How to Pay a Shiva Call: A Guide for Non-Jews

yahrzeit candleLonger title:

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:

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.

73 thoughts on “How to Pay a Shiva Call: A Guide for Non-Jews

  • Very complete! Thanks for sharing these excellent tips.

    May we have only smachot, besurot tovot, yeshu’ot, and nechamot (joyous occasions, good tidings, salvation, and consolation).

  • This is a great short guide: you have neither written too much nor too little on the subject.
    It is OK to encourage the mourner to talk about the deceased relative.
    When I was in high school a schoolmate lost her mother and when she came to school we thougt it would be wrong to talk to her about her mom – maybe we feared she might burst into tears and feel embarrassed. But her loss was precisely what she wanted to talk about.

    • “her loss was precisely what she wanted to talk about” –
      Sometimes one finds all the rules in Judaism to be too rigid. During shiva, however, one often finds these rules to be useful and therapeutic.

      If you were only in high school, loss can be very scary. Few high school students have really experienced intense loss. Loss, illness and death can make any of us feel vulnerable.

      • During shiva, however, one often finds these rules to be useful and therapeutic.
        To quote Rabbi Lamm “The profound psychological insights implicit in the highly structured Jewish mourning observances speak eloquently of Judaism’s concern for the psychological integrity of the human personality.”

  • A very thorough post.

    If I can add a couple of points: re: how long shiva lasts: increasingly in non-Orthodox and even less observant Orthodox circles, people choose to sit shiva for less than a week, even one night. This is not halakhically acceptable, but happens in the real world, so unless you know the people sitting are Orthodox, it might be a good idea to check how long they are sitting.

    Re: what to say when leaving: some people say “chaim arukhim” “I wish you a long life,” in addition to or instead of “HaMakom…”

    One final point: use your common sense. If the mourners look like they need a break, don’t stay long. When my mother was sitting shiva, one visitor sat there saying “You look really tired. I bet you want a nap,” but didn’t actually think to leave. Another visitor refused to take the hint even when it got so late that we had to give the mourners their dinner. Then when my father was sitting shiva earlier this year, one visitor, who was standing in local government elections a few days later, started talking politics in a really inappropriate way.

  • A very informative post – thank you for writing this! I pray that it will be a long time before I need the information in this post.

  • I very much enjoyed reading this post, Leora. Shiva is a beautiful custom, one which could benefit all peoples’ emotional and psychological health, I think.

    • Thank you for reading. I really do think shiva is beneficial in dealing with grief, and sometimes even as a visitor it can help one work through past loss. Even if all you are doing is visiting someone else and consoling that person.

    • Thank you. As a few of my blogger friends may know, I had others give help and ideas in writing this post. I hope to write a few more on this topic.

  • My ex brother in law lost his daughter. They are Orthodox Jewish and I am not. Is that ok to call them during shiva, and when is appropriet to send them a sympathy kosher basket? ? I leave out of state and can not make the trip to see them.
    Thank you so much

    • How awful, to lose a daughter. Yes, you can call during shiva. Just try to time it so your call is not at meal time. I would suggest calling mid-morning or mid-afternoon. About the conversation: one usually lets the mourner do most of the talking. Since it’s on the phone, you may need to say: “I’m so sorry about your loss.” But let the mourner lead the conversation.

      Yes, you can send a kosher sympathy basket.

  • Thank you very much Leora,
    The information was just enough to understand.
    I am paying a Shiva call on Sun. and I was not really sure what to expect,, and your article really helped.
    Thank you so much.
    Yours truly,

    • Donna,

      I’m sorry you have to make a shiva call. But fortunate for the people sitting shiva to have you as a friend. Feel free to ask any questions if you have any.

  • Leora – I am not Jewish, but my husband is and I try to be as supportive as I can of his faith and customs. We are sitting shiva right now for my mother in law. The question I have is about the washing of the hands at the front door. Some people believe that is only required on the first day when the mourners return from the cemetery. Others disagree. Do you know the answer?

    • I’m not a rabbi, so I can only recollect that the washing of hands must have been just on the first day. There’s no local rabbi you can ask?

    • It is customary to wash the hands (usually with a conveniently placed pitcher and towel outside the door) before entering the house of mourning UPON RETURNING FROM THE CEMETERY. It’s based on superstition about not bringing back evil spirits. This would only used on the day of the funeral.

  • A close friend (born Jewish) but converted to Catholocism passed away. Her wishes are to be cremated, 2 days of sitting Shiva (2hrs each day)& a Catholic mass on 3rd day. Do I attend both days of Shiva, do i stay the entire time? I am fine doing so but I dont want to intrude if it is something intended for immediate family only. Thank you

  • I was really surprised to see your statement about not bringing food. I am 67 years old and only once in all the many shiva calls I have paid and those I participated in, was there no food.
    Typically, the home of the mourners is filled with people and with food, mostly so the mourners can eat without having to cook, but also because guests are offered food and drink as a snack while visiting.
    It was understood, at least in Brooklyn where I grew up, that one always brought a cake or some kind of dessert when paying a shiva call.
    The only exception I have encountered was about ten years ago when my husband and I paid a shiva call to my cousins after my uncle had passed away. There were no other people there and no food. They were orthodox, so I wondered if it was because of that. Most Jewish people I have known as friends, and also most of my relatives, are more conservative in their practice. Can you shed any light on this?

