Orthodox Jew who opines on things which cross my path.

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