How to Pay a Shiva Call: A Guide for non-Jews, non-observant Jews, Jews who need to brush up on the tradition of shiva, and people who find the idea of comforting a mourner a bit scary
I wrote this short guide to paying a shiva call for anyone who wants to visit a friend who is sitting shiva but has no idea what to expect. So this might be for someone who is not Jewish or someone who is Jewish but doesn’t know the traditions. We can all learn more to comfort a mourner, and we can help each other learn as well.
What is shiva? For whom does a Jewish person sit shiva?
Rabbi Maurice Lamm describes shiva as “the seven days following burial … During this time, the mourner emerges from the stage of intense grief to a new state of mind in which he is prepared to talk about his loss and to accept comfort from friends and neighbors.” One sits shiva for a mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, husband or wife.
How long is shiva? How can I find out how long my friend is sitting shiva?
Shiva usually lasts for seven days starting from right after the burial, but a holiday can shorten the period of shiva. Mourners do not sit shiva on the Sabbath; however, certain mourning laws still do apply. You should be able to find out the details of the shiva (where and when) by contacting your friend’s synagogue.
What do I do when I get to the door?
Often the door to a shiva home will be unlocked (unless this is impossible for security reasons). Walk in the door, find the room with the mourner(s), and take a seat on an empty chair. The short, close to the ground chairs are for the mourners.
How will my friend look?
Your friend will be wearing clothes with a rip. This is called kriah. A mourner rips one’s clothes at the beginning of the funeral. And the same clothing is worn for the seven days of shiva. Also, your friend will probably not have taken a shower during shiva as well (exceptions sometimes apply).
What do I say?
Listen carefully to what is being said. Let the mourner speak first. One does not ask the mourner, “how are you?” It is OK to encourage the mourner to talk about the deceased relative. You might ask the mourner to show you a picture of their loved one.
Should I bring food?
The short answer is no. If you want to bring something or otherwise help out, ask a friend, a family member not in mourning, a neighbor, or the rabbi if you happen to meet him. If your mourning friend specifically asks you for something, by all means, help out.
How long should I stay?
Some of the books I read suggested twenty minutes. I find it is easiest to leave when there is a break in the conversation.
What is the line I hear people saying to the mourner at the end?
At the end of a shiva call, visitors say to the mourner: “HaMakom yenacheim etchem betoch sha’ar aveiliei Tzion v’Yerushalayim” — May the Almighty comfort you among those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.
My suggestion, unless you feel comfortable saying the above expression (sometimes it is written on a piece of paper behind the mourner), is to say something like, May you find comfort. You may also hear people add: simchas, which means happy times (like a wedding or a birth).
Why is there a candle on this post?
The candle is called a yahrzeit candle. Every year on the anniversary of a parent’s death, one lights such a candle. In a shiva house, a longer candle that can burn for seven days is lit.
Comment: this post is written from an Orthodox (modern Orthodox?) perspective. Jewish traditions do vary. Feel free to comment on your experiences with shiva.
For more information:
- Aish: one page primer on Practical Guide to Paying a Shiva Call
- Aish: 15 Lessons from Shiva
- Aish: Shiva and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm
Books and pamphlets:
- The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Rabbi Maurice Lamm
- The Mourner’s Companion by Rabbi Reuven Drucker (this seems to be out-of-print, but he is a rabbi in Highland Park, so I want to include his book).
- Handbook for the Jewish Mourner, by Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg (available at the Highland Park Public Library)
- See also chapters on mourning in To Be a Jew by Hayim Halevy Donin and How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg
Future posts on shiva may include: what to discuss at a shiva call. How to run or help out with a shiva house.