    • Roberta,

      My one word answer is: “kashrut.” I am assuming the family keeps kosher, and the person visiting is not Jewish. So better to leave the food to the community. It doesn’t mean no food at the shiva, but it does mean a person who is not Jewish should need feel obligated to bring food, because it may cause problems.

      • That was my guess as well, but it was still a very odd bit of advice, since the -general- custom is exactly to bring food, it’s just that if you don’t know how to navigate the vaguearities of kashrut, it’s very easy to bring the wrong thing, so better to bring nothing at all. I’d have preferred if it said “food: If you don’t normally keep kosher, you don’t generally want to bring food to a kosher house. If you must, bring sealed food marked with a U in a circle with a P next to it, since that is least likely to cause any problems.

      • “the -general- custom is exactly to bring food” – not in my experience. Only if you know the people well, or someone has suggested that you bring.
        ” If you must, bring sealed food marked with a U in a circle with a P next to it, since that is least likely to cause any problems.” – and that itself can be a problem, if the food is not needed.

  • My dearest friend lost her husband last evening. I am Catholic and had no idea how to properly attend a Shiva. Thank you for your guidance and help.

  • Very informative. Re: hand washing, I’ve only ever washed my hands at the cemetery as we leave. There is a place for washing.

  • Is there a hebrew word or short quote I can use to let my sister know that I remember today is her son’s birthday–he passed 5 years ago next month.

    • Sometimes people say “may his neshama have an aliyah.” Neshama is a soul, and aliyah is elevation. I suppose the alternative, if that doesn’t come naturally, is just to say “you must be feeling sad about the anniversary of your son’s death.”

  • I was very interested in Shiva because I heard about it from a friend – Since I have a few Jewish friends and because I went through the war seeing my Jewish school friends taken away by the Germans, I have always felt empathy and acquired an interest in Jewish culture – thank you

  • Very helpful for a non-Jewish friend who needed quick guidance! thank you. I agree with the person who was surprised about the ‘no food’ admonition, but now understand from your response. I would say if you can find a Kosher deli or bakery, baked goods are always appreciated. Even a basket of fruit would be appropriate. But I personally prefer to bring something. One last note: I was surprised how many peopled asked how old my father was, how he died, what exactly happened. Especially the doctor who started to question the treatment he received. Please don’t do any of this! A loved one is almost always taken too soon. The details of the illness or the death are for the mourners to disclose if they wish to. Sharing memories of the departed or offering help or just listening are most helpful. If you are close enough to the family, quietly clean up used dishes or plates to keep the visiting space tidy. Make sure the restrooms are clean and stocked. These are the little things that can bring great relief. Nancy

    • Thanks for your feedback on your experiences, Nancy. We all have our own reactions – I am quite pleased when anyone asks about either of my parents, during shiva or since. One has to take the lead from the person sitting shiva. I’m sorry that didn’t work for you.

  • An acquaintance posted information on facebook about when she and her sons are sitting shiva for her husband who died in a tragic accident. Would it be appropriate to call on them if I am not a close friend, just a “facebook friend”?

    • I think so – you just come in, sit quietly, and let the mourners do the talking, if they feel up to talking. If there are other people there, your presence alone might make them feel a little better.

      Sorry to read about such a tragedy.

  • Thank you so much for the information. And also thanks for all the people who left posts along the way it was also helpful information.

  • I want my husband to feel included at the Shiva as my family forgot to mention him as part of the family at the funeral. Is there anything that I can do?

    • I’m not really sure what you mean, but in my experience the spouse can be very helpful at the shiva, welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable. This sounds more like a question about your family’s dynamics. Since the mourners are the ones that are expected to initiate the talking, a mourner can talk about how a spouse played a role in someone’s life.

  • I have a friend whose grandmother is very ill.

    I have never met anyone else in the family, including her grandfather.

    Is it appropriate for me (a Christian) to make a shiva call, or would that be looked on as strange since she is not one of the primary mourners, and again I do not know her family.

    • James, it is probably OK, but you might want to take cues from your friend. If you just come in, sit quietly and listen it’s probably fine. Then again, I don’t know the family, so I don’t know how the grandfather would react. You might want to express your condolences to your friend at a different time, since she is not the one who will be sitting shiva.

  • What clothing is appropriate to wear when making a shiva call at the home of an Orthodox family? One website said a woman must wear a long black skirt. I don’t have a long black skirt. Is it okay to wear black slacks?

    • Mary, you certainly do not have to wear black. But I would highly recommend wearing a skirt, one that at least comes to your knees. If you only own slacks, and you really want to visit, for some families it might be fine, for others you might stand out more. Slacks would be better than a short skirt.

  • The owner of the company that I work for passed away. I am in management and I work for the sons, who now run the company. The family is Jewish and I am Christian. I would like to send a card to the family. Is it appropriate to send one to each son? What words can be written? Thank you for your insights.

    • Dave, excellent questions. Yes, I think it would be quite fitting for you to send cards to each son. You can keep it simple and brief: “In Sympathy” or “I was deeply saddened to hear of your loss. My thoughts are with you and your family during this difficult time.” (I took that last one off another site). The classic Jewish phrase of “Hamakom yenachem” would probably not be appropriate, so I wouldn’t worry about that.

  • When telling someone that you are going to a home where the family is sitting shiva, how do I express what it is we are doing? I have said, ” we are going to sit shiva with a friend who lost their dad”, but now I see that the family sits shiva…. as guests, how do we express what we are doing? I am not Jewish, but have many friends who are and will, unfortunately be in this situation in the future.

  • Hi, a close friend of mine lost her husband and is sitting shiva. I attended one evening, should I go each day or is one visit appropriate? Thank you

    • Mary, one shiva visit is usually all that is expected. However, if you feel you would like to see your friend again, there is no reason why shouldn’t go again.

  • I am Catholic and going to pay a shiva call at the home of an aquaintance. It was his wife’s family member who passed away and I have never met his wife. Should I mainly address her when offering condolences, or her husband too? Also, the deceased committed suicide. Is there anything additional to the usual customs in this circumstance? Thank you.

    • Suzanne, the main custom is to listen. So go to the home, sit in a chair near the mourner, and listen. You don’t have to say much. Let the mourner set the tone for any discussion.

  • Great post. I wanted to add that I came from a community where everyone cooked meals and brought them over for the mourners each day so that the mourners didn’t have to cook for themselves. I wanted to add that because you write that people shouldn’t bring food but the way I would explain it is that you aren’t going over there to eat, or talk over dinner with the mourners. If you want to bring them some cooked meals, I’m sure that would be helpful for the days ahead (or freeze them for the month ahead).

    • Naomi, thanks for your comment. This post is specifically written for non-Jews. Unless there are some special circumstances, non-Jews will not have access to a kosher kitchen and will not know the laws of kashrut. How a Jewish community organizes shiva meals for mourners is a topic specific to each community and not covered in this article.

  • I would like to ask your advice. My father is Jewish and I am Christian . (My biological father died in Vietnam. The father I speak of is truly my father in every sense of the word. He even adopted me when I was 8) He is getting on in years and I would like to. W prepared. I would like to sit shiva out of love and respect for him but I don’t know if I am allowed and if so how I go about it. Your help will be greatly appreciated.

    • Geraldine, maybe you can consult a Reform rabbi. As you are not Jewish, the laws of shiva do not apply to you, so an Orthodox rabbi would not helpful. Maybe a Reform rabbi could help you.

      From an emotional point of view, the nice part of shiva is community. I don’t know how shiva would feel if you are not part of community who will visit you. But maybe you have friends who would.

      Thank you for your comment.

  • My best friend just lost her mother. Shiva is being conducted at her sisters house. I have met her sister many times but not close with her or their friend however is “family” without a blood connection..the funeral was yesterday (Wed) and I am planning to go their ( never been to sisters house) On Sat..I asked my friend if I could bring food for them..she was fine with it. However do not want to offend rest of family. I am a christian by the way. I also was thinking of making a Shiva Basket. Last I just walk in house unannounced? Thank you Leora….best, Patty

    • Hi, Patty. If your friend says you can bring food, I would be fine with doing so. In Orthodox households, one would typically not do this, but it doesn’t sound like your friend is Orthodox. Yes, one usually walks in quietly into a shiva house. There are often chairs set up for visitors to sit. Just use your good judgement and try to arrive not too early, not too late ( and not during meal time). The best part is you don’t have to say much at all. Just listen to the mourners talking. You are there to listen.

  • Morning shiva is being held at the synagogue for my friend’s father. Can a non Jewish person attend this? How long will it be and what can I expect? Is there one day more important than the others.
    ? Sunday’s is at 0900, the balance at 0745. Thank you in advance

    • Yes, the synagogue has no way of knowing whether you are Jewish or not. If it is an Orthodox synagogue, you would sit in the women’s section. The prayers are typically about one hour, depending on how fast or slow they go. Mondays and Thursdays are just a bit longer, because they include Torah reading.

      However, if I were you, I would just concentrate on paying a shiva call. You will probably have a hard time following the prayer services, and it is probably more meaningful to listen to your friend during regular shiva hours.

  • My husband’s coworker tragically lost his child. Should I attend Shiva with him or have him go alone. I’ve never met them.

    • Meg, this is really a people question more than a shiva question. I would suggest it would be fine for you to go. You can just sit next to your husband and by your warmth, you will show support. You do not need to say anything unless one of the mourners asks you.

  • Leora, I found your post this morning because I’m looking for insight into how to show respect and the grief we are all feeling for the 11 souls who were murdered on Saturday here in Pittsburg. Thank you for this enlightening and sensitive post, and please accept my deepest sympathy and solidarity after this horrific attack on the Jewish community.

